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Why I left my banking job in London to start a small hotel in China

Shangri-La, Yunnan Province, China

As China continues to develop and open up its financial system, an increasing Chinese bankers working overseas are considering a move home for better career prospects. Yet some are going back for other reasons entirely. Jing, a debt capital market (DCM) banker in London for almost ten years, returned to China in early 2014. She gave up banking altogether and opened a boutique hotel called Silver Chest in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan province -  a region boasts the natural beauty of Dali and Shangari-la in the Southwestern tip of China.

She's been working on this hotel project for about a year and and half now. We talked to her about her banking days in London and how the transition has been going on so far.

You seemed to be doing well in banking when in London, and you even survived the financial crisis. What exactly were you doing then?

I worked for two European banks while in London. But I was always in an area called Debt Capital Markets for Sovereign, Superanationals and agencies (SSA). It's a key area within DCM.

What does SSA do?

We originate and issue bonds for most European countries' governments as well as international institutions such as EIB, World Bank, Asia Development Bank, etc. They are our main clients. Because of the high credit quality of these issuers and their large funding capacities, this part of the bond business is actually the benchmark business.

I have to say it's a very interesting area, especially for the first few years of my career, because I was able to work on a wide range of products from plain vanilla benchmarks to Sukuk Islamic bonds. It also gave me a very good exposure to different cultures by facing clients from different countries across the world. This is very fascinating even to an European banker, let alone to an Asian banker like me growing up in China.

So why did you suddenly decide to leave?

I guess I wouldn't say it's "suddenly". The ultimate reason is that I always want to do something different and doing one job in the whole life is not really what I am after. In addition. SSA is a quite specific area, it's a small circle between issuers and bankers and requires deep understanding and rich experience. The longer you work there, the less chance to move, even just to another sector in the banking area.

Does it mean you were in a situation of "up or out"?

In the last few years my job was to support the managing director to bid for mandates for bond issuance. Most of the time, we need to rally support from many other desks within the bank, like trading, syndication, etc. It was at this time that I found out I personally have almost very limited influence on what I do, and almost half of my time and efforts was spent on internal communications. There is nothing wrong about it, just like a lot of other jobs in the world, however as I mentioned before, this is just not the lifestyle that I pursue.

So how did you end up running a boutique hotel in Yunnan now?

I left the bank in June 2013, took a few months off, then worked as a sales in an interior design shop in East London for half a year as I have always been interested in design. I came to know my current business partner through a mutual friend and we discussed his plan to build up a brand of lifestyle related products, based in Yunnan, Southwest of China. I found it very interesting and he values my overseas experience and understanding of such business. This boutique hotel, in a former headquarter of a 1920's merchandise is the first product under our new brand.

Now that you have left banking. Looking back, can you talk a bit about the pros and cons of the banking industry?

I wouldn't simplify such a massive industry by listing "pros" and "cons". My major was finance in university, and I was lucky enough to get a job with a big investment bank as a fresh graduate. It provided me with very good training, showed me how a large organization operates, and taught me what high industry standard is. I was even luckier to have very diligent and experienced bosses, from whom I learned how to be professional. It's "an education" to some extent.

My job gave me the chance of engaging clients from various cultural backgrounds. It helped broaden my scope and enriched my knowledge. I realized that although I was in London, I didn't have to just talk to the British. It's very valuable life experience from my point of view.

Although you hear bankers complain on their bonus every year, to be fair, this industry pays well in comparison with the rest of the society. Guess that's why so many young graduates are still motivated to be bankers.

There are limitations of course. When colleagues and many friends all work in finance, one's vision can be constrained. When all you think is to get a billion Euro mandate and going for a beach holiday in Italy, it's difficult to get a feel of how the rest of the world are living. Sympathy is missed in such context. Why bother when you can create so much p&l at the same time?

From my own experience, such fast pace lifestyle doesn't leave me too much time to relax my mind, which I found it more and more important. Beach holidays do not help in this case.

So how do you feel about what you do now?

Comparing to my banking life, I have more chances to have some of my "non-intellectual" feelings now. It's about my feelings, intuitions and creativity. These are in contrast to my previous banking life, which requires more analytics and logic. But don't get me wrong, I still need my logical reasoning for my current job.

In addition, I have never worked in China before, so what I'm going through now is a very steep learning curve. This is exciting and challenging but exactly what I'm looking for.

Although you have seen some "ugly sides" of banking, there are more and more Chinese youngsters who want to study abroad and then work in banking. What advice do you have for them?

Young Chinese students these days are all very bright, and many have already had overseas experience before starting to work. But compared to our Asian peers such as the Indians, Singaporeans or Malaysians, Chinese students naturally have a big hurdle with their English language skills, consequently the cultural difference. This could come back to bite you if you end up in a front office role in banking. So I'd suggest they do whatever they can to enhance their communications skills, otherwise you just couldn't understand your colleagues or clients better.

This sounds easier than done. How do you exactly achieve that if your first language is not English? Spend more time in pubs having drinks with the British?

Drinking in pubs is not enough, but it might be a good start. Early 20s is the time for "work hard, play hard". Speaking from own experience, I turned some colleagues into good friends during the first few years in London. don't just have dim sum with your Chinese friends! Talk to your German colleagues and drink with them. I guess it makes a difference if you have an open heart and mind. At the end of the day, you want to have fun in such an international metropolitan like London.

If I could be a bit harsh, I think many Chinese young bankers in London I've seen are a little bit boring in their lives, even more boring than their peers in Beijing or Shanghai. Work, promotion, get married, have kids, buy a house and holidays... these seem to be essential to their lives. Even girls from top schools only think of these too, plus luxury products. I believe this is also thanks to the education from China.

In fact, many international bankers that I met in London are truly versatile. They are usually smart and sharp and can be "typical bankers" in a lot of people's eyes. But they are fun to hang out with and have interesting discussions and we can come up with crazy ideas. I guess it's time to forget about those kind of typical Chinese mentality: you are a banker and you are not supposed to understand Mark Rothko!

Do you miss London?

In fact I just came back from a trip to London. I feel it's much better to experience London as a tourist than as someone working there.

Do you have any plan to go back to banking any time?

No, at least not for now.



AUTHORThomas Zhang

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