DLN’s Christine Kwan says sustainable design is driving demand for architects.
Environmental sustainability and technology are dramatically changing the way architects work, as companies look to minimise the ecological impact of buildings.
“Going green is one of the most important trends in our industry,” says Christine Kwan Siu-yi, director of the Hong Kong office of DLN Architects, whose buildings, which have been at the forefront of Hong Kong’s skyline for 60 years, include Central Plaza, the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre, The Centre, K11 and the development of the West Kowloon Cultural District. The company has also created CITIC Plaza in Guangzhou (China’s eighth tallest building), the Grand Lisboa Hotel and Casino in Macau (the 10th tallest hotel in the world), and a host of other projects in Mongolia, Ukraine, Shanghai and Singapore.
Two years ago, DLN set up a department to focus on the environmental aspects of its new projects. “We want to create more sustainable designs,” says Kwan, who has worked for the company since 2005 and was promoted to design director this year. “DLN is very sensitive to the new trends and we provide a lot of on-the-job training to enable staff to understand [what is required]. We have also employed new designers experienced in this area. It is important to us to have a strong team dedicated to sustainable design.
In Hong Kong, the building environmental assessment method (BEAM) is the certification most local companies use. It is one of the most widely used voluntary labeling schemes of its kind in the world. Another global benchmark for measuring green construction is the certification set up by the United States, which is what DLN works towards obtaining, according to Kwan.
Our policy is that, with all the new projects, we go for green. But it is very challenging. It is not free – it requires a lot of investment from the developers. We try to persuade them to look at the long-term – buildings will last longer and you will get benefits such as energy saving with natural light and ventilation that will reduce electricity consumption.”
New technology is also having a big impact on architecture and its related industries. For a number of years the industry has used the AutoCAD (automated computerised drawing) software system. “With that, you have to draw your plans, then your elevation, then your sections all separately,” Kwan says.
“Nowadays, DLN uses a holistic approach with another system called BIM – building information modelling – with which we create designs using a three-form model: plans, elevations and sections together. It is a more integrated design [that helps us work] with other disciplines such as mechanical, electrical and structural engineering. We share the same 3D model on the network – a kind of inter-office environment – with them, a digital platform working towards a common 3D model.”
Technology is also helping with sustainable architecture in a number of ways, not least with the reduction of waste. “In the past, there was a lot of wastage in the industry in terms of spare parts and materials. For example, previously we would not be able to do an assimilation of tile patterns, so we would over-order and the surplus would just be disposed of. As much as 10 to 20 per cent was wasted. Now, we can assimilate the patterns and ensure there is no wastage.”
Building the workforce
Kwan says going green is a commitment that cannot be avoided, and DLN welcomes new recruits equipped with the latest knowledge. It is not the only expectation, though – there is a certain mindset DLN seeks when recruiting staff, says Kwan. “Architecture is a lifelong process in terms of skill development, design brief and lateral thinking. Unlike science or mathematics, which require step-by-step logic, there is no single solution to a design brief. We have to open our minds and find the most appropriate solution at the time – and then expect it to change. It is an ongoing process. You have to be highly flexible.”
Good communication and teamwork are also vital components of a successful architectural firm, she says. “Architecture is not a one-man band, it requires teamwork – the bigger the project, the bigger the team. At DLN, we don’t believe in ‘star’ architects. We encourage regular discussion between junior and senior staff on an equal basis in which we exchange ideas.”
DLN is currently recruiting in a number of areas, Kwan says. “Our doors are always open to young architects, especially those who are passionate and strong in design – this is the most important element of the whole project.
“We are always looking for talent and fresh ideas in design”, Kwan says.
There are also openings for building surveyors, architectural draftsmen – especially those equipped with BIM knowledge – and project architects with practical experience.
DLN has opened a new office in Shanghai and is looking for talented individuals who are willing to work in mainland China. Applicants will be interviewed directly by the company’s chairman, Dennis Lau Wing-kwong.
Kwan previously worked for Anthony Ng and RMJM, where she was part of the team that that created the media centre for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. She says she was nurtured and given many opportunities, which inspired her to continue the good work at DLN.
She says it is a great company for young architects to join and progress in. Kwan feels fortunate to be part of Lau’s 300-strong workforce. “I’m lucky I joined DLN because we share the same vision and the company has a tremendous number of projects of various scales, so it has allowed me a lot of exposure. Sometimes it is a problem for young architects to find a firm that has enough projects [so that they get] vital opportunities, but DLN is never short of projects.
“I love this firm,” Kwan adds. “I like the challenges, the responsibility and the opportunities I’m being given to do something that will contribute to our society, our cultural development and the next generation.”
The sky is the limit
Christine Kwan lists five desirable attributes she looks for in architects
Patience “It can take years to complete a project and revisions and amendments can be numerous. There are multiple factors to take into account.”
Perseverance “I worked for Anthony Ng for two years and his perseverance in continually seeking good quality designs really inspired me.”
