Low market turnovers have forced many share brokers to look overseas for new opportunities, but few have ventured abroad as far as Tony Espina, who will take charge of a Kazakhstan lender next month.
Espina, a former chairman of the Hong Kong Securities Association and owner of local brokerage firm Goldride Securities, will become chief executive of ATF Bank, a lender in Almaty.
His latest move does not mean, however, that he will abandon his local brokerage business or the city.
"To the contrary, I plan to introduce ATF customers to Hong Kong and to inform Hong Kong businessmen of the increasing trading relationship between Kazakhstan and Hong Kong," Espina told the South China Morning Post.
Italy's biggest bank UniCredit last month announced it would sell its entire stake in ATF to a Kazakh businessman at about one times net equity (about US$500 million), according to the lender's audited financial statements as of December 31. UniCredit, which bought ATF Bank for US$2.1 billion in 2007, is among many European lenders selling their non-core businesses.
Italy and Kazakhstan central banks have approved the transaction and Espina, who handled the sale acquisition for the new owner, will take a small stake in the lender and will become its chief executive from May.
Espina said ATF had written off its bad debts and restructured its credit control and management team. "It is now a clean bank with a professional management team and strong corporate governance and high transparency," he said.
ATF will set up a representative office in Hong Kong and work with other Hong Kong lenders to offer financing for companies to trade with the Central Asian countries.
"Kazakhstan has oil and gas and mining resources but very little manufacturing. Now they import most furniture, clothes, and electrical appliances. Hong Kong companies can supply a lot of goods they want, and ATF can act as a middle-man to introduce Hong Kong companies there."
Mainland enterprises investing in Kazakhstan would also be target customers for the ATF, said Espina.
In March, China Petroleum and Chemical Corp (Sinopec), said it would pay about US$1.5 billion to acquire oil and gas exploration assets in Kazakhstan and Russia. Other mainland firms such as Citic Resources paid about US$1 billion for oil assets in Kazakhstan in 2007, while PetroChina paid US$1.4 billion for oil assets in 2009.
In December, a second cross-border railway between China and Kazakhstan was launched which is expected to handle 20 million tonnes of cargo a year by 2020.
Kazakhstan, the last former Soviet republic to gain its independence in December 1991, is not well known to Hongkongers but Espina said trade had increased substantially since last year after a visa-free agreement and a three-times weekly direct flight service between Hong Kong and Almaty by Air Astana.
"The flight is fully packed. There are a lot of people who are eyeing opportunities there. Hong Kong has long been acting as a middle man to handle trade between the mainland and the United States and Europe and now Kazakhstan and other Central Asian countries will be new areas for us to develop," he said.