Ask any native English-speaking man or woman in the expatriate wealth advisory community how they came to be working there – in Rio de Janeiro, say, or Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, or Timbuktu – and you will rarely hear a boring tale.
But few how-I-ended-up-here stories rival that of Sheila Dickinson, now a senior financial planner of the UK-based Fry Group’s Hong Kong office.
Dickinson, who originally hails from Cheshire, upped sticks and moved to the former British colony in 2006, around the time of her fiftieth birthday – to be closer to her first grandchild.
“My son-in-law had been offered a position with his company here in Hong Kong, so he and my step-daughter had moved out here the previous year with their daughter – my first grand-daughter – who at that point was 3 months old,” Dickinson recounts.
“Having visited them a few times, and having loved [Hong Kong], and being at a stage in my life when it was conceivably feasible for me to look at the opportunities that there were here, I decided to come over and join them…They weren’t getting rid of me that easily!
“[Until that point] it was something I had never had any thought that I would ever do, to be honest. If you had mentioned the idea to me at any time before it actually happened, I would have said ‘no way, that just would never happen’.”
Then all of a sudden, Dickinson, who’d had years of experience as a financial adviser in the UK, says she suddenly found herself thinking, “ ‘Hong Kong, financial hub of the world’: why not?”
‘Not quite as expected’
Much has changed since 2006, but back then, Hong Kong wasn’t quite the world class financial centre Dickinson says she’d been expecting.
In the advisory sector, commission-driven sales of insurance-based products were, as they had been years before in the UK, the basis of most advisory businesses. Not surprisingly, this gave the industry a dubious reputation in some quarters, in spite of the fact that there were some good, conscientious, best-practice firms as well. These include the Fry Group, where she has worked for the last four years, and Ipac, an AXA-owned operation where Dickinson was to work until 2012, (when AXA sold it, and the Hong Kong and Singapore operations were closed).
Dickinson still remembers a conversation she had early on, when the partner of a top Hong Kong law firm she’d been sent to see by a friend told her about a well-known acronym used to describe financial advisers in Hong Kong: “FILTH” – meaning, “failed in London, try Hong Kong’”.
It was an expression that Dickinson had heard before, but she was, she says now, surprised to discover that it was still in use in 2006.
This lawyer also told her something that would prove to be true, Dickinson adds: he predicted that she’d flourish in Hong Kong, because she was “different from the typical stereotype adviser here”.
And so it was that within less than two years of arriving in Hong Kong, Dickinson was named Hong Kong’s Best Financial Planner of the Year 2008, by the Institute of Financial Planners Hong Kong.
The title (which no one is permitted to win more than once), is awarded each year by the IFPHK, an affiliate of the US-based Financial Planning Standards Board, in conjunction with Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post newspaper. The FPSB is behind the globally-recognised Certified Financial Planner certification.
“The things that counted in my favour, I believe, were my maturity, and experience, and, perhaps surprisingly in this still male-dominated industry, the fact that I was female,” Dickinson says today.
“Working in financial services, in a client-facing role, as I do, the fact that you’re a woman can be an advantage at times, as women can tend to be empathic and good listeners.
“I’m not saying men aren’t as empathetic, but a lot of people seem to sense it more when it’s coming from a woman.”
Dickinson also thinks that she might not have enjoyed the same degree of success, at least not as fast, if she had come to Hong Kong “when I was much younger”, owing to the positive impact her maturity and experience gave her.
Fast-forwarding to the present, Dickinson is still delighted with her decision to relocate to Hong Kong, and says she has no plans to slow down or leave, having already obtained permanent residency there.
When not advising clients out of The Fry Group’s Lippo Centre offices in Hong Kong’s Admiralty district, she’s also active in pro-women-in-business circles.
As chairperson of the British Chamber of Commerce in Hong Kong’s Women in Business committee, she says, she is very much involved in events and projects having to do with “gender diversity in the workplace, the 30% Club, the effect of quotas, and other related issues”.