Passion “You can’t do this job well unless you really love it. I care so much about people … ”
Curiosity “Exploration is the driving force behind ideas, which are important for us to remain competitive. And new ideas come from curiosity – about your environment, your community and so on.”
Open-mindedness “This is an essential quality as change is a constant and you have to embrace it. Architecture is an ongoing process – you’re always learning and discovering new things.”
Nancy Wong is helping family business Luk Fook sparkle in Hong Kong and beyond
Working in her family business, Nancy Wong Lan-sze, now executive director of Hong Kong jewellery chain Luk Fook Group, developed her love for gold and diamonds from a young age.
Wong’s grandfather and father ran a jewellery shop in Wong Tai Sin, where she helped out after school every day. “While my classmates spent their weekends chilling out with their families, my weekends were awfully hectic. I was in charge of selling earrings. I was popular with old ladies – they enjoyed dealing with a little girl,” Wong recalls.
In 1991, Wong’s father, William Wong Wai-sheung, started the Luk Fook retail empire by opening the first store in North Point. In five months, three more outlets were opened, and the company continued to boom and was listed on the Hong Kong stock exchange in 1997.
While her father was having great success with the business, Wong and the rest of the family were away in Canada. “I migrated there when I was in Form Two and returned to Hong Kong after I graduated with a degree in accounting from the University of Toronto,” she says.
Wong worked for three years in an audit firm before joining Luk Fook in 2006. “I joined the company’s accounts department after I became a certified public accountant. It was not easy for me to adjust to working at Luk Fook. The first hurdle I had to overcome was communicating in Chinese. I know Chinese well, but I seldom typed in Chinese in my previous job and at school. My typing speed was unbearable. After a week on the job, I forced myself to learn the Cangjie input method as quickly as possible,” she says.
Wong’s father later encouraged her to move on to investor relations. “My father said, as I am good with numbers, I would have an advantage when trying to persuade investors. Working in investor relations was an eye-opener for me. I met many different businesspeople and learned to look at a business from different points of view,” she says.
Wong also played a major role in a marketing campaign for Luk Fook that won several awards for its television commercial series Love is Beautiful. “The commercial is a reflection of the Luk Fook culture – we serve clients like friends and we are like a big family. The key to success in staff management is to create a family-like working environment.
“I always treat my staff with dignity. I act by example; if you are polite to your employees, they will be polite to clients,” she says.
With more than 1,300 outlets in Asia and North America, keeping up service standards at every Luk Fook outlet is a major challenge. Wong developed a system to evaluate the quality of service. “I remembered spending three sleepless nights coming up with a checklist … the lighting, how the chairs should be arranged, the cleanliness of the glass – I tried to have a grading system for every detail. [Now] secret shoppers visit the stores to grade the service standards according to the list,” she says.
Providing adequate training is also important to providing consistent service. “I wrote scripts and produced videos to teach staff how to promote a new jewellery collection. There are online quizzes to ensure staff are familiar with what they have learnt.”
Luk Fook started exploring the mainland market in 1994. Today, it has over 1,200 outlets there. Wong says this will continue to be a major part of the company’s development. “The third- and fourth-tier cities will be the focus of our expansion plans. The people in those places are getting rich and we can make use of the relatively lower rents to open outlets.”
While the majority of Luk Fook’s shops are on the mainland, Wong says Hong Kong remains the place with the highest consumption. “There is no tax [on buying] gold in Hong Kong, so many mainland consumers are willing to spend more here. Customers at mainland shops spend an average of HK$3,000 to HK$4,000, while shoppers in Hong Kong spend up to HK$8,000.”
In recent years, Hong Kong retailers have been criticised for catering for mainland tourists while neglecting the needs of locals. “I think there is a need to strike a balance between [the interests of] business and society,” Wong says.
A proposed solution is to limit the number of visitor entries to 52 times a year for travellers with multiple-entry permits. Wong, however, doesn’t think mainlanders will visit 50 times to buy gold. “So I don’t think the policy will have much impact on our business if it is implemented.”
Wong is devoted full-time to her career. “I usually finish work at 8pm, but I’m still working when I go home because my father and I continue to discuss work. It seems I am working all the time. I don’t mind, I love what I do,” she says.
She likes to treat herself with jewellery. “My parents gave me jewellery for doing well at school when I was young. Now, I like to buy jewellery as a treat for myself.
“As I grow older, I have begun to appreciate the beauty of jade. But diamonds are my favourite. When I was younger, I enjoyed looking at the patterns made from small pieces of diamonds. Now my taste for diamonds is simple: the bigger the better.”
Many firms seek professionals who can perform effectively in a globalised workplace. At leading professional services firm EY, however, the breadth of its international business makes a global mindset essential.
"When we say globalised, it doesn't mean we only have offices around the world, it is the way we have structured ourselves," says Jovy Wong, EY's associate director of talent. "We are globalised in terms of mindset, in terms of structure and in terms of how we operate."
The firm regularly builds teams across countries and offices throughout the Asia-Pacific region to meet the varied needs of clients whose businesses span as many as 50 countries. That means EY professionals need to be able to adapt to different ways of working, different cultures and different mindsets.
