HSBC Asia Chief Peter Wong Keeps It Simple
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by Duncan Mavin
March 14, 2011
Just days ago HSBC Holdings PLC said earnings for 2010 doubled from a year earlier, to $13.2 billion, with Asia accounting for almost two-thirds of the profit. But Peter Wong, the bank's chief executive for Asia Pacific, is keen to stress the importance of cost control and measured growth.
"During a high-growth mode, we need to watch out for complacency, and not to grow the cost base in a very free way," says the 59-year-old Mr. Wong, whose 31-year banking career also involved stints at Citibank and Standard Chartered. "Right now, there's inflation in assets, in wages and food. So how do I make sure costs don't get out of whack?"
His cautious message echoes that of the new man in charge at HSBC globally, Stuart Gulliver, who said last month that rising costs at the bank were "unacceptable."
Still, HSBC has come out of the financial crisis in better shape than many of its competitors, and as head of the bank's Asian business, Mr. Wong is tasked with delivering rising profits in one of its fastest-growing regions. He spoke to Duncan Mavin in Hong Kong to explain how. The following interview has been edited.
WSJ: The bank recently went through a change in top leadership. How does that affect you?
Mr. Wong: I've worked for three banks and I don't know how many CEOs. If you try too hard to think what each one wants and what you should give them, I think you go nuts. I work on a simple principle: I work to improve the bank and generate profits. A lot of people, when a new leader comes in, they try to figure out what they like. I think that if we just say every senior leader wants the company to perform well, it makes your life a lot easier. Would I change a lot because Stuart [Gulliver] comes in? No. Stuart wants profit from Asia. The fundamentals are not going to change.
WSJ: Do you think there will be a time soon when the bank should have a CEO or chairman who comes from Asia?
Mr. Wong: I don't know. We're a very international bank. Maybe a few more years from now when China gets bigger and bigger, I would not rule out that possibility. However, I think the most important thing is the person has to be well-rounded and has at least worked in the U.S. and Europe, as well as places like Latin America.
WSJ: There's been a lot of talk about whether HSBC will move its head office to Hong Kong from London because of proposals in the U.K. regarding banking regulations. What's your take on that?
Mr. Wong: This is all just speculation. The U.K.'s an international financial center, in a very good time zone. The reality is that if the government there puts a levy on deposits that means we have to pay $600 million more. It begs the questions from the shareholders. We don't want to move from London. We've been there a very long time. The reality is we're very happy in London, but because of the financial crisis, here come regulations. These changes affect the reality.
WSJ: What are the main management challenges you're facing?
Mr. Wong: One is where to get good people to sustain growth [in Asia.] The second challenge is how do we continue to grow. In the first half of this year Asia contributed 61% of the company's profits, so how do I make sure we continue to generate revenues and at the same time make sure cost doesn't get out of control. We need to use more technology to increase productivity. The third challenge is competition. In the past, our competition was all foreign competition like Citibank and Standard Chartered. More and more the competition is from local banks, like ICICI in India, and all the big guns in China coming into Hong Kong.
WSJ: Is it tougher to manage during high-growth periods than during more stable times or even during a downturn?
Mr. Wong: It's difficult to say. When companies tumble, most of the time, it's because they have grown and leveraged to the hilt, and when the bad times come, they just go bankrupt. The cycles nowadays are very short. So when you build during the good times, you're building into a bad cycle.
WSJ: With everyone looking to Asia for growth these days, are you concerned about rising expectations?
Mr. Wong: It's very difficult. You can manage expectations within boundaries. Analysts will have certain expectations, and throughout the year we talk to them so they will not be totally out of the range. But you can't move them too much. It's also very important to manage expectations of staff. They want to understand very clearly where you are going. You've got to be very clear, and messages have to be very simple. If I ever had the chance to write a book, it'd be about how to make complicated life simple.
WSJ: What's the most important management lesson you've learned?
Mr. Wong: An experience that changed my philosophy was at a time when the bank needed to reduce head count by about 20%. It was precisely because we did not manage the growth times. I was literally sitting with the human-resources department and with people we were going to have to lay off. Senior management need to take responsibility and think very hard about what they do. Just because there's money around, they should not be loose with it.
WSJ: You are responsible for operations across Asia. How do you juggle different cultures and economies?
Mr. Wong: You have to first understand you don't know it all. Don't try to pretend you do. You need the right people in the right places, with experience of those countries. You mostly need locals who know how to operate in that country. I make sure I talk to them from time to time about the economy, the environment, and who are the lead regulators I need to see, and the customers.
WSJ: How do you motivate staff?
Mr. Wong: Staff are motivated by growth. Second thing is what is their part in growth. Money is important, but what is their career path. You must differentiate and make sure you reward your good performers. If you don't, your good performers will leave. You also need to have passion—if you don't, staff will see right through you. Also, a lot of management like to have competition among their direct reports. I don't see it that way. If you work together you are a lot stronger.
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