A fit vision of leadership

Sports enthusiast Mark McCombe shows his BlackRock staff how work-life balance can be an asset as the money managers run hard in Asia

PUBLISHED : Monday, 17 June, 2013, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 17 June, 2013, 5:20am

Veteran banker and fund manager Mark McCombe, chairman of BlackRock in the Asia-Pacific, is not interested only in his staff making money. He also wants them to lead a healthy and active life not tied to their desks.

"BlackRock is a very healthy company and we promote personal wellness and work-life balance around the world. We encourage our staff to eat well and to do a lot of sport to keep fit," he said.

McCombe practises what he preaches. "I cycle a lot these days in Tung Chung and Shek O to keep myself fit and healthy," he said. His next ambition on the fitness front is to spend five days cycling 850 kilometres from Edinburgh to London to raise funds for charity. "I hope I can finish it," he said with a laugh.

Since McCombe left his former job as chief executive of HSBC's Hong Kong office in 2011 to join New York-headquartered BlackRock, the world's largest asset manager, he has been busy building up his team by hiring star fund managers. It now manages a total of US$143 billion of assets in Asia. During the past two years, he has expanded his team from 1,600 in 2011 to about 2,000 staff, with half of them in India, 280 in Hong Kong and the rest in Singapore, South Korea, Taiwan, Australia and Japan.

"It is important to establish a team of talent who can establish the trust of our clients," McCombe said in an exclusive interview with the South China Morning Post in his Central office.

"Asia has strong economic growth and a rising middle class. The population in the region is also ageing and many governments here do not have a sufficient safety net for them. This has increased the need for retirement planning and other wealth management services."

He said this was how BlackRock can play a role in helping clients to invest for their retirement, their children's education and medical expenses, and ultimately create a better financial future for them.

BlackRock, established in 1988 by chairman Laurence Fink, had US$3.94 trillion of assets under management at the end of March, up 7 per cent from a year earlier. The company now manages 61 per cent of those assets for investors in Americas and 39 per cent for international clients.

The Asia-Pacific region in the first quarter recorded a net outflow of US$2.7 billion, which was offset by net inflows of US$22.4 billion from clients from Europe, the Middle East and Africa, and US$19.7 billion from the US.

McCombe said the outflow in the Asia-Pacific was because of a routine rebalancing of asset allocation by some regional clients due to a rally in some markets, which included an element of profit taking. He believes long-term growth will not be affected by the short-term outflows. "BlackRock is eyeing to expand in the region over the long term. We are not here for a few years but we will be here for decades. I want to hire people who also have a long-term commitment to manage money for our clients," he said. "I would not hire someone who has a short-term outlook as that is not the vision of BlackRock."

His next target is to set up more Hong Kong-domiciled funds tailored for Asia investors and to capture business from the region's growing ranks of wealthy people.

Credit Suisse's Global Wealth Report has forecast that by 2017, 25 per cent of the world's US-dollar millionaires will be in Asia-Pacific, up from 24 per cent today. In five years, the report predicts the number of millionaires in Japan will reach 5.4 million and the number on the mainland to nearly double to 1.9 million.

McCombe, who studied political science at university, found his real interest in finance soon after he graduated. He joined HSBC in London in 1987 in its private banking business to learn the basics of how to manage wealthy clients' money.

He has a long connection with Hong Kong and in 1992 was transferred to the city where he worked for six years helping some of the city's largest corporations to arrange property and construction financing, including loans related to the building of the airport at Chek Lap Kok - a fact he is probably reminded of frequently as he regularly flies around the region and to BlackRock's US headquarters.

"I have always wanted to come to work in Asia since I was a boy. Hong Kong is an Asian city full of energy and I just like to be here," he said.

He left the city in 2008 to head HSBC's private banking business in France and then moved to Britain, becoming its global investment head. He returned to Hong Kong again in 2009 to become chief executive of HSBC's Hong Kong office, doing much to develop the lender's yuan business.

Comparing the role of banker with that of a fund manager, McCombe said they were very different.

"As a banker you want clients to borrow or apply for a credit card which are kinds of services. In the asset management company, it is a fiduciary business," he said. "Everything we do is centred around serving our clients and delivering investment performance."