[SINGAPORE] The most glamorous of jobs is facing the most acute of shortages - and banks are trying different strategies to address the crunch.
As private banking takes wing in Singapore, the industry is realising just how difficult it is to recruit not just good people, but good people in their hundreds. So while one bank is sending its top executives on a talent hunt, another is tapping experienced corporate bankers while a third is putting its trust in its wealth management centre. Some just use the old-fashioned lure of cash.
The world's biggest private bank, UBS, last year hired more than 200 client advisers, doubling its team. And it anticipates hiring at the same pace going forward.
UBS has 3,600 wealth management staff in the Asia-Pacific, including 1,000 in Singapore.
Said Patricia Enslow, UBS's head of market strategy and development for wealth management Asia-Pacific: "We have seen our wealth management business in Asia-Pacific double in the past two years. This has resulted in a situation where the competition for talent has accelerated and firms need to constantly look at new and innovative ways to attract, develop and retain valued staff."
Citi Private Bank has been trying to get around the shortage by recruiting corporate bankers. Those who have joined its ranks recently include former DBS Bank group research head Fong Cheng Hong, Nigel Sze, who was Asia chief executive of Barclay's International and Private Banking, and Norman Villamin from Morgan Stanley.
Calling it a 'major upgrade', Tan Su Shan, managing director and head of Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei for Citi Private Bank, said these hires bring with them an 'institutional level of brainpower'. "They are used to covering institutional clients and dealing with hundreds of millions of dollars," said Ms Tan.
Meanwhile, JP Morgan, which does campus hiring, plans to bag 13 MBA graduates from top-tier US business schools - apart from 20-30 experienced private bankers.
Next month, six of the bank's most senior managers will go on a roadshow for two weeks to the top universities in the US to recruit mid-career professionals graduating from these schools," said Kam Shing Kwang, JP Morgan Private Bank's managing director, South Asia.
"It's a very expensive exercise," said Ms Kwang.
Fresh hires are typically trained for two or three years before they can handle clients independently, she said.
Not everyone favours the youth policy, though. Citi's Ms Tan said private banking is not a young person's job because the responsibility of handling other people's money is great.
"If you're in your twenties, how many bear markets have you been through?" she asked.
The dark days of July and August, when turmoil hit financial markets, was one such test that separated the real private bankers from mere salespeople.
One businessman said that in all his years dealing with private bankers, this period was the worst in terms of service. "The service was appalling. They were not responsive".
He added that two months before the US sub-prime mortgage crisis hit financial markets, one of his private bankers was asked to remodel the assumptions of an investment. The private banker never got back to him.
In contrast, Timothy Chia, Hup Soon Global chairman and former venture capitalist, was impressed with his private bankers.
"They called and kept me updated. Some said ride it out, some said get out and some said time to go in," said Mr Chia who decided to do nothing and saw some of his equity investments surpass their previous highs.
Mr Chia, who ran Pama for 30 years - it has now become one of Asia's largest private equity funds - uses private bankers "a lot of times to validate one's own views".
The key, of course, is that they should be up to scratch.
Michel Longhini, chief executive of BNP Paribas Private Bank Asia, said: "We lack absolutely in the numbers, and also what is not so obvious, making sure the people are sophisticated enough."
Just poaching from one another is not the solution, as it drives up costs and annoys clients.
"Every time you meet the private banker, you ask, "Which bank are you working for?" Turnover is really damaging the industry," said Mr Longhini.
It is driving up salary expectations, too. Andrew Price, director of banking at international recruitment company PSD Group, said: "Previously candidates expected a 10 to 20 per cent increase but now some are asking for 50 to
100 per cent."
In fact, so valued are the good ones that a team leader, a specialist in asset allocation or a top adviser on risk appetite and trading strategy could easily take home a seven-figure package, including bonuses, said James Rushworth, managing director of ProfileAsia.
Some banks are even hiring from outside the finance sector. UBS has set up a Wealth Management Campus in Singapore to train employees new to the industry.
The talent squeeze may be a headache to the banks - but the talent itself has never had it so good.
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