How a Hong Kong Chinese with ‘a bit of Asian shyness’ manages JP Morgan’s global equities business?

Hong Kong’s appeal, compared with the mainland, is that young investment banking professionals have grown up in a cosmopolitan, international city that gives them more of an international perspective, says Mark Leung

PUBLISHED : Friday, 28 April, 2017, 6:27pm
UPDATED : Friday, 28 April, 2017, 10:19pm

When Mark Leung was promoted to co-head of J P Morgan’s global equities business in autumn last year – a unit that generates total revenue of US$5.74 billion – he faced the challenge of managing an 11-strong top management team, spread across eight different nationalities.

Born and educated in Hong Kong, Leung describes himself as suffering “a bit of general Asian shyness and reserve”.

But the job put him in charge of people from different cultural backgrounds and parts of the world, who could tend to be more upfront and aggressive.

“The Chinese are generally quiet and humble. If you think you are ten, you tend to be conservative, offer a discount and say you are eight.

“When it comes to a group setting, or a situation where you need to raise a point and impress a client, we are generally more towards the conservative end.”

“It takes time to know how to juggle that well,” said Leung.

But it wasn’t long before he found his stride.

“Quite often we don’t talk like a machine gun. But when we do speak up, we probably have a more targeted approach.”

“That actually gives you a different kind of respect,” he said.

Managing a multinational team, however, is often par for the course within a company the size of J P Morgan, which has very clear objectives and a long-established corporate culture.

“Most importantly, (the leader) should have empathy and the ability to take on challenges.”

Still in his early 40s, Leung is the first Hong Kong Chinese to be appointed to take on a global role at the US investment banking giant, which has total asset values of US$2.5 trillion and net income of US$24.7 billion in 2016.

He co-heads a global equities business – partnering with Jason Sippel – which is responsible for traditional cash equity trading, equity derivatives and various businesses for hedge fund clients, such as brokerage, futures and options.

His appointment comes as JP Morgan has been gearing up for major expansion in the world’s second largest economy.

Jamie Dimon, chairman and chief executive officer of JPMorgan Chase & Co, has predicted that over the next 20–25 years, China is likely to become a developed nation, and home to a quarter of the world’s top 3,000 companies.

While Nicolas Aguzin, chief executive officer for Asia Pacific at JP Morgan has described the country as the bank’s key market, regionally and globally.

“We have a very dedicated focus here in Hong Kong,” adds Leung.

“I am running equities globally, while based in Asia. We recognise the strategic importance of China and Hong Kong within the region.

“We are actively looking at expansion plans, including our onshore operations in China, our offshore client serving platform, and our product team, including equities and fixed income. We are certainly still cautiously optimistic about Asia, and expect more upsides to come.”

Leung accepts that global markets have been worried about recession for the past two years, “but when you view them from the middle of last year, the cycle has been shifting and we are modestly supportive of nominal growth. This growth is also happening globally across all major economies.”

“Of course the caveat is what path the new US administration takes. The European situation and the upcoming French election also remain an ongoing concern,” he adds.

JP Morgan as an organisation has been growing in the region for the past eight years.

He admits managing a multi-cultural team has required a complex mix of skills, but it is also an important element in winning business.

We have selected a very diverse team of people with different skill sets, from different geographies and backgrounds
Mark Leung, co-head, J P Morgan’s global equities business

“We have selected a very diverse team of people with different skill sets, from different geographies and backgrounds.

“Importantly, we have a culture of escalation, of transparency and partnership. We challenge each other openly, but more than anything, we try to reach a consensus – that’s what teamwork is all about.”

He adds that more than any other time, his clients now require a full-service global platform.

“The primary function I have changed since taking the job, along with my partner Jason, is to reorganise the responsibilities of the team.

The business used to be run on a geographical basis: APAC, EMEA and the America.

“We changed that whole management structure, not by region but by product line. Everyone in the management team is a global head of one of seven product lines.”

Hong Kong’s great appeal, he adds, compared with the mainland, is that young investment banking professionals have grown up in a cosmopolitan, international city that gives them more of an international perspective.

“It can act as a good connector between the world and China.”

Despite increasing demand for technology, including artificial intelligence, Leung insists society still needs talented individuals with the ability to connect with people, and who have empathy.

“In our business, it is not just about finance, technical details and balance sheet analysis.

“Our management team is a mix specialists – some of them are business strategists, some are experts in technology, others are operational specialists.”

“But more than anything, I think humility and empathy are vitally important...

“Machines will never be able to make clients feel liked and connected. That’s the most important human quality, that will never be replaced.”