Currently, EY has about 100 vacancies spread evenly among its three core activities: assurance, tax and advisory. Half of the roles require three to five years of experience, a quarter are at the executive level, and 10 per cent are at senior manager or associate director level.
Wong says growing initial public offering (IPO) activity and an increasing focus on compliance and regulation by companies is behind the firm's expansion. "Companies are talking about how to improve their processes and manage their risk," she says. "That's where our advisory comes in. Therefore we have a very fast-growing advisory practice."
Another 30 jobs are available in various back-office functions, including human resources, risk management, legal, finance and information technology.
EY is also eager to hear from those from other backgrounds who have in-depth industry experience that matches the firm's clients' business areas, which include telecoms, IT, media, retail and banking.
"If people have some deep industry or sector knowledge, that is definitely an advantage, especially in the advisory service," Wong says. "We have to provide advice - how do you manage your risk, how do you manage process improvement? So if we have someone with real insider in-depth knowledge, that is great."
New hires will join a firm with no little prestige attached to it. "Last year, we were the IPO market leader in Hong Kong, in terms of the number of companies we brought to market," Wong says. EY is also the auditor for the top three companies in Fortune's "Most Admired Companies" list.
The firm has about 170,000 employees worldwide, including more than 2,000 in Hong Kong. It filled 300 professional roles in the city last year, and continues to grow, meaning there is no shortage of career opportunities.
"EY is one of the fastest growing professional services organisations," Wong says. "For applicants, that means there are plenty of opportunities for moving up the ladder."
Once on board, new hires follow a clear career path that can see them become staff accountants or associates after two years and a senior manager after three to five years. There is also the possibility of running an entire portfolio after five to six years.
They will also gain exposure to a range of high-performing companies and industries, and be able to build a valuable network of contacts, both from the firm's client base and from among colleagues in Hong Kong and around the world.
Training is delivered through a combination of learning, experience and coaching designed to help candidates develop rather than just receive instruction. The content varies according to rank and practice area, and is supplemented by regular updates in technical skills and soft skills training on topics such as negotiation and presentation skills.
In addition to the technical skills and experience individual roles require, a global mindset, the ability to work with different cultures and good communication skills are some of the most important attributes EY looks for in potential hires.
"What is special to EY and what helps candidates stand out is whether they have a very global mindset," Wong explains. "Our corporate culture is supportive and high-performing. Our clients come from cultures all around the world, from entrepreneurial businesses, government and global corporations. And doing the best work possible for them means getting ideas, experience and cultural know-how from the most diverse group of people.
"So if the candidate can work across cultures, it's a great advantage and what we look for."
That doesn't mean candidates need to have lived abroad or travelled extensively, Wong points out, adding that it is more a question of attitude.
"How you take feedback from others - how you take instructions, are you able to listen actively and not just do things the way you have always done them [are all important]," she says.
"We are a people business. We think up solutions for our clients. So it's also important whether you can bring in new ideas, your experience, and your ability to advise clients."
Team spirit is another quality that is highly valued at the Big Four firm.
"In EY, it's very important to know that you are not working only by yourself, you are in a team," Wong says. "Of course you need to be ambitious, but you also need to be not too aggressive or defensive. There will be a lot of people providing you with feedback.
"If you're open-minded and willing to learn, EY is one of the best learning organisations. We're there to help you and provide you with opportunities."
Banks seek capital markets staff with business acumen, financial skills and a desire to learn, writes Chris Davis.
Hong Kong's capital markets, whether debt, fixed income, derivatives or equities, are renowned for being demanding and, sometimes, stressful territories, where professionals must be able to think and act quickly while remaining focused on key drivers for the industry. For instance, as good regulation and supervision are the hallmarks of strong capital markets, the strength of human talent in senior positions is critical to the development of transparent and sustainable activities.
Capital market analysts say last month's announcement by Financial Secretary John Tsang Chun-wah on how the government would amend various treasury laws to allow Hong Kong to become a more attractive financial hub, is welcome news for the industry.
Those involved in the capital markets sectors note the announcement, made at the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers' annual conference last month, could also lead to additional jobs and expanded career opportunities, especially for experienced practitioners conversant with setting up and operating trading platforms and those familiar with regulatory compliance requirements.
Tsang's comments come before the expected launch this month of Shanghai-Hong Kong Stock Connect. Described by Goldman Sachs in a research report as "too big to ignore", the mutual market access initiative allows institutional investors and individuals to buy and sell on both the Hong Kong and Shanghai exchanges.
Recruiters and analysts predict that cross-border trading on Shanghai's and Hong Kong's bourses is good news for seasoned practitioners and should create more job opportunities and fuel further momentum for the development of Hong Kong's capital markets.
The development comes at a time when mainland securities firms are starting to chip away at Hong Kong's traditional providers of capital services, which include hiring senior capital market specialists.
For instance, Haitong International, which is in the middle of a two-year Hong Kong expansion plan, last year added derivatives, fixed income and equity capabilities to its capital service offerings. The expansion involved recruiting about 20 seasoned professionals to work in each division. The firm says it has plans to grow headcount by recruiting an additional 40 experienced capital market professionals before the end of the year.
As an established part of its Asia operations, Citi Markets and Securities Services is a global business that provides corporations, governments and institutions with a broad range of capital financial services and products. Last month, in Citigroup's filings to regulators in the US, the bank announced revenues of US$15 billion across all of its Asian activities, accounting for the largest revenue generator outside of the US.
According to David Ratliff, managing director and head of investor sales and relationship management at Citi Markets and Securities Services Asia, Citi's capital market business covers a range of different professional roles. These include sales, trading, structuring and research, which offer a range of professional opportunities and require different skills, characteristics and levels of experience.
"Professionals from all backgrounds can succeed at Citi," says Ratcliff, stressing that delivering client services is as important as finance abilities. "We are looking for more than someone who can do the job."
Ratcliff adds that while excellent analytical and quantitative skills are a prerequisite, equally important for his department is building a strong culture through teamwork, ambition and a drive towards excellence. "We are always looking for those who will embrace and continue to build our culture and their own careers," he says.
Crucial to any capital role, he adds, is a strong sense of business acumen, the ability to develop sound financial and quantitative skills, and a desire to learn and succeed in a dynamic environment.
"At the heart of what we do are our clients: how can we identify opportunities for them, help them manage risks and deliver on their needs," he says, adding that the business is about finding solutions and knowing how to navigate a complex landscape.
Employees within the markets and securities business stay relevant by following the evolution of financial markets and global news on a day-to-day basis, he says. This involves learning by doing, and adapting to new opportunities and challenges as they present themselves. "The landscape for financial products and services is constantly changing," he says.
Whether it's the rise of China as an engine of global growth, new companies promoting new technologies like cloud computing or 3D printing, or the increased demand for long-term savings products, professionals need to be up-to-date with developments to help clients tap opportunities.
Victor Cheng, who joined Citi as a management associate in 2010 from the University of Toronto and now works as a foreign exchange structured product specialist, says part of the reason he chose to begin his career with Citi is the high level of investment in junior talent.
"Citi runs very strong internship, analyst and associate programmes," Cheng says. He explains how programmes are supported by senior management, giving juniors a lot of exposure to business leaders from day one. Formal and informal training and development helps new joiners to achieve impact right away, he adds.
James Mendes, Citi managing director and head of recruitment for Asia-Pacific, says university students and recent graduates can gain an insight into the industry via one of Citi's 10-week summer internship programmes. For suitable candidates, he says, Citi also offers full-time analyst and associate programmes, which begin in the autumn each year.
"We also host a series of information sessions and participate in campus recruiting activities within Asia and globally, where students have the opportunity to learn more directly from Citi's professionals," Mendes says.
Alan Lo's eclectic background is a driving force behind the Press Room Group, writes Andrea Zavadszky.
You would be hard-pressed to find a common denominator between battery manufacturing, architecture and the food and beverage industry. However, for Alan Lo, co-founder of the Press Room Group of restaurants, these different strands are nicely woven together in supporting his successful career.
A scion of the Lo family - well known in the region for battery manufacturer Gold Peak Group, which was set up by Lo's grandfather in 1964 - Lo was influenced by many different people growing up. This eventually saw him set up a clutch of restaurants and cafes profiling six different unusual restaurant concepts, making him a pioneer in Hong Kong's food scene.
Growing up, Lo saw the development of the small family business growing into an internationally listed company with operations in more than 10 countries. He also witnessed his father Victor's attraction to the arts. The chairman and chief executive of Gold Peak Industries since 1990, Victor studied industrial design and is an avid art collector who also chairs the Hong Kong Design Centre's board of directors. "Victor wanted to study fine art. Industrial design was a good compromise," Lo says.
Lo says his upbringing was liberal and there was no pressure on him to go into Gold Peak, as his father never really believed in running the company as a family business. He studied classical Chinese painting with the renowned Lingnan School painter Zhao Shao'ang, but although he liked arts, he decided to study architecture at Princeton University in the United States.
"As much as I was interested in art, I never really saw myself as an artist," Lo says. "Probably, I would not have done well in manufacturing."
Architecture trained him to make things from scratch. He learned to cross-examine different aspects and ensure they were not only aesthetically pleasing but also functioned well, while understanding the conceptual side of architecture and the relationships between different requirements.
"I think this was one of the most valuable experiences I had," he says. "This way of thinking became very useful. The sky is the limit if you have the reasons and the facts."
He was eventually won over by the F&B industry after spending time in New York and trying different restaurants. He was amazed by the variety and the high standard of restaurants, which were things not matched by Hong Kong back then.
"New York is such an amazing place, at the forefront of food concepts," he says. "It was just fascinating; back then, you didn't see this level of sophistication and creativity in [Hong Kong]."
He says that at that time, if people wanted to go to a good restaurant in Hong Kong, they went to a hotel. But he felt there was a demand for good independent restaurants in the city and he was keen to introduce them by using concepts from New York.
Opting to stay in London with the Mandarin Oriental for a year as an F&B management trainee, he gained a solid understanding of what the F&B business involved.
The following year, he joined Shangri-La's project management division. For three years, he practiced what he had learned studying architecture at Princeton - executing a project from start to finish, working on time schedules, dealing with costs and operations - and was in contact with architects and engineers.
As the most junior member of the team, he would get the simplest projects - often restaurant renovations - but for him it was an amazing experience. "Working with hotels for three to four years made me understand how it all works, all the details from lighting and furniture to temperature and setting the music," he says.
He was only 26 when he set up the Press Room Group in Hong Kong with two friends, Paulo Pong and Arnold Wong. He says the three founders complement each other with their experiences in exactly the same way Lo's experiences came together to prepare him for the job. While Pong brings his extensive knowledge of wines to the F&B table, Wong is the expert in finance.
The Press Room opened on Hollywood Road in 2006, and was - until its closure in July due to increasing commercial rents in the area - the kind of restaurant that fits into the neighbourhood and takes its cue from the style of its surroundings. This is the hallmark of the group, which now has 15 restaurants and a bakery.
Combining his respect for the arts and tradition with his experience in F&B and architecture, Lo plans to launch other projects which energise neighbourhoods and support, rather than destroy, their characteristics.
Bank hiring is challenged by other sectors, writes Chris Davis.
Hong Kong banks have long been employers of choice, but with widespread changes in banking regulatory systems and competition from other industry sectors, they now need to work much harder to attract and retain employees.
Blanche Chan, head of human resources at Shanghai Commercial Bank, says building and maintaining a competitive workforce is a major challenge for many banks. She says factors including an ageing workforce, working mothers leaving to focus on family commitments, and the trend among younger staff for greater career mobility are responsible for an emerging shortage of both junior and experienced staff.
Chan also points out how following the global economic crisis, the situation has intensified as more complex and stringent regulations are imposed on banks and their staff. Such regulations, she explains, are sometimes cited by banking practitioners as considerations for leaving the industry. “To some, a career in banking may not be as attractive as before,” she says.
Pressure on recruitment is also coming from other sectors such as insurance, non-banking financial services and even retail. Such sectors seek manpower with banking experience, Chan says.
For instance, the insurance sector and other non-banking financial services. With more financial institutions established in recent years, talent war becomes more intense. Attracted by their service values and intensive staff training, bank employees are also a target for the retail sector.
Despite the increasingly stringent regulatory environment and alternative career options, Chan believes a banking career is still attractive to many, especially graduates, “considering its well-established platforms, extensive business coverage and relatively competitive pay and benefits”.
She expects recruitment and retention to be widely discussed among delegates attending the HKIB Annual Banking Conference 2014. “Knowing what is happening in other companies and learning new or best practices is the key that drives employers towards their goal to be the ‘employer of choice’ within their industry,” she says.
In a competitive recruitment environment, banks need more dynamic planning to identify and deal with issues such as attracting and nurturing staff, advancement and succession. For example, Chan says, traditional methods of recruitment through print and online channels are no longer sufficient to attract jobseekers. More innovative methods are needed to increase visibility and penetration into target groups, especially younger generations.
Chan says there is an emerging trend towards i-recruitment, which uses social media. “Social media is not only economical, it also allows banks to be more proactive in sourcing suitable candidates from a vast pool within a short time frame.”
With fresh graduates a rich source of talent, banks are looking for ways to begin engagement early through collaboration with local universities and education institutions.
“Attracting and grooming young talent is a critical and essential element in today’s banking business management,” Chan says, adding that organising career talks and company visits for college students is becoming a common feature of early engagement.
Headhunters and staff referrals still remain effective recruitment tools, she adds. “Referrals usually produce a higher retention rate.”
Although salaries and bonuses are still important, non-monetary factors also affect recruitment and retention. Many banks are developing home-grown talent through internal recruiting, cross-country assignments, career-development programmes and effective succession management, Chan says. Work-life-balance schemes such as flexible work schedules, parental leave and other family-support practices are also increasingly being used.
Chan says recruiting new talent cannot be limited to those with a degree related to banking and finance, or with banking experience. “Academic background is just one of the hardware considerations,” she says. “Candidates’ attitude and passion to start a career in the banking industry are also crucial when making hiring decisions.”
Banks should provide sufficient on-the-job support, training and learning opportunities to hires without banking backgrounds, Chan says. To meet training needs, Chan notes how banks have established product specialists and advisory teams to provide more in-depth and specialised coaching and support to their sales people, as well as providing professional advice to their customers.
Egon Zehnder chairman Damien O’Brien believes leadership should be collaborative, inspirational and based on values.
The concept of the servant-leader may be relatively new to many top executives, among the higher echelons of major organisations, but it is an approach Damien O’Brien feels entirely comfortable with.
As chairman of Swiss Switzerland-based recruitment firm Egon Zehnder International, a partnership structure operating 69 offices in 41 countries, he sees his role as essentially to coach, motivate and communicate, not to exert command or rule by personal decree in the manner of some of the revered titans of global business.
