Stephen Diao, one of Asia's best-known and liked former debt capital markets bankers, passed away unexpectedly on Friday September 20 after suffering a stroke following his regular morning bike ride in San Francisco.
Diao’s infectious love of life and boundless energy means that his loss has come as a terrible shock to the many people across Asia’s financial markets who knew him during his two decades based in Hong Kong at respectively: Credit Suisse, Barclays and MUFG. His final post, before he re-located to the US in 2016, was head of Asia-Pacific capital markets at the Japanese bank.
Diao will be remembered as one of those rare larger-than-life characters who combined intelligence, wit and the kind of genuine warmth that endeared him to bankers, borrowers and journalists alike.
It says everything about him that the suggestion for this tribute came from someone who used to compete against him for bond mandates.
That is Mark Leahy who is currently head of fixed income at SGX in Singapore. He knew Diao when he was head of Asian debt syndicate at UBS and then Deutsche Bank.
“Steve was a beautiful thread in the rug of life and he managed to balance the impossible: hard-nosed banking and being a genuine, decent person,” he said. “He cared for his clients and cherished his friends: often his clients were his friends.”
The client he became closest to was also the one that everyone else wanted at the turn of the century – the Export-Import Bank of Korea (Kexim), one of the region’s most frequent and highly respected borrowers. Steve forged a longstanding friendship with its then funding head, Hong Sung-uk.
“He always pitched aggressively, but he was responsible with it,” Hong reflected. “He maintained his pricing even during volatile markets and that’s how he built my trust.
“He was also very responsive whenever I needed to ask anything,” he added. “But I do remember his boss once laughing when he told me that he never had any idea where Steve was, but he knew he’d be meeting clients somewhere and delivering great results.”
Hong says that Diao taught him the importance of media relations as well.
“Steve always wanted me to conduct an interview after we’d closed a deal so the market would have a better understanding of how it had gone,” he noted. “It helped a great deal because we then got a better secondary market response from investors and I came to know and trust lots of journalists.”
Such was the strength of their relationship that the two worked at Depfa together for a few years in the mid-noughties after Hong retired from Kexim.
Another friendly competitor for much of Diao’s time in Hong Kong was Jon Pratt, former head of Asian debt capital markets at Credit Suisse and then Merrill Lynch, as it then was. He too remembers “that incredible laugh, which I will miss so much”.
“Steve was a friend to so many and a true legend in the world of Asian finance,” he commented. “He had a unique ability to foster close bonds with colleagues, clients and competitors alike.”
Pratt reflects that when it came to roadshows, Diao would have been equally happy taking clients to Disneyland, or organising to race them around the Colosseum on foot. Hong adds that Diao was even happier if there was a glass of Tuscan wine at the end of it, particularly Brunello di Montalcino.
The last time I personally saw my friend Steve was in 2015 when I returned to Hong Kong from London for a work visit and to catch up with friends. We went to the Longines Masters together because he loved horses and show jumping, as did my young goddaughter Heather Irvine.
Her parents came too – my former work colleague and friend Steve Irvine and his wife Mei Zhang. When we were reminiscing about Steve this week, Mei jogged my memory about how he had responded to Heather when she’d been desperate to get some autographs from the show jumpers but was far too shy to go up and ask them.
Steve had no such compunction.
After giving Heather some gentle encouragement, he decided to shepherd her across to them himself. Together they got eight signatures.
It was such a typical Steve Diao gesture: extrovert, kind and thoughtful to the last.
He now leaves behind his two adult children, Alec and Maya.
Pratt highlights that “Steve’s priority was always his children. He then became a role model for me when I became a father. His spirit in life and early passing are a poignant reminder of what’s most important in life.”
As Hong concludes: “I’m so sad and angry about losing someone who I loved like a brother. But I’m not saying goodbye because I know we’re going to meet again. Until then, rest in peace my friend.”
For any friends who would like to attend the funeral and wake, this will be held on Sunday September 29 from 10am to 7pm at the Edwards-Dowdle Funeral Home, 64 Ashford Avenue, Dobbs Ferry, New York 10522.
Further celebrations of Steve's life will be arranged in New York, California and possibly Hong Kong in the coming few months. If anyone would like to make a donation, Steve was passionate about Project Bike Tech, where he was president of the board of directors: