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When opportunity knocks, take it
Published on Friday, 26 Mar 2010
Michael Brown
Chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong and managing director and Asia-Pacific head of corporate banking for JP Morgan

Throughout 2010, Michael Brown will be wearing two hats. As chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong, he will have an influential voice on business policy in the region. And, as managing director and Asia-Pacific head of corporate banking for JP Morgan, he is a leading figure with an organisation handling worldwide assets of US$2 trillion. Brown has been a keen and active supporter of chamber activities ever since his days in South Korea in the late 1980s. Getting involved there gave him the chance to meet and learn from a wide range of professionals dealing with foreign direct investment and trade issues in what was a highly regulated market. The experience showed him the value of having a forum for discussion and a place to get on-the-spot “training” from professionals in almost any aspect of business. Stepping up from the vice-chairmanship in Hong Kong, he believes the main challenge is to focus on themes that matter to the membership at large, and to build business competitiveness. He talks to John Cremer.

What are your priorities for the chamber this year?

The key is to focus on a few areas where we can steadily make a difference. At committee and board level, we are looking at what will be critical to Hong Kong's continuing success over the coming decades. That includes the environment, urban planning, setting up new businesses and having first-class universities to attract talent. Managing government liaison and the committee structure takes a bit of work, but Amcham has become my hobby. It takes me out of the day-to-day and lets me meet a lot of fascinating people.

What first brought you to Asia?

I was born in Japan where my father was serving in the US Navy. Later, though, after university in Indiana, I was with First Chicago in their agri-business group covering accounts like Cargill and Dreyfus. That prompted me to raise my hand to go overseas. In 1985, I got an assignment to handle US multinational accounts operating in Japan, which led to a job representing Japan to headquarters for credit facilities and, after that, to roles in [South] Korea and Australia.

As an executive, what has helped you get to the top?

Clearly, there are different personality styles and approaches. Some people are "pulled up" through an organisation by being close to a particular boss. The alternative, which I prefer, is to spend more time with the people below you, cultivating their talent and giving them freedom and authority to exercise their judgment. If they do well, they will then "push" you up through the organisation, which is much more sustainable.

How have you balanced work and family commitments?

As corporate bankers, we're in a 24/7 world, so you try to live by guidelines and figure it out. For much of my career, I aimed to get in by 7am and out by 7pm to have dinner with the family; otherwise I wouldn't know what was going on in their lives. You have to create that space at the end of the day, preferably around a meal. It's easy to say, but sometimes very difficult to do. When the kids were growing up - one's now in banking, one's in solar research, and one is training to be a high school biology teacher - I coached their basketball and soccer teams to be with them on the weekend. You can do it all, but you need support and to work at it with the family.

How would you advise people just starting out?

You have to be open-minded and realise that building a career is a marathon, and not a sprint. It's like the tortoise and the hare. I'm a bit unusual because - allowing for takeovers - I've basically been with the same firm for about 30 years. It has taken hard work, patience and, occasionally, being thrown together with bosses that are difficult to get on with. But nothing lasts forever, and if you're with the right firm and take the opportunities as they present, you will go far.

The key is finding a way in. People should look closely at their personality and skill sets and put themselves in the shoes of the interviewer. And, with unemployment the way it is, anyone who doesn't take advantage of placement programmes at university is missing a huge opportunity.


Insight 

  • Saw in early internships the importance of getting broad exposure and not being trapped in a restrictive discipline
  • Believes a spell overseas helps most careers, but you should not just take anything
  • Main athletic pursuits are now golf and weekend hikes with his wife