And with priorities changing to meet the new demands of transparency and better engagement, O’Brien firmly believes this style of values-based leadership is the way forward. Therefore, he is committed to building relationships with clients and colleagues, ensuring alignment, and uniting a dispersed firm through a strong set of core values and a shared sense of purpose.
“We have a collaborative model and I lead colleagues because they let me,” he says. “Leadership in our firm is much more about inspiring and supporting than telling, and I believe deeply in growth and freedom and people being able to improve their lot.”
Making that happen, though, has not been without challenges. After assuming his current role in 2008 – just in time for the global financial crisis – his fundamental objectives and long-held principles were put to the test. Within a few months, the phones stopped ringing, revenue was evaporating, and a sense of near-panic hung in the air and future prospects were very much in the balance.
“At a partners’ meeting, I galvanised the troops and made the case passionately that we faced a moment in history and would ultimately be judged by the course we took,” he says. “It was a bit of a baptism of fire, a very difficult time, but it allowed me to take control pretty quickly and get the partner group to see the gravity of the challenge.
“Like in the dotcom boom, when we lost people to start-ups and were tending to drift, I took the view that the best way to deal with concerns was to air and debate them in the belief that our values would carry us through. These were cathartic moments for the firm and character-forming for me too.”
In confronting such challenges, O’Brien clearly had a wealth of experience to draw on. His route to the top of Egon Zehnder included responsibility for functional practices focusing on positions in private equity, communications, consumer and board advisory.
He also handled the firm’s global operations and professional development and, in the 1990s, was put in charge of establishing offices in China after telling management something had to be done. “I’d see that as a clear turning point in my career,” he says. “By developing our China practice early on, I became known for taking things on and this also gave me a profile for making things happen.”
The firm’s fourth elected leader, he has also been guided by in-house mentors, notably the previous chairmen, and, when necessary, adept at winning allies. However, he is largely motivated by a desire to help others and win their respect.
He hopes to exemplify a leadership model that extols the need to be curious, insightful, determined and able to connect the unseen dots. “It is difficult leading a professional services firm, where the partners are opinionated, independent-minded and located all over the world,” he says. “But you grow into it, and I feel more comfortable now.”
O’Brien originally joined Egon Zehnder in Sydney in 1988 after completing a commerce degree at the University of New South Wales and an MBA at Columbia University. He also had stints with a family-owned group of companies and consultancy firm McKinsey to get hands-on experience.
But one of the biggest influences on his outlook and ideals occurred before. He spent seven years studying for the Catholic priesthood, including two years spent working in poor communities in the southern Philippines at a time of conflict and intense hardship for the local people. “I was in a very isolated part of Mindanao in an environment where two civil wars were going on simultaneously. I saw a lot of suffering and death and that laid the foundation for later views on what is and is not important in life. My faith has given me ballast, a deep sense of peace and centredness.”
Nowadays, away from work, he describes himself as a “family guy” who has four grown-up children and is happy just to spend time at home when not circling the world on business assignments or contributing to discussions at World Economic Forum gatherings and similar events.
If in need of inspiration, he still relies on his faith and, sometimes, examples from the life of a particular hero: Nelson Mandela. “His tenacity, commitment and integrity are just inspiring, but he was also tough, very resilient, and could take people with him where he wanted to go,” he says. “His optimism was also a huge source of hope for many people. I love that combination of qualities; it is what you need in today’s world.”
Get in the game
Damien o’Brien outlines key factors in leading a firm with a global reach
Focus on goals “I believe in having a clear sense of what is important and of where I want to get personally and professionally – and of how to get there.”
Team effort “I understand that I don’t have all the answers; any success I have now is the product of the successes of the people I lead.”
Spur them on “Good communication is essential, so I can connect with the minds but also the hearts of my colleagues. I would say about 80 per cent of the leadership communication in our firm is directed at the heart to get people motivated and passionate about what they do.”
Play to the end “It is important to come across as someone who is happy and optimistic in the job. If a leader becomes overburdened, cynical or pessimistic, it is effectively ‘game over’. I remain full of optimism and generally fulfilled, and that is very important in my role and my organisation.”
At last, that welcome rarity - an offering from a business guru that is a veritable page-turner of proven wisdom and "infotainment". Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace) is thoroughly enjoyable and packed with messages, advice and insights that had me muttering "right on" every few pages. And, in places, cheering out loud.
The Taoism-tinged title is a harbinger of plenty of goodies inside these pages. Okay, the "world peace" bit is something of a cheeky stretch, but one can't fault the rest.
The book's author, Chade-Meng Tan, was one of Google's first engineers - employee number 107. He is also the founder and president of the Tan Teo Charitable Foundation, dedicated to promoting peace, liberty and enlightenment.
He is also a founding patron of both the Centre for Compassion and Altruism Research and Education at Stamford University and the World Peace Festival. In top-tier business circles, this is as saintly as they get, and Tao's inner goodness reveals itself throughout this book.
