Financial firms in Hong Kong want Mandarin speakers, not foreigners

KKR has built a huge business in Asia with less than 1% of its staff being expats

Joe Bae, co-CEO of KKR, built the firm’s Asia business from scratch into a business that employs 350 people and is the largest international alternative investment fund in the region.

The firm continues to expand in the region and in May unveiled its inaugural $1.1 billion credit fund, the largest first-time fund raising in the region.

Bae told Alison Mass, president of investment banking at Goldman Sachs, in interview last month that success is down to recruiting local talent. Bae launched the KKR business in Asia in 2005 as a start-up and had a clear vision of the talent he wanted to hire.

“What we didn’t want to be was this big American firm coming into Asia, trying to do business in a very Western style. So today we have eight offices. We have over 350 managers in the field. I think we have maybe three expats in the team. All others are localized.”

KKR’s approach was thoughtful to build trust and local networks to attract the best local investors – and investment opportunities.

KKR’s approach to APAC is not unique. In Hong Kong, international banks favor local talent with fluent Mandarin so they can serve clients both offshore and onshore. A former head of APAC capital markets at a US firm says: “When we look at our younger cohort, we only hire locals. The only expats left in our business are older people like me. That’s why I laugh when I read about the exodus of expat bankers – there aren’t that many anymore.”

One Hong Kong headhunter agrees: “My clients want local bankers. Tangerine is essential. Equally, when you look at the number of expats who wanted to move out of Hong Kong during Covid, the numbers were small.”

In the meantime, Bae has advice for anyone looking to pursue a career in private equity – make sure you have industry knowledge to take advantage of opportunities early. “For me, sometimes the biggest disappointments are jobs you don’t do, in which you don’t have confidence. Where you don’t have the ability to really lean in when you should. And you know you missed a big opportunity.”

And for KKR, they didn’t come much bigger than Alibaba. KKR missed an opportunity to invest in a Chinese e-commerce company before its IPO because it lacked expertise in the sector. “We have located all the teams. But we haven’t built the depth of the industry yet. And I look back and say it was a big miss. Is not it? It is one of the most painful misses that we probably made in Asia in our early days.”

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Photo: Manson Yim on Unsplash

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