Seven ways to break into banking’s most selective sector

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Private banking hiring in Asia is typically a big-money game of musical chairs, played out by savvy bankers who know that if they can bring enough client assets with them, a new bank will soon snap them up.

Given the buoyant job market and a 22% jump in assets under management in Singapore last year, it’s little wonder that wealth management topped other parts of financial services as the best place to begin a career in Singapore, according to a new survey by recruiters Robert Half.

But while private bankers are in high demand and short supply, the industry is becoming notoriously difficult to break into, unless you join as a graduate. Rising cost-income ratios for private banks in the competitive Singaporean market mean firms typically want to recruit experienced hands.

“It was easier to get in before the 2008 financial crisis, when the risk appetite was much more than today,” said Rahul Sen, a director at search firm Sheffield Haworth in Singapore. “Back then, we heard stories of car salesmen, hairdressers and a few others becoming private bankers because of their client networks,” he added.

Here are some of the few remaining avenues into the industry for those who don't already work in private banking.

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1) Associate trainees

UBS in Singapore recruits financial professionals, typically with about five years’ experience, into its associate programme for budding private bankers. Candidates with client-relationship management, sales, or business-development experience are preferred, according to Miranda Chan, managing director, human resources, UBS Wealth Management APAC. The 12-month course includes classroom training at the UBS Business University in Singapore, rotating assignments, and on-the-job coaching by dedicated managers. “Associates who complete the programme are awarded a Wealth Management Diploma and embark on a career as a client advisor at UBS in Hong Kong or Singapore,” Chan told eFinancialCareers. “It helps us create a pipeline of client advisors to support UBS’s planned growth in the region.”

2) Priority bankers

Priority bankers in Asia (also known as mass-affluent, privilege or premiere bankers) may be considered for internal transfers within firms that also offer private banking. “Banks like HSBC, Citi, StanChart and DBS, which have a strong affluent-client segment in Singapore, should promote more priority bankers, incentivising them to perform well,” Sen from Sheffield Haworth said. In the aftermath of the financial crisis, however, ex-priority bankers were among the first to lose their private banking jobs, so these days only top performers – the bulk of whose clients must have already met the private-banking asset threshold – need bother applying, he added.

3) Investment advisors

Private banks in Asia sometimes hire investment advisors who show “entrepreneurial flair”, according to Sen. “They are in touch with clients since they manage their portfolios on a regular basis, and if they have built strong relationships, they can become private bankers.”

4) Investment bankers

“A few private banks may consider an investment banker who has very good relationships with the major shareholders of listed or pre-IPO companies,” said Jack Bennett, managing director of Hong Kong headhunters Lionrock International. Still, it's a long shot as a career change. “Working with these people on a corporate level doesn’t immediately translate to converting them into private clients, so many banks remain reluctant to take that risk.”

5) Very senior managers

Private banks in Asia aren't averse to bringing in senior talent from outside the sector when the role is managerial rather than client facing. Earlier this month, for example, Gan Seow Ann, former president of the Singapore Exchange, joined UBS as vice chairman of Wealth Management Southeast Asia and Asia Pacific Hub.

6) China experts

As we've pointed to before, private bankers with Chinese networks are both desirable and rare. This means banks sometimes search outside the sector for mainland talent. “If you have a strong private-client network through your work experiences in China or through family connections, there are some banks who might consider you at a junior level,” Bennett said. “But they expect you to convert these relationships into accounts within about 12 to 18 months."

7) Compliance professionals

Private banks are taking on more compliance professionals as they tackle a growing regulatory burden, according to a global wealth survey by RBC Wealth Management and Capgemini. Compliance officers can move comparatively freely from commercial or investment banking into private banking, although they typically lack the client-schmoozing charms required to join the client-facing ranks. J.P. Morgan in Singapore is hiring support staff for its private bank in functions including compliance, legal, risk management, operations and client servicing, a spokesperson told us last month.