From Chinese lessons to the language of finance

PUBLISHED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 21 March, 2011, 12:00am

For some Westerners, learning Chinese is an affair of the heart, undertaken to please Chinese girlfriends or boyfriends.

But for Nikko Asset Management Asia head Blair Pickerell, it was a call of duty rather than devotion that got him started.

In his third year at university in 1978, Pickerell, then a fresh-faced 21-year-old, was selected by his professor to join a classroom of students in Taiwan to see if he could learn to read and write Chinese in three months.

The lanky American dutifully stood to greet his teacher every day with the other pupils in the class - some as young as eight years old - and joined in reciting Chinese poems and writing Chinese characters.

During this time, he lodged with an elderly woman in an area of Taipei where the locals spoke no English.

Pickerell's professor was testing a language theory based on the experience of young Chinese emigrants to the United States, some aged just eight years old, who picked up English within three months.

The professor surmised this was made possible because the children joined a class of English-speaking children and were 'immersed' in the language. 'My professor considered if an eight-year-old could do it, an adult could do it, too,' said Pickerell.

'It was a great experience. The language teachers would not correct all my mistakes as they did not want to discourage me. But the children were very honest and they would laugh and correct me every time I used the wrong word. That is how you learn a language.'

The experiment worked. Pickerell could speak, read and write Chinese three months later - a skill which he has put to good use during a subsequent 18-year service with Jardine Matheson, mainly with its fund arm Jardine Fleming, followed by four years at HSBC Holdings, three years with Morgan Stanley and now in the employ of Nikko. More recently, Pickerell put his language skills to the test by sitting a licensing exam set - in Chinese - by the China Securities Regulatory Commission. He also gave a 30-minute speech in Chinese at a graduation ceremony in Taiwan.

Pickerell and his sister were born and raised in California, but spent time in Thailand where his father taught journalism for a while.

The family travelled frequently to Japan, Hong Kong, Malaysia, Singapore, Borneo and Taiwan, and while Pickerell opted to learn Chinese, his sister chose to learn Japanese.

After finishing an MBA at Harvard University in 1985, he joined Jardine Matheson as a management trainee rather than take the well-worn path into investment banking.

He accepted a lower salary to work in the group that ran businesses ranging from supermarkets to insurance and investments. 'I thought if I worked hard, I might be allowed to run one of them one day,' he said.

His first assignment was to work as executive assistant to Jardine's chairman Simon Keswick to write speeches, arrange trips and act as Chinese translator.

Just a year later, he went to Taiwan to help set up a fund management business for the group, when it became the first foreign firm to get a licence to set up on the island.

'No one was more surprised than I to find myself starting an investment bank in Taiwan at the age of 28.

'But Jardine Fleming had the view that it was easier to teach someone who knew Taiwan to be an investment banker than to teach an investment banker to understand Taiwan.'

The Taiwanese economy was booming and he established a big business there before returning to Hong Kong in 1990 for a two-year stint with Mandarin Oriental Hotel.

But Pickerell found his heart was in the financial field so he shifted to Jardine Fleming again in 1993.

After starting at Nikko in the middle of last year, he has conducted two acquisitions, buying Tyndall in Australia and New Zealand and DBS Asset Management in Singapore and Malaysia. The two deals have expanded assets under management by the Tokyo-based firm in Asia to US$150 billion.

Do you plan more acquisitions?

Yes. We want to expand by acquisitions to boost this company to become the largest fund products provider and distributor in Asia. We would like to be a fund manufacturer of Asian funds for export to the world.

Will your location in Tokyo be a problem as all eyes are now on China?

We are based in Japan but many of our senior management, including our chairman and chief financial officer, are foreigners. As such, we are an internationally managed team of a company based in Japan. While many big fund houses are based in New York or London, there are few based in Tokyo, which gives us an advantage. In China, we have a joint venture in Rongtong, which allows us to tap the world's fastest-growing market.

What were your first impressions of Hong Kong and how has it changed?

When I first visited here at the age of eight with my father, the city was full of rickshaws and the hillsides had a lot of squatter huts. When I later lived here, I found the city very attractive with a lot of good restaurants, good infrastructure and good airport. Of course, the city needs to keep its air cleaner for it to remain popular among expatriates.

You worked with Mandarin Oriental Hotel for two years? Can the hotel management concept be applied to fund investment?

The time at Mandarin Oriental Hotel has led me to pay attention to the importance of detail. If 99 things go well and only one goes wrong, the customers would complain they have a bad service. This could apply to the fund industry as both the hotel and fund industries are both a consumer product industry. Both need to provide good services to customers and both need to pay a lot of attention to details.

But many Asian and Chinese people like to invest in the stock market directly. How can you attract them to buy fund products?

Asian investors like to invest in domestic stock markets themselves, but they also like to invest in fund products which invest in overseas or global markets. Buying fund products has the advantage that it saves your time as professional managers are doing the research and manage the portfolio for you.

You have headed Jardine Fleming, HSBC, Morgan Stanley and now Nikko - why did you keep jumping ship?

The industry has enjoyed rapid growth and various firms have given me good opportunities. I believe Nikko has a bright future as it is time for an Asian house to take the lead as the region is the fastest-growing market worldwide.

What do you think are the keys to success in the fund management business and what are the major challenges of heading a fund house?

Investment performance is the key but then there are also many fund houses that could not grow well even though they had a good investment performance. As such, I think a more important key to success is to provide products that people really want to buy. Client service is very important, too.

How do you balance your work and family life? Do you have hobbies?

That was a challenge. I've always wanted to spend more time with my family but there are not enough hours in a day. If I have spare time, I like reading, gardening, golf and hiking.

Do you want your children to learn Chinese?

Yes, my son and my daughter both learn Chinese. I sent my son to the same Taiwanese school I attended to learn Chinese. He complained about being the tallest boy in the class as he was 11 and the other children were eight. I convinced him to stay as his father was 21 when he was in a class of eight-year-olds.

What advice do you have for young people who want to join the fund industry?

The fund industry requires people who are good at monitoring what is happening around the world. Only people who can analyse the trends and investment themes of the market can produce the right products for customers. But besides fund managers, there are different jobs in the industry such as marketing, risk management and settlement. This is an industry that provides many opportunities for young people.