Sun Hung Kai Financial boss focuses on wealth management and DIY trading
William Leung sees wealth management and smartphone trading as the way to go for SHK Financial amid changes in technology and the market
It is never easy switching to a new business and leaving behind the comfort of a familiar company and an industry you know well.
But William Leung Wing-cheung took the plunge and, at the age of 57, left behind a two-decade-long career as a banker at Hang Seng Bank, one of Hong Kong's biggest lenders.
He joined Sun Hung Kai Financial, one of the oldest brokerages in the city, in 2012 as chief executive with the mission of turning it into a wealth-management-focused firm after a commission price war among brokerages compressed their margins.
Leung started his career at American Express in Hong Kong and was promoted to lead a team of 80 people after just six years.
He then joined Standard Chartered Bank in Hong Kong and Visa International and MasterCard International in Sydney to build up his experience and knowledge of the banking and financial industry.
The veteran banker started at Hang Seng, a subsidiary of HSBC, in 1994 as an assistant general manager and head of the credit card centre.
Leung was regarded as a leader in the credit card business in Hong Kong, having come up with a rebate system for card spending that competitors soon copied. He turned rebates, which then could only be used for selected products at certain shops, into points that customers could accumulate and treat like cash.
The innovation was so popular with Hang Seng's customers that other banks in Hong Kong began offering rebates to their card holders.
Leung resigned from Hang Seng as an executive director and head of personal banking in August 2011.
Why did you make the move from a bank to a brokerage house?
In my previous position as a banker, I was responsible for investment, insurance and wealth management. The brokerage business I am doing is actually capitalising on my experience as a banker in these businesses. So they are very similar.
In fact, I had a few choices when I was about to decide on my next move [from Hang Seng]. But among them, I picked the best offer.
I considered the nature of the business, compensation and personal interest. Confidence in making a difference for the new employer was also a factor. Considering all the factors, I made the choice to come to Sun Hung Kai Financial.
What other choices did I have? They included a property development company, a bank and a real estate company.
How did you adapt to the new environment from the previous one where you worked for so long?
Everyone has to adapt to a new environment. After 30-odd years of work experience, I could deal with it quite easily.
In a new organisation, the first thing you want to do is to understand what is expected of you.
I have a good understanding of my chairman. After knowing what his expectations are, I then start to understand the situation and the environment in this company.
Usually, there would be many areas that I would need to spend my attention on, but my strategy was that I must set my own priorities - the most pressing issues that I have to deal with - and I have selected a few and dealt with them.
After deciding what you have to do in the new company, you have to tell it to your people. When they saw a new [chief executive] coming, they naturally had expectations. Some were scared, some were happy, some were hopeful. They had mixed feelings.
In order to give them peace of mind, I opened up myself. I told them what my new directions would be, where I would want to see improvements, what support I wanted from them.
Through a communication process like that, the agitation that I described will be eradicated. Everybody will be happy and willing to support me in my role as the [chief executive].
It's normal that when a chairman appoints a new [chief executive], the chairman would not want the [chief executive] to make everything the same. There is a mission and expectations of me. In my plan, one of the important factors is internal communication.
He has to do a self-reflection, ask himself if his experience and capabilities are good enough to cope with the requirements of the new job. He would have to understand the new company's expectations.
From an employer's point of view, unless a company is looking to fill a very junior position, the employee would need credibility.
If this is a very senior position, not only the [chief executive] and the chairman will be responsible for the assessment, but the board will make the assessment. They will have to feel that although this person is not from the same field, he is able to do certain things.
Unless the employer has the intention of turning the company upside down, normally the employer will look for somebody with relevant experience.
For a person wanting to change fields and take a challenge, he has to do certain preparations for himself. Go and take a course, study for the licence. Don't go in empty-handed.
With the changes in technology and the market, how can Sun Hung Kai Financial reinvent itself?
We are in good shape. Besides the agency business that we are doing, we have Sun Hung Kai Direct, a do-it-yourself platform for people to do their own trading on computers and smartphones.
Our plan is to continue to enhance the capability of our smartphone trading platform. I believe the DIY business has very good potential, and my plan is to continue investing in it and make it as versatile as possible because in the next generation, people will love the speed of smartphone trading.
While we want to extend the face-to-face trading relationship with customers, we cannot avoid the younger generation taking up smartphone trading as the major platform.
The market changes every day. Before I came into the company, the decision had been made to branch into wealth management. What we see as still valid today is the strategy on wealth management and smartphone trading, which will last three to five years.
What is the trick to managing a company that is undergoing transformation?
I am a strong believer in communication, not only one way but in many ways. I communicate with my first-tier management support and decide if the wealth management business is the way the company has to go. I also told the staff about my belief in the DIY model.
Since we have agents, we have to make sure they do not lose their jobs. The way to protect them is to strengthen the product and development team. Let the team give good investment ideas to the agents, who can then deliver them to the clients. For people who are rich, they prefer to do it through somebody they paid. So the agents would not lose their business immediately. But for the stock brokerage business, they have to add value to the customers' transactions.
For stocks, people can do the trading online. But for wealth management products, insurance and fund and bond sales, I would not recommend somebody do it online. I would recommend that people listen to analysis [and] agents' explanation of product features.
In order to overcome the threat brought by the DIY platform, they have to branch out to the wealth management products as this service still affords a higher pricing spread for them, with commissions of more than 1 per cent, compared with the 0.125 per cent of the brokerage.
If you want the company to be successful, there must be consensus, which can be reached if you have a solution that addresses the mutual needs of the company and the employees.
What do you think of the operating outlook for brokerage firms in Hong Kong?
There are external and internal factors. External factors are tighter funding, the shrinking transaction volume in Hong Kong and the increased sophistication of customers, as they are well trained by banks to go into other investments.
We also face the challenges of compliance and system maintenance. The stock exchange changes its system quite frequently. For brokerage firms, upkeep of the system to cope with the changes is a heavy burden. They also have to face the price competition brought by the DIY platform. These issues are serious and are not easy to handle for small brokerage firms.
Given our size, we have never stopped expanding our compliance department.
What do you do to relax?
I do not take working as pressure; I enjoy coming to work. I like challenges and I like solving problems for my people. My satisfaction would be seeing the strategy work, problems being solved and results. If I don't go to work, I feel uneasy.
A work-life balance is important but I must admit that I don't balance them very well. I only play golf on weekends and I go to cultural shows occasionally, watching the performances of local arts companies and students.