Morgan Stanley casting net farther

MR RONALD ONG, Morgan Stanley chairman and CEO for South-east Asia.
MR RONALD ONG, Morgan Stanley chairman and CEO for South-east Asia.

Advisers in the lucrative private wealth sector often used to be star finance graduates who worked their way up to top jobs.

But the industry is changing, with professionals from a wide range of disciplines now being recruited.

United States investment bank Morgan Stanley is one firm that casts its net far wider now.

Mr Ronald Ong, Morgan Stanley chairman and chief executive for South-east Asia, says: "To be a successful private wealth banker, I truly believe you need to be a trusted adviser, more than just a salesman.

"When we look at talent, we should be broad-minded enough to look at talent not only from the existing pool of private wealth bankers. You could turn a good corporate lawyer, who has the relation and the trust of the individual, into a private banker."

About 10 per cent of the more than 100 investment relationship officers in the region at Morgan Stanley's Private Wealth Management Asia unit come from non-traditional educational backgrounds, either within the bank or from outside.

BROAD-MINDED RECRUITING

To be a successful private wealth banker, I truly believe you need to be a trusted adviser, more than just a salesman. When we look at talent, we should be broad-minded enough to look at talent not only from the existing pool of private wealth bankers. You could turn a good corporate lawyer, who has the relation and the trust of the individual, into a private banker.

MR RONALD ONG, Morgan Stanley chairman and CEO for South-east Asia.

Mr Ong notes: "Our private wealth business is concentrated on ultra-high-net worth clients, so the number of officers we have are by definition smaller, as compared with others who deal with a wider spectrum of clients."

One way it differentiates itself is to offer services beyond the usual personal wealth offerings, such as helping clients' business needs, he said.

"We've institutionalised our private wealth business, as opposed to just managing money. A lot of the private wealth clients own businesses in this part of the world. If you help them grow their companies, it's tantamount to growing their private wealth as well.

"This has brought about an ability to bring our institutional securities business to private wealth clients. Specifically, one example is we get to do initial public offerings (IPOs) for the companies our clients have." IPOs require a whole string of professionals, including auditors, underwriters and lawyers.

It has prompted Morgan Stanley to build an arsenal of diversified expertise to offer clients even more under one roof with plans to expand its group of investment relationship officers to 150 in the near term from the 100 or so now.

Mr Ong also noted that more family offices are being set up in Singapore for wealthy clients, which gives the bank more opportunities.

"The family offices are hiring professional managers, who are more institutional than private. So they like the idea of working with Morgan Stanley, which has adopted the institutional approach," he adds.

However, Mr Ong said finding talent has been difficult in an increasingly competitive landscape where other banks are also recruiting, in part to serve mass-affluent clients.

"That's a very different business from what we do. The local banks are right in pursuing the business and can grow it well." He is referring to acquisitions of foreign private wealth businesses by the likes of DBS Bank and OCBC Bank.

Mr Ong notes that foreign banks are getting out of the business owing to factors such as increased regulatory compliance costs and more anti-money laundering vigilance.

He estimates that compliance costs in general have gone up by 30 per cent to 40 per cent in just the past few years.

However, Morgan Stanley believes its approach can withstand the competition.

Mr Ong says: "Morgan Stanley in Asean has grown since 2008, in terms of business. The focus has never been stronger and we continue to add businesses where we believe makes sense. Wealth management and investment banking are the two areas that we will probably add people to.

"The sales and trading business is stable too - we're No. 1 in Indonesia, No. 3 in Singapore and obviously we'll work towards No. 1 here. We're fairly consistent."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on April 24, 2017, with the headline 'Morgan Stanley casting net farther'. Print Edition | Subscribe