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In Japan you can criticize your boss, but only at the bar

Threadneedle Investments plans to hire analysts and fund managers in Asia this year, said Andrew Chan, chief administration officer for Singapore and head of product and business development for Asia Pacific.

Singaporean Chan joined Threadneedle,  the asset management arm of Ameriprise Financial, a US financial services firm with $678bn in assets, in 2011 after a 24-year, globe-trotting career at Merrill Lynch. He said working in Asia, the US and Europe taught him the importance of understanding workplace cultures in different countries, like how Japanese employees use after-work drinks to talk tough to their boss.

Chan chatted to eFinancialCareers about Threadneedle’s talent plans, why the English language can be a barrier in global companies, and why he began his career in advertising, not banking.

What are Threadneedle’s hiring plans in Asia this year?

Threadneedle is quite unique in the asset-management industry because we are growing, not restructuring, in Asia. And we have the resources to expand further. When I started here in March 2011 we had three employees in Singapore. Just two years later, we have 30 in Singapore, nine in Hong Kong, and we now have a Taiwan office. The fact that we are growing in this tough market makes us an attractive proposition for candidates.

Significantly, last year, we relocated Gigi Chan, our Asian equities fund manager, from London to Singapore. And Clifford Lau joined as head of fixed Income, Asia Pacific. Now we need more people around them – in particular, analysts and fund managers. I can’t provide precise hiring numbers or a timescale, but generally it all has to be done as soon as possible. But we aren't rushing this as we want to find the "right" people. At some stage, we will also need people in the back and middle office, in areas like risk management and custody, but we have no fixed numbers in mind – it depends on business growth.

Would you consider candidates from banks?

Yes, but we’re not fixed on recruiting only from the sell side or only from the buy side. Bankers should remember that what made you successful as a banker may not work in asset management. Buy-side strategies and clients are different – at Threadneedle we deal a lot with central banks, pension funds, family offices and sovereign wealth funds.

What about candidates based in the West?

The European crisis has accelerated the attractiveness of Asia. But we want people who understand Asian asset classes and know where the market in Asia will go next. It’s easy to just look at established markets like Singapore, Hong Kong and Korea, but what about Malaysia, Indonesia and Thailand – where do they fit in? A regional perspective is important to careers in Singapore and the region; we look for expertise across markets. Having said that, there are certain niche skills that are sought-after but hard to find right now in Asia, such as people with experience in dealing with family offices or sovereign wealth funds as clients. If you’re bringing new global skills into Asia, you have more of a chance of finding a job here.

How did you start your own career?

When I graduated with a degree in business administration from the National University of Singapore I initially wasn’t interested in the banking sector. My first job was actually as an advertising sales executive, but after just four months I decided it wasn’t for me. A friend then suggested I apply for a corporate banking opportunity that came up with a local Singaporean bank. This appealed to me as he was adamant that I wouldn’t be permanently restricted to a desk as I had originally feared – I’d be visiting factories and have access to senior people.

I got the job, started in November 1981, and quickly leant some important lessons. First, as a corporate banker, whatever you see on paper – financial ratios and the like – doesn’t count for much if you can’t turn up at a factory floor and determine whether their new machines actually match those listed on the loan documentation. And second, you have to be very good at interacting with people and asking probing questions to find out whether they can really pay back the loan.

By 1985 I had worked on more receiverships than anyone else at the bank, and seeing so many businesses go wrong had taught me to be wise when it came to lending. That year, I received a call from a headhunter. My first reaction was that he wanted to talk about financing, not speak to me about a role in Singapore with Merrill Lynch. I was the youngest of five candidates for that job and I probably got it because I was the cheapest!

What did you learn from working there?

Cross-cultural skills are essential to an international role in finance – even simple things like personal space and body language can affect relationships. Sometimes we send the wrong messages when we first meet people. Once I was in Japan and an American colleague placed his feet on his desk to show he was welcoming and relaxed at a meeting – but unfortunately that’s a big no-no in Japan.

Even in global teams that communicate only in English, there can be different interpretations of the same language. The word “teamwork”, for example, actually means different things in different markets. In Japan, it means “do what your boss says” and follow his instructions like a good team member should. In the West, it’s almost the opposite idea: everyone is encouraged to debate ideas before decisions are made. So there’s a lot of room for misunderstanding and I often ended up playing a sort of cross-cultural interpreter role.

What about differences in working styles within Asia?

There are of course many similarities between Asian cultures, but from my experience, Hong Kong is the most advanced, or you could say more aggressively focused, place from a work-culture perspective. People there tend to be very driven, objective and single-minded about how to succeed. Their attitude is: “here’s what I must do to get this task done”. In Singapore, people generally are less assertive; they like to contemplate and take time planning rather than looking for an immediate solution. Both have their attributes and of course frustrations, too, at times.

In Japan, they typically take a longer, more cautious approach to make decisions but then execute things well. And the office environment there is very polite and regimented – you can’t say anything out of line. An after-work drink is the accepted time for people to let off steam and talk more freely, even to their managers. The next day they just blame it on the drinks and no one takes it personally – this is their way of giving feedback without losing face. Admittedly, I think this culture is changing now and internal communication protocols are relaxing.

What did you do after leaving Merrill in 2009?

I decided to take a couple of years out, mainly travelling, but I learnt a lot from that. For example, on a trip around South America, it was very apparent how strong China’s presence had grown in that region – in mining, in forestry. And generally this isn’t seen as a threat there; it’s accepted.

What made you return to finance in 2011?

During my travels I never lost my interest in finance: it’s the lubrication that makes the world more globalised and enables people to aspire to greater things. In late 2010 Raymundo Yu, Threadneedle’s newly appointed Asia Pacific chairman, approached me. I’d worked with him for a significant part of my career having admired him as one of the best strategic minds in the industry. The opportunity of working with great people like him again made it easy to return to the industry and I took on my current role with Threadneedle in March 2011.

How would you describe the finance sector in Singapore right now?

I think it still has excess capacity – in fact, there’s no shortage of banks and asset management firms globally. Secondly, the regulatory environment has changed a lot and created a number of outcomes. For example, FATCA [the Foreign Account Tax Compliance Act – a US law requiring foreign financial institutions to disclose American assets] is complicated and quite difficult to navigate. But in career terms, there are opportunities and whoever can successfully ride this period of uncertainty could end up a huge winner.

AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager

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