Ian Wong has been a banker for 20 years, since joining Development Bank of Singapore after graduating from NUS Business School in 1989. Ian continues to play an active role as an alumnus by participating as a member of the Eastern China Alumni Network (ECAN) Advisory Board. His journey has taken him into Hong Kong & Shanghai Bank and now, Bank of America (BOA). He is currently Managing Director, China, for BOA. The fact that he has stayed in the same industry does not mean he is averse to adventure. In 2003, Ian asked BOA for a transfer to China, and uprooted his entire family to a new country. Six years have flown by, and Professor Ho Yew Kee, Vice-Dean of NUS Business School, dropped in on this far-flung alumnus to find out what his China stint has been like.
What was your motivation for choosing to work in China?
China was accepted into the World Trade Organization in 2001. So I felt that the political, economical and cultural landscape of China was going to change materially, and I wanted to be a part of that scene. I came here in 2003; since then, it has been a blast – the China market is very exciting and always changing and developing. I am proud to be a part of it.
You have managed to increase BOA’s revenue in China 6-fold after you went in there. What is the secret of your success?
I wouldn’t call it the secret of my success, but more the result of surrounding circumstances. Firstly, foreign banks only contribute to 4% of the entire banking assets in China. Secondly, if you were to look at the rise in GDP growth – and assuming that banking grows in tandem with GDP – we see that China had double-digit growth in the last five years. So it makes it relatively easy for us to deliver. Also, China has a large pool of talent for us to tap. Our challenge is to find the right people who are dedicated and prepared to learn how to do banking in China. We have been successful in that regard, and that helped us to deliver too. Last, but not least, I have participated and grown in the banking sector of a premier financial hub like Singapore. I was lucky enough to leverage off that experience to address the market potential in China – with my associates in China, of course.
How has your job as a banker in Singapore prepared you for the banking industry in China?
The banking market in China is still in the developmental stage, so a lot of the things I have learnt in Singapore and the region have helped me to prepare for China’s journey in developing its banking industry. The two major challenges in China are: Firstly, how to attract, retain and grow the best talents; Secondly, the need to address corporate governance in certain areas.
What keeps you in banking, even after 20 years in it? What excites you about coming to work everyday?
Although I have been in the same industry all this while, technically I have not held the same job – in terms of roles and responsibilities – for more than three years. I have been privileged that the organizations I have worked for have given me the exposure and opportunities. So it doesn’t feel like I have been doing the same job.
The financial landscape in China is different from Singapore. What are the key differences?
I actually see quite a few similarities among differences. One similarity is that both governments have the same ambition – to position their respective states as the world’s premier financial center. And one difference is that the Singapore government is fortunate to have had the opportunity to build that reputation over time – and they have done a very good job. So Singapore’s standing in the financial community is good. The main concern for the Chinese government in this objective is in establishing stability and creating jobs for its population. That means they would have to lean on the side of over-regulation, which will protract Shanghai’s development into an international financial center. So they have the same ambitions, but one is slightly ahead, yet, the potential in China is huge.
How has the NUS Business School prepared you to be a banker?
They have a strong curriculum that updates its students on how the business world is evolving. They invite good practitioners to share opinions. They have a good network among and beyond alumni whom you can leverage on for business and personal issues. I still meet my classmates; you can talk about things you can’t discuss with your colleagues. I’d strongly encourage people to join the NUS Business School.