When William Wu, fresh out of Vancouver’s Simon Fraser University and armed with a BBA and MBA, first made the rounds of the financial industry, he was offered a janitorial job. But from the moment he started work in corporate finance in 1993, it’s been onwards and upwards for him. In his new position as CEO of the 250-strong workforce at OSK Holdings Hong Kong, Wu manages investment banking, equity capital market operations, and both retail and institutional sales staff, as well as servicing clients. He joined OSK from Kingsway Group, where he served as CEO and group managing director for eight years. After returning to Hong Kong in 1995, Wu worked for Salomon Brothers and Schroders, and was among the first local CFA charterholders. In 1999, he left his post with BNP to set up what is now SBI E2-Capital. He talks to John Brennan.
What are your goals in your new job as chief executive officer of OSK Holdings? I’ve been in this job for about three months now, and everyday I look forward to sourcing more transactions, improving the internal efficiency of this firm and expanding our revenue base. The transactions we find have to be of high quality, otherwise they won’t help us on a long-term basis – and I’m not going to be working here for just six months. My aim is to develop the right team of people and the right culture. Money comes and goes. You still have to make it to pay the rent and for the shareholders, but I want to develop a strong operation.
What do you particularly enjoy about your work? I enjoy getting to know new people and understanding their character and abilities, so I can then bring out their potential. I was a basketball coach for 17-year-old kids for quite a while. As a coach I tried to bring out their potential – not just their skill at playing the game but also their character. What are they going to do when people push or hit them during the game? Are they going to lose their temper? It is the same in the workplace when you are losing money, as when you are 10 or 15 points behind. How are you going to deal with the difficult situation? Sometimes you lose, sometimes you win, but sometimes when you lose you learn and sometimes when you win you don’t learn anything. It’s the same in a basketball game as in the workplace, and I’ve come here as the new coach.
How has the recent global financial crash affected you? I became CEO of Kingsway in 2006, and in 2007, we made a record profit. So then I thought, “I’m the man.” But in 2008, I realised I didn’t make a difference. We turned around the company, and in 2009 and 2010, we made money again. But it was an extremely stressful time.
How do you cope with such stress? You have to deal with it and not just tell yourself the market will rebound tomorrow. Faith in yourself and endurance is everything in business. There’s a concept called the Stockdale Paradox which is described in a book, Good to Great – a study of how good companies in the United States turned into great companies. James Stockdale was an American soldier captured in Vietnam. Many of the other prisoners tried telling themselves: “By Christmas, we’re getting out!” But then, one Christmas came and then another, and they still didn’t get out. After the market crash many people thought: “The market will go back up tomorrow.” They told themselves this again the next day but it still didn’t go up. Stockdale saw that the prisoners who survived the concentration camp were the ones who accepted the situation and dealt with it. Those who just think positively – “The market will go up” or “We’ll get out of the concentration camp by Christmas” – do not survive.
How do you make the transition from number cruncher to leader? First of all, you need an opportunity. I was able to start a firm with two people and this drew me into a management position. In terms of qualities, you need to have a lot of initiatives and, at least for me, you really have to be humble. When you come in as a CEO, you have to realise that your position relies on your staff. And you have to be willing to improve and learn.
Has your career worked out as planned? My plan when I was 17 years old was to work in this industry and be either a successful fund manager or investment banker. I wanted to make a lot of money because I had been poor. But if you want to make a lot of money, it’s best to be a one-person operation and not a CEO. But I find it a lot more fun dealing with people.
Which quality is key to a successful career? Endurance. I graduated in Vancouver in 1992 and sent out 50 application letters to the finance industry. I got one reply and one interview – but no job. So I went to the financial district and into the first tall buildings. I went to the reception on every floor and if the company had investment or finance in its name, I asked if they were hiring.
One lady told me: “We really need somebody”. Oh good, I thought. “What kind of position?” I asked. “We need a janitor,” she said.
I had a thick skin and walked from the beginning to the end of the street, going into every building until I found a job in corporate finance. I did it because I was hungry. Opportunities are out there for young people but it depends on how much endurance they have and how hungry they are.
When he was 17, William Wu wanted to be a successful fund manager or investment banker
Having gone through hardship, he wanted to make a lot of money
He actually believes it’s best to be a one-person operation and not a CEO if one wanted lots of money