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Picking the best man no matter the nationality: UBS' Asia-Pacific wealth management head Edmund Koh

Mr Koh is the first Singaporean to head UBS' wealth management in Asia-Pacific, and is also the bank's global head of affluent and its country head in Singapore.
Mr Koh is the first Singaporean to head UBS' wealth management in Asia-Pacific, and is also the bank's global head of affluent and its country head in Singapore. PHOTO: UBS

He is a champion for Singaporeans at UBS, but insists that a global hub needs international talent

Swiss private bank UBS' Asia-Pacific head of wealth management, Mr Edmund Koh, is proud to be a Singaporean, make no mistake about it.

But when it comes to hiring decisions, he will choose the best person for the job, regardless of nationality.

In a frank interview with the media last Friday, Mr Koh said that Singapore has "swung too much" towards prioritising the hiring of local over foreign talent.

"First and foremost I am very proud to be a Singaporean," he said.

"But I'm also acutely aware that we should not overplay that, because being a cosmopolitan city and being an international hub, we need to... be pragmatic and realistic about what our requirements are."

In short, he said, an international financial hub requires international talent.

"In banking there's one thing that's very important and that is affinity-built trust," he noted.

For example, he said, if an Italian client interested in investing in China were to approach a bank in Singapore, he would be ill-served by an adviser who does not really know Italian culture, or how to build a relationship with someone from Milan, versus someone from Rome.

"Remember, because of that kind of deal flow that comes to Singapore, we create more banking jobs. If you are so myopic and keep thinking it has to be local, local, local, we lose that element of internationalising, of being truly an international centre," he said.

"Yes, I'm a champion for Singaporeans. Once a very wise man told me: 'Ed, we must never forget to plant our own timber.' Yes, we plant our own timber. We should. But if you need to supplement it, if you need to buy an orchard, then you buy it."

To be sure, Mr Koh has made some high-profile local hires.

He recruited former Singapore Exchange president Gan Seow Ann in 2013 as vice-chairman of wealth management in South-east Asia.

And last week he announced that he had managed to convince banking veteran Tracey Woon, now Citi's vice-chairman of Asean corporate and investment banking, to join UBS, also as a vice-chairman of wealth management in South-east Asia, in the third quarter of this year.

While his views might not be considered politically correct, the 55-year-old said, he believes it is what Singapore really needs.

"I care for my country. If I look at my country 15, 25, 30 years out, this is what we need for now. We need to be nimble and pragmatic, we need to communicate very well our needs and we need a balance."

Mr Koh himself has benefited from a meritocratic and international culture at UBS. At the start of the year, he was promoted to head wealth management in Asia-Pacific, becoming the first Singaporean to hold that role.

He is the only Singaporean on UBS' global wealth management executive committee, and is also the bank's global head of affluent and its country head in Singapore.

It is an impressive list of roles, especially given the fact that UBS is the largest private bank in the Asia-Pacific by assets under management.

In the fourth quarter of last year, the bank's wealth management business had total invested assets of 272 billion Swiss francs (S$382 billion),with 1.8 billion Swiss francs in net new money.

The global financial markets have not gone easy on Mr Koh since he took on his new role.

"The first quarter was the toughest beginning to a year that many of us have experienced in many years. All the different asset classes are not only volatile but have taken quite a fair bit of beating," he noted.

Amid the market uncertainty, clients are making fewer transactions while seeking out solid investment ideas for the future, he said.

"The behaviour I've seen from clients during this period is all the more they expect very good advice on their existing investments as well as opportunities going forward.

"We also see clients consolidating their wealth management and banking accounts, preferring clearly a very strong focus on research materials and ideas."

And given the volatility of the markets, Mr Koh has not set any specific targets for himself in his new role, aiming instead for gradual but steady growth.

"My target is always to progress forward. In headwinds, which is what we had in the first quarter, (we have to) huddle down, put our heads down and walk. You will still advance but slower. In today's environment you aim long, you execute short and you progressively get there."

In the meantime, his advice to his team is to bear in mind UBS' weaknesses, which should motivate them to do their jobs better.

"Our weakness is we are not a corporate banker, we don't have a retail base to farm on. What's our strength? Because of our weakness we need to be hungrier, we need to prospect better, we need to do what we have and do it very well."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 04, 2016, with the headline 'He cares for S'pore, so he may give the job to a non-S'porean'. Print Edition | Subscribe