NATWEST Markets is no longer the commercial bank that is just involved in money market operations and interest rate management to finance its own loans. It is now an ambitious bank that has invested millions of dollars in the past few months, aiming to become one of the top 10 investment banks in the world in three years. Indicative of its pace of growth, its Asia-Pacific operation has expanded from 86 people manning four branches last year to five branches with 123 staff - in just six months. The new staff are not anonymous dealers but are all recruited from top-tier investment banks such as Nomura, JP Morgan, Lehman Brothers and Bankers Trust. Instead of letting each branch run its own treasury business, NatWest has developed five different centres in the region, employing the so-called 'centres of excellence concept'. Frank Wong, treasury managing director for corporate and investment banking in the Asia-Pacific for NatWest, said: 'Previously, we were involved in only nine currencies. Now we want to be a main contributor in 21 currency pairs by being the market-maker.' Each of the five centres - Hong Kong, Singapore, Sydney, Japan and Seoul - will have its own currencies of specialisation. By grouping all client calls for one particular currency to one centre, the bank will gain the critical mass necessary to improve the quoting prices. The bank also has pooled together a four-man team called structured derivatives to provide financial solutions to clients. Research efforts are centralised in three centres to support the sales activities, namely Singapore (south Asia), Hong Kong (north Asia) and Australia (Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development countries). All foreign exchange option trading will be done through Tokyo. 'There is a big forex market in Japan,' said Mr Wong. Interest rate management for major currencies other than the local currency to that branch would be moved to the Singapore branch. 'We can have more effective use of the bank's balance sheet by putting these activities in one branch,' Mr Wong said. All proprietary trading in interest rates, bonds and foreign exchange, will be handled by a three-man team in Hong Kong. By strengthening its market-making capabilities, centralising risk support and decentralising sales effort, it is hoped that clients will be better served by more products and more analyses. Indeed, since the bank approved the expansion scheme in August last year, the bank doubled its volume in foreign exchange trading. Its derivatives business also shot up by 30 per cent. The expansion is part of the banking group's global strategy. While its Asia-Pacific operations focus on corporate and investment banking, NatWest UK will still cover retail and corporate banking. The group's US retail operations is represented by Bancorp. Private banking arm Coutts & Co has a worldwide presence and is stepping up its expansion in Asia.