Tan's thesis has been explored before, but never so elegantly: if a business made uncompromising efforts to find ways in which employees were not only better compensated and had more job satisfaction, but were also happier, healthier and more content with their lives, how much more efficient and profitable would it be? A holistic question, to which Tan provides common-sense holistic answers.
Tan explains how a work culture devoted to peace of mind and mental balance truly yields more productivity and profitability. Thereby everybody wins, even the grumpiest and most stone-hearted boss.
And he also, intriguingly, links his workplace concepts to world peace. "Like many others wiser than me, I believe world peace can and must be created from the inside out. And if we can create a world where most people are happy, at peace, and compassionate, we can create the foundation for world peace."
The approaches Tan advocates, which stress developing and valuing emotional intelligence and mindfulness training, have been addressed before, but not with such lucidity and graspable detail. Of particular benefit is the section on "emptying the mind" to release work-related stress and other psychological toxic waste.
He addresses and explains concepts and methods that would benefit any business organisation. What is mindfulness and mindfulness meditation? How does it help us perform better for our employer, help us become more intuitive communicators, or overcome negativity?
Citing a multitude of scientific studies (softening this input with humour), Tan describes in an easily digestible manner how and why these practices make us better people and better workers.
One of the many terrific sections here focuses on how to raise one's game as a listener. Tan explains that, like all worthy and important endeavours, we have to work at being emotionally alert and responsive.
Then he sets out what the reader needs to do to enhance his or her emotional intelligence - a step-by-step process actually adapted from an early computer programme Tan developed for Google.
Another compelling section is entitled "My Emotions Are Not Me" - a series of reflections on pain. Generally, it's not the pain that hurts, Tan says, but the idea of the pain (the same with fear).
"The theory is that aversion, not the pain itself, is the actual cause of suffering; the pain is just a sensation which creates that aversion," he says. "Hence, if the mind recognises this and then becomes able to let go of aversion, then the experience of pain may lead to greatly reduced suffering - perhaps no suffering at all."
Later on, he takes readers through the practice of "the sacred pause" and something he calls the "Siberian North Railroad" - stop, breathe, notice, reflect and respond. These, he explains, and can be used to deal with difficult emotions and thorny people in the workplace.
Another maxim he dwells on is "pleasure, passion and higher purpose", which teaches how to be comfortable with the idea of failure as a means to success. He later examines the importance of empathy, especially as applying to managers, and how mindfulness helps us achieve greater empathy which leads to greater trust.
Tan doesn't shy away from workplace politics either, and excels in instructing the reader on how to proceed with those "difficult conversations" that are an unwelcome feature of almost all work environments. What's Tan's answer? Enhanced mindfulness and empathy, naturally - and a bit of meditation beforehand.
Fear not, there's no New Age dross in these pages. Even though Tan almost writes like a Buddhist monk, he employs empirical evidence whenever he can.
The book glows with warmth and positivity. It might just make the world a better place. Or, at the very least, your world.
Like other financial sectors, Hong Kong's private banking industry is far from immune to the rising costs and regulatory pressures that are reshaping the financial markets. At the same time, clients, many of whom are self-made millionaires, increasingly expect a lot more than investment advice from their private banks.
Kaven Leung, deputy region head for Asia-Pacific at private bank Julius Baer, says that not only has the private banking landscape changed significantly in the six years since the global financial crisis, the needs of clients have also evolved.
"In this 'new world' of private banking, clients are looking beyond performance and competitive pricing and expect their private banks to provide them with value-added advice and services," says Leung, who has worked in the sector for more than 26 years. "The relationships clients are looking for need to be based on trust."
Clients are looking for a holistic approach that not only takes into account managing an investment portfolio, but also helps with succession planning. They must be sure that their private bank relationship managers have the experience, mindset and perception to fulfil their needs, as well as the support and capabilities of the banks they work for. This includes having an in-house team capable of providing wealth and tax planning orchestrated by a relationship manager.
Making the point that private bankers can't be trained overnight, Leung says the majority of professionals at Julius Baer have more than 20 years of experience and have worked through the ups and downs of several economic cycles. They are able to apply the principles based on the tradition and experience of managing "old wealth" in Europe to the needs of Asian clients who have relatively new wealth
According to forecasts by wealth intelligence firm Wealth-X, the combined assets of Asia's wealthy are expected to surpass Europe's by 2020. As the number of high- and ultra-high-net-worth individuals rapidly increases in Asia, the demand for private bankers with this sort of experience is outstripping supply.
Enid Yip, Asia chief executive of Bank J. Safra Sarasin, says there will never be enough high-level private bankers. She stresses, however, that it is more the quality than quantity that matters.
"A great private banker must have the ability to win and inspire trust," Yip says. All the diplomas in the world mean nothing without trust, she adds, which is fostered through genuine listening.
A private banker has to also have a complete understanding of the client and their goals. "Private banking is about aspirations," Yip says. "It is our job to understand those aspirations and to have the passion to succeed in helping our clients to achieve them. It takes all of these skills, and financial expertise, to be a top performer."
