Conversations with Ang Eng Hieang

By Kuo Pei Yu

Ang Eng Hieang is currently the Executive Director at Megatr8 Inc. Pte Ltd, a fund management company. He has a wealth of experience in the finance sector, having been in the industry for almost 35 years, and had previously worked for major banks such as DBS Bank and Merrill Lynch International Bank. He shares more about his journey, from an analyst and fund manager to a commission-based independent banker.

I have been in the finance industry for about 35 years. To give an overview: in the 1970s, as Singapore’s economy moved from entrepot trade to industrialization, financial services was very much focused on infrastructure funding and lending to corporates. In the early to mid 80s, with the shift towards being a hub for international trade, treasury related activities came to the fore. By the time I entered the industry, wealth management and investment banking was in its nascent stage.

I first applied for a job at DBS. They wanted to place me in the forex department, but I thought that it was gambling. I wanted to do asset management although I was not very sure what that was too.

Nonetheless, that’s how my career started. For the first few years, I worked as an analyst and fund manager. Afterwards, I joined the private banking industry – which was still fairly new then – where I took care of the financial needs of high networth individuals.

The nature of my work has not changed very much, though I have chosen to focus on the managing of relationships with clients, unlike the past, where I was also actively helping them in their investment activities. The latter is now left in the able hands of one of my partners in the firm.

Trust, personal care and concern are key hallmarks of our business, which unfortunately, in the need to seek revenue growth, has often been neglected.

To stay relevant, it is important for me to continuously refine my core competence to match changing market needs, yet without compromising my core values and my sense of purpose. To develop relationships and trust with clients, where they are assured that their needs will be met, in a professional manner yet with care.

The good thing about the financial industry is that it is very soft-skill based. With advancements in modern technology, people no longer have to be physically in the office all the time. Staying relevant in the digital age is essentially about how we harness the powers of technology to do an even more effective job.

It was quite intuitive for me: partly because of the monetary incentives that the industry offers, and also because of the societal trends back then. The financial sector was one of the more glamorous area which attracted me and most of my peers in University.

Moreover, when I was young, I also enjoyed learning about the world and the value of investing through collecting stamps and coins.. I also read a lot about the financial crisis in the late 1970s, which also made me more interested in joining the finance sector.

Being comfortable with numbers will be useful. But more importantly, an analytical mind and good people skills will be an advantage. And while less emphasized in practice, I still believe strong ethical standards and good character is much appreciated.

I always thought investment was about finding the next profitable opportunity, but it never crossed my mind that it is also about developing a trusted relationship.

As a young banker, I had to learn how to manage relationships, such as learning to work with senior colleagues and clients. Most of the people that you hope to work with are already successful, so why should they work with you? Over time, I realised that it is important for me to decide and work on how I should position myself, to create value. For me, that meant quality service in a timely manner, maturity in my analysis, and care and concern in the conduct of my business, and high ethical standards.

A private banker is privy to a diverse clientele of successful people in various industries. It is important to ask: how does one process that flow of experiences and translate it into sensible investment decisions, that benefit all the clients?

For me, my university education showed me that the finance industry was something that I was quite comfortable with. 

However, I believe that the true value of a university education is about learning to adapt and improvise. When I first started working, the theoretical knowledge that I learnt in school (e.g. finance theory) was just one of the diverse skills required in the workplace. There was more to it that can only be garnered from practical experiences on the job.

This does not mean that students should not aim to get good grades in schools, but it is important for us to focus on developing the soft skills rather than being too fixated on the grades, especially when today’s youths have to compete with many other talented and street-smart people around the world.

I think that having clear goals and motivations were what drove me to excel. My aspiration back then was to retire by 35 or at least be my own boss, To achieve that, I became motivated to grow in my career, experience and remuneration. 

For example, during my first few years as an employee, I made an effort to change my job every three years. I made sure that I did my best in whatever I do and moved on afterwards. This process forced me to rebuild my customer base, adapt and continuously step out of my comfort zone so that I will be prepared to achieve my goal by 35.

At 34, Merrill Lynch International Bank offered me a job, as a commission-based independent banker. Back then, my daughter was only 2 and my son was not born yet, so quitting my stable job was a risk. However, I told myself that I have spent the large part of my career preparing for this, and  if I do not make the move now, then I would never be able to do it – it will only get harder over the years as my parental responsibilities  grow. I also made what seemed to be a reckless decision at that time – buying my first private property and entering into a million-dollar debt. I told myself that I was not too old yet and could still start anew even if I failed that time round. 

I was in Merrill for 17 years, running my own business. The advantage is that once I am on track, my time is more flexible. So I can spend time with my children and I can decide how to run the business. I also get to have more time for relationships, health and family as compared to before.

I wished I had mentors to guide me during my career progression , since much of my learning was “on the job’.  Doubtful thoughts often crossed my mind when I first started. Sometimes you need people who have walked the journey to affirm and correct you along the way.

There were mistakes I wish I haven’t made, but there will often be a combination of necessary and redundant mistakes.  In today’s world, surviving in the financial industry is even more challenging as expectations are higher, competition is more intense and jobs are more transient.

My advice is to follow your passion, but add compassion. Turn your job into something that will bring you joy, and compassion will be able to give you continuous joy because you are willing to share with people around you. Your working motivation should not only be about monetary, but also about your willingness to make a positive impact on the lives of people who happen to journey with you. 

Money is important, but it is not everything. If I had understood this earlier, perhaps the deep insecurity that has driven me at work for a long time would be less burdensome.