Smooth-talking Slevin discusses banking and golf

He may prefer to putt for dough, but HSBC banker Frank Slevin is a master at driving across the message about his firm's strengths.
Frank SlevinÆs HSBC office is literally covered, wall-to-wall, with awards. Yes, the first thing I did was check to see if the FinanceAsia awards held a place of prominence. They did. And the first thing I asked was why an award in the shape of a decanter didnÆt have whisky in it.

The answer: A separate one, behind SlevinÆs desk, was full û with 18-year-old single malt.

Right then, I knew it was going to be a good interview. ItÆs easy to talk to Slevin, HSBC's head of global banking for Asia-Pacific. HeÆs both self deprecating (he talks about loving golf, but not necessarily excelling at it) and proud of the firm for which he works. IÆm fairly sure IÆve never met a banker who can more smoothly work in sales pitches for his own firm than Slevin.

On the market conditions at the moment: ôWe are obviously operating in one of the most challenging environments we have seen in years, but this will yield extraordinary opportunities for those positioned to take advantage. Within HSBC, we have cultivated a truly collaborative and cooperative working environment, which brings together the best of coverage and product innovation,ö says Slevin, working in the promo in his second sentence.

While he does have a point, itÆs always followed up with a sales pitch. ôIn my view, too many banks have lost sight of the fact that clients want you to put yourself in their shoes, understand their business, be proactive and holistic in approach rather than just push products at them.ö

And then he goes on to sell the HSBC approach: ôIn our client coverage team, we are committed to delivering an entirely product-agnostic experience and independent surveys are telling us that weÆre getting it right.ö

Obviously, it helps to drink from the HSBC water cooler if youÆre in charge of the Asia Pacific banking team. But heÆs believable in his passion because itÆs consistent with how he talks about other important parts of his life: be it his childrenÆs education or charity or golf.

He jokes that he joined HSBC so that he would have an opportunity to play golf with the pros and clients at the HSBC WomenÆs Championship. But he also talks seriously about the value of golf. He points out that the sport ôrelies on an honour code û respect, courtesy, fairness and integrityö. And adds: ôWhile I would not necessarily say that golf is a necessity in business, there is no doubt that one can tell a lot about your partners û you get to observe their reactions to challenges, miss-hits and successes.ö

His successes in golf typically do not include driving. When he paired up with Paula Creamer and two of his clients at the HSBC WomenÆs Championship tournament in Singapore, his team may have won the Pro-Am, but his sole contribution was on the greens. ôBut as they say, ædrive for show, putt for dough!Æö laughs Slevin.

Teeing up
While Slevin looks born to the role, he didnÆt grow up dreaming of becoming an investment banker. He took his first degree in physics and then a post-graduate degree in exploration geophysics at the Royal School of Mines, Imperial College, which as he says ôwouldnÆt seem to be a neat segue into a career in bankingö.

ôHowever, having spent the last few weeks of my time at Imperial writing computer programs to interpret seismic data, I was receptive to something a little less theoretical.ö

And so, he accepted a job offer from Brown Shipley, one of the oldest of LondonÆs merchant banks. Sticking to the blue bloods, he moved on to Hambros Bank, another of the very traditional merchant banks. Of this experience, he says: ôI had the great fortune to work with very talented people and incredible mentors in both of these companies, which undoubtedly shaped my focus on ultimately seeking a career path beyond investment banking.ö

More important, the lesson he learnt from this unconventional start is that thereÆs not one road to banking success. ôTraditionally, people tend to assume that a degree in business or economics is a prerequisite for a career in investment banking. I have very little interest in hiring clones and I encourage my team to throw the net widely when recruiting. Diversity is critical to achieving a balance in the business.ö

Surviving the times
But thereÆs no getting away from the fact that balanced business or not, these are trying times. Aside from subprime and a potential US recession, bankers are well aware of the fact that inflation is increasingly a problem that may derail business in the region. As Slevin says: ôThe dramatic food price inflation seen across the region and the impact of ever increasing energy prices cannot be ignored. The rapid recent food price rises, which were probably first commented on in Hong Kong in relation to pork some months ago and which have reached panic levels around rice, have not only resulted in social unease in a number of countries around Asia but have pushed up inflation rates to unexpected levels. Even in the few markets where inflation has been contained, this is probably more a reflection on government intervention through food and/or fuel subsidies. The challenge will be in monetary policy. Will central bankers around the region be able to manage inflation through the setting of interest rates without stifling growth?ö

That will certainly be a challenge. But Slevin, of course, canÆt help but end on a positive note: ôThe major long-term growth trends in the region remain broadly intact and with the relatively conservative capital structures of Asian corporates, and the trend to reductions in global asset prices, there should be opportunities for outbound M&A. With our traditional strength û our global network û and our strong balance sheet, I believe HSBC is uniquely positioned to capitalise on this opportunity.ö

This article was first published in the May issue of FinanceAsia magazine.
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