Dickinson says her personal take-away from her work with the Chamber of Commerce, as well as her own personal experiences and observations, is that many women, no matter which stage of the career ladder they’re at, lack a certain basic, and crucial, degree of self-belief that appears to come more naturally to men.
This, she believes, contributes significantly to the reason why women have not become more numerous in financial services – though once they get that belief she says, women tend to out-perform, in part because of the personal qualities, such as determination, which they need to possess in order to get there in the first place.
“If a job description cites 20 qualifications that are sought in applicants, and a woman hasn’t got one of the 20, she’ll say, ‘Oh, dear I obviously haven’t got the right credentials to do this job, I’m not suitable’, and she won’t apply. Whereas a man who also lacks that 20th qualification will look at the same list of qualifications and say, ‘Yes, I’m more than capable of doing this, I’ll put my hand up, I can do that’.
“One of the things [women in business organisations] are working on right now is to create educational opportunities and access points, to support and enable young women who want to join the industry to actually do so.”
As for how Hong Kong’s wealth advisory industry has changed since 2006, Dickinson says it has certainly made progress, although it remains to be seen whether some of the recent, in many ways quite dramatic, changes will have been enough to put an end to all of the bad practice that has gone on in the past.
One well-known example of the problems with Hong Kong’s previous “light touch” regulatory regime was the so-called Lehman Brothers mini-bond scandal, which saw tens of thousands of Hong Kong investors lose as much as HK$20bn (US$2.6bn) in a type of derivatives-based investment product that turned out to be toxic in the wake of the collapse of New York-based Lehman Brothers in 2008.
An unknown number of expats has also been left out-of-pocket in recent years after being advised to buy into such investments as LM Investment Management’s Managed Performance Fund, the Centaur Litigation Fund, and certain other ill-fated ventures that poorly-trained, commission-hungry advisers were selling.
Yet another area that the Hong Kong authorities have moved to fix in the decade since Dickinson’s arrival is a category of long-term savings products known in Hong Kong as ILAS, or insurance-linked assurance schemes.
Leading what was to prove a successful call for a change in the way these products are sold, ironically enough, was a long-haired, 29-year-old American expatriate schoolteacher named Lindell Lucy, who in 2013 went public with his outrage, via a website he called therapeofhongkong.com, after his 27-year-old girlfriend was sold such a product.
Lucy was incensed that her Hong Kong adviser had sold her a 25-year investment plan when what she’d gone to him for was advice in dealing with some unexpected medical bills, according to a South China Morning Post story at the time.
“It’s changed in the 10 years since I arrived here,” Sheila says of Hong Kong’s regulatory environment.
“I still remember the look of horror and disbelief on the faces of the hundred or so advisers in the room in 2008, when I gave a talk, as I had been asked to do, on commission disclosure, which at that point was beginning to be adopted and talked about, but still not yet in widespread use.
“Looking around the room I thought at the time, ‘75% of the 100 or so people in this room will leave this industry rather than move to a commission-disclosing model’, and I think I was probably right.
“At a company like Frys, we do full holistic financial planning, and while we don’t have to, we apply the same process, client care, compliance and regulatory standards as [we do in] our UK operations.
“The difficulty can be that when you are fee-based and totally transparent, sometimes some will think that the alternative is a no-cost solution, because they don’t see what costs they are actually paying.
“Here in Hong Kong, the industry is making progress, it’s well on its way, although some bad stuff still goes on.
“Fortunately, though, there has been so much bad press about it [mis-selling] that people are at least a lot more aware of it, and know to be on the lookout for it.”
As one of the few senior women wealth managers in the English-speaking, expatriate world, Dickinson would seem to be a natural role model for others.
Asked if she believes this to be the case, and how she feels about it, she says: “I’ve never thought of myself as a role model. I believe strongly in what I do, and believe that I can make a positive difference to people’s lives.
“If that inspires others, then that’s an added bonus.”