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Working for BEA and Hang Seng: bankers in Hong Kong reveal what it’s really like

Bank of East Asia and Hang Seng Bank are among the most prolific recruiters in Hong Kong financial services. But what’s it like to work for Hong Kong’s two homegrown banks? We spoke to four front-office employees to find out (the names below are pseudonyms).

Tom Lam is a commercial banker at Bank of East Asia who graduated from a US university in 2013, while his colleague Kate Ng is a senior investment manager who moved to BEA from a Japanese bank. Judy Zhang boasts 10 years’ experience at Citi and is currently a manager in Hang Seng’s corporate bank. Caroline Wan is the most junior of the bankers – she joined Hang Seng after graduating from the University of Hong Kong last year.

Why did you join your bank?

Kate: “BEA is the most well-known local bank in Hong Kong. More importantly, it offered the best chance to develop my career. It’s just starting to develop its investment team, so it’s expanding more rapidly than the foreign banks.”

Tom: “BEA wasn’t actually my first choice. I had a job offer in the US after graduation from a firm I really wanted to work for, but had to return to HK in 2013 for family reasons. By then most grad positions had been filled, so I didn’t have many options apart from BEA. The bank’s unique selling point for candidates is stability and job security.”

Judy: “These days every bank in Hong Kong is trying to tap Chinese wealth. I choose Hang Seng because it’s willing to adopt new ideas for capturing mainland market share, and its existing platform is very established in HK.”

Caroline: “I was primarily looking for consultancy roles as a graduate, but what won me over with Hang Seng was its informative career day at my university. The strengths of Hang Seng aren’t just its establishment of the Hang Seng Index, but also its vast network in Hong Kong.”

What do you like most about your job?

Kate: “I like the way I’ve been given the scope to build a team at BEA – we’ve gone from eight to 16 people since I joined.”

Tom: “It’s a harmonious working environment at BEA. I’ve built some great friendships with my co-workers – it’s a rather laid-back atmosphere.”

Judy: “Local banks like Hang Seng give you more flexibility than global ones. If you have innovative ideas at a foreign firm, they typically require buy-in from the whole group, so the approval process is much longer. At Hang Seng I’ve found that all departments will work together to implement my ideas – it’s a helpful atmosphere.”

Caroline: “Hang Seng’s grad programme’s exposure and structure is living up to expectations. I’m getting exposure to upper level management, ownership of new projects, and I can see the palpable differences that my projects make to the bank.”

And what do you find challenging?

Kate: “My most difficult task is coaching some of the underperforming bankers in my team to achieve their sales goals – they don’t have much sense for investing and selling! Analysing the market and developing investment ideas can also be tough as we don’t have a research team to support us.”

Tom: “The typical day is 9am to 6pm, but sometimes there’s not enough work and I’m idle for hours. Also, because of the relatively small size of the BEA, the degree of specialisation for bankers isn’t as high as at HSBC or Citi, for example. So in addition to credit analysis and relationship management, our RMs also have to work on too many KYC, compliance and admin tasks.”

Judy: “The main challenge at Hang Seng is when HSBC, our parent company, intervenes in what we do and everything takes longer – it has some unreasonable guidelines that we have to follow.”

Caroline: “Last year I worked on fintech projects and the biggest challenge was ensuring that our new products weren’t falling foul of Hong Kong financial regulations. The gap between the bank’s new tech and regulations written in the past is only widening.”

Would you consider joining a global bank? And what do you perceive as the main differences between local and foreign banks?

Kate: “Yes, because they pay better. But there are other differences – local banks focus more on people and relationships, while global banks focus more on figures.”

Tom: “Definitely. As someone who’s lived in the US for over five years, I feel the culture of foreign banks would suit me better. I’d also gain more exposure, work on larger deals, and receive more systematic training. Western banks tend to be more aggressive and open-minded, while HK ones are more conservative and family-like. It’s a matter of fit. People in their 50s waiting for retirement may prefer working at local banks because of the stability and lighter workloads, while young people may prefer foreign firms in order to maximise their career growth.”

Caroline: “English is my native language. If offered a role I’d likely accept, subject to the nature of the job. I think there would less exaggerated praise for senior management at a global bank. Junior people at my firm often think they need to constantly applaud their bosses.”

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Image credit: TommL, Getty

AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager

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