Yip says that the aim of most senior private bankers is to be in a strong partnership with a bank of good reputation, strong financials and a solid platform. "They want to be with a bank that has a deep commitment to clients in Asia," she says. "If they are with a bank with these qualities, they can sleep well."
While Hong Kong and Singapore are competing to be regarded as Asia's private banking hub, Yip says private bankers don't need to think about hubs. "Hubs are for management," she says. "For a private banker, the hub is always the client, who is at the centre of his or her thoughts."
Dr Henri Leimer, chairman and chief executive officer of LGT Private Banking, says that while investment trends come and go, LGT prefers to focus on the long-term needs and goals of clients. The bank, which is owned by the Liechtenstein royal family, began as a family office for the princely House of Liechtenstein, which remains one of the LGT's biggest clients. "We listen to what our clients want and tailor a solution for that," he says.
For example, as clients' lives become more complicated, there is a need for more complex wealth planning and investment solutions. This calls for bankers with increasingly specialised skills.
"Twenty years ago, very few banks had structuring experts in-house," Leimer says. Today, however, you would be hard pressed to find a major institution without a team of dedicated private client lawyers and accountants, he says.
"We are always on the lookout for potential new hires who have unique or specialised skills that could add value to our client offering," he adds.
Leimer believe that a good private banker is usually a good listener who takes the time to understand what his or her client wants. It also helps to have an entrepreneurial spirit and a strong instinct for business.
"Since we are often serving not one person, but multiple generations of families, a good private banker should be able to think in the present and to also anticipate longer-term client needs," he says.
Milk Design founder Lee Chi-Wing has built his business on a simple philosophy, writes Wong Yat-hei.
What connects a calcium-rich beverage with the design of consumer goods? The answer is obvious to Lee Chi-wing who, in 1998, established his own design house, Milk Design, with the aim of creating products that were both simple and human. "I think design needs to be closely connected to our living condition - just like milk," he says. "My design concept is creating products that make people comfortable. A successful product is one that makes people's lives better through creativity."
Lee's passion for product design was cultivated from an early age. Both his father and grandfather were professional sculptors, and the young Lee would watch them as they worked. "That inspired my interest in, and sensitivity towards, three-dimensional objects, and later my passion for product design," he says.
Growing up in Hong Kong, Lee graduated from Polytechnic University before going to Paris to further his design education. "The school in Paris provided a very liberal place to learn. There was no concept of what classes you had to take because you belonged to a certain year. Students in year one, two and three attended classes together, depending on their interests. My creativity was inspired through such a liberal learning environment."
After returning to Hong Kong, Lee started worked for a multinational company, but was soon told the company planned to transfer him to the US. "I was reluctant to go because I was just back home from Europe. So instead I started my own business, as there were some clients that said they would support me if I opened my own design house."
Lee steadily built his reputation as a product designer for several years, after which is began to think about creating his own brand. In 2002 he launched Feelgood, a lifestyle brand that sells bathroom products and fragrances online.
"It's a designer's dream to have his or her own brand," he says. "We can have total control over what we want to do. I want my brand to be closely related to life; I focus on making bathroom products because the bathroom is a personal space for one to relax in."
Hong Kong is a mature market with sophisticated consumers, Lee says, but he wishes consumers had a deeper understanding of design. "The media promotes many designers' products as trendy items, and consumers love them because it is hip to own such products.
"This is perfectly fine, but I think more should be done to let consumers understand a product's design concept and the thinking processes behind it. More resources to educate the public on design concepts will open the minds of consumers and provide the basis for designers to create more innovative products."
Although Hong Kong produces many designers, Lee does not see product design as a popular choice for students. He predicts this will change as more local businesses move to build their own brands and no longer focus on manufacturing.
"I think this development is in line with the development of our economy. Hong Kong does not have a very long history of producing original products, but that is changing. More companies are looking for original design, and the demand for product designers will go up," he says.
The challenge for the industry, he says, is for it to develop its own identity. "Local designers have many brilliant ideas, but we have not yet developed our own identity. Fortunately, many young designers are aware of this situation and are eager to include local elements in their work. [However], Hong Kong people think highly of imported goods. This is a mindset that cannot be easily changed, but we are ready to prove them wrong."
Lee, too, embraces the chance to promote local culture when he can.
"My favourite project [I have done] was the plastic in-flight tableware I designed for Cathay Pacific," he says. "I applied a semi-transparent rice pattern on porcelain bowls. I was delighted to work on a project that allowed me to bring local culture to the rest of the world."
Lee says he is currently designing tea utensils for a local homeware brand. "Chinese tea is world famous, but because of the hectic pace people live at today, making a cup of Chinese tea the traditional way has become a luxury few can afford. My work will focus on designing tea utensils that are simple to use. Modernising traditional culture is a design concept that I love," he says.
Lee says listening to clients is essential when working on commercial design projects. "Every designer has ideas of their own, but they should not forget that their design is to serve the basic needs of people. Designers have innovative minds, but not everyone is as open-minded as a designer. Communication with clients is very important, especially for young designers."