Most people associate the Chartered Secretarial qualification with the job of an in-house company secretary of a listed company, but the qualification can lead to many different career paths. In this first interview in our new ‘Career Paths’ series, James Wong, Chief Executive Officer, Computershare Asia, shares insights into the challenges and rewards of his career in Hong Kong.
Thanks very much for giving us this interview – can we start with some background about yourself?
‘I graduated with a higher diploma in accountancy in 1977 from the Hong Kong Polytechnic. I then went on to get my company secretarial and my taxation qualifications. My first job after graduation was with the Hong Kong Inland Revenue Department (IRD). After three and a half years with the IRD, I joined HSBC and stayed with the bank for 25 years in a variety of roles. I started as a credit analyst and then joined the bank’s newly set up Syndications and Project Finance division.
In 1986 I moved to the banks’ Securities Division. As you know we had the “Black Monday” stock market crash in 1987 which led to reforms of Hong Kong’s securities and futures market infrastructure. That was when I got involved in working on market infrastructure reform in Hong Kong.
In 1991 I moved to Canada and worked in the commercial banking arm of HSBC in Canada. I moved back to Hong Kong in 1994 and went back to the bank’s custodial business. I left HSBC in 2005 and joined Computershare to run the group’s Asian businesses.’
When you acquired your professional qualifications did you have a career goal in mind?
‘Not really. I came from a science school and would have gone into engineering but the teachers advised us to explore other possible careers. That’s why I started looking at the professions and chose to study accountancy. But it is really by chance that I ended up in securities and finance – in fact it is quite ironic that, despite having accountancy and company secretarial qualifications, I haven’t done a single day’s work as an accountant or a company secretary, though I have been using those skills every day of my life.’
Has your training been relevant to your work?
‘Yes, my professional training has been useful throughout my career. It’s like being given a screwdriver, a hammer and a spanner – it is good to have various tools in your tool box because you never know when you will need them. In fact – taking office administration as an extreme example – when I first started work, company secretarial examinations included office administration but no one had the faintest idea where we would end up having to use it. Now, when I am doing automation and project engineering here, I need to use that knowledge. So a good professional training will include many different basic elements. I think you need to keep your mind open and don’t get fixated on a particular job type because you never know where your career will take you. It is best to build up your skills and work experience and get deeper insights in different areas – eventually you can decide where you want to specialise.’
Was there anything that you wish had been in your training that you found you needed later?
‘Half of my career has been in banking and half in the securities industry – no school in Hong Kong provides in-depth training on the securities and the financial services industries, not even the universities. Hong Kong is a major international financial centre and I think we need to provide more training in these areas.’
Do you think that one of the main attractions of the company secretarial training is that it can lead in many different directions?
‘Yes. Some people, when they start their company secretarial training assume that they will end up as a company secretary – they assume that that is the only career path possible, but that is not the case. Similarly, people might assume that if you choose to get involved in the registry business, you will only be involved in maintaining shareholder records. When I got involved in the registry business that quickly led me into database management, and I started learning about the underlying processes. It is important to keep an open mind. A practicing company secretary’s role does not have to be limited to the secretarial and governance functions. As a member of senior management, the job can often be involved in all facets of running the company so the information and knowledge you acquire from this qualification will be useful in many different jobs depending on where your career takes you.’
What temperament do you think is required to make a success of this career path?
‘You need to be a good listener. You need to be always in listening mode, absorbing ideas along the way. You also need to take a “helicopter” view of things – looking not just at a single factor involved in your work, but at all the potential different factors and the relationships between them.’
Would you recommend your career path to new recruits to the Chartered Secretarial profession?
‘Yes, I would highly recommend this career path – I have been fortunate in my career. Most of the things that I have been involved in were new to the market. While with HSBC, I was the first credit analyst for Hong Kong business at that point. When I moved into the project finance business, that was also quite new and I was able to learn about the latest financing techniques and the required legal documentation. When I then moved into securities I learnt about trading and settlement processes and I was able to try automating those, and building new services along the way. The job also gave me opportunities to deal with regulators and get involved in market infrastructure development. My current regional responsibility has also meant more variety in my work. I look after Asia for Computershare which means that Hong Kong is just one element. Most companies coming to Hong Kong for listing are from China or from other jurisdictions, so what I have been able to learn and have worked on in the past are also very relevant here though the nature of the businesses are fundamentally different. I also look after India where we have a big registry and funds services business. I joke with my boss that since I am responsible for China and India I am looking after half of the world’s population.’
Your work on market infrastructure reform in Hong Kong has also had a big impact – can we discuss that in more detail?
‘I find market infrastructure reform particularly interesting. It involves thinking about the critical issues for the market and, if you work at the infrastructure level, you impact every stakeholder in the industry rather than a particular counterparty in a transaction.
As I mentioned, after the “Black Monday” stock market crash in 1987, I got involved with the reforms to the market launched after the Ian Hay Davison report. At that point I was a member of the working group representing HSBC. We were working with the brokerages and the Hong Kong Stock Exchange to design and build the processes for centralised clearing and depository in the Hong Kong market.
That experience gave me exposure to market infrastructures in other parts of the world as we needed to look at best practices in other markets and the challenges of bringing those best practices into the Hong Kong market. I think working in that area was quite a rare opportunity and I gained many insights during my bank days. In those days, HSBC was playing a quasi central bank function in Hong Kong. After my return from Canada I started working on developments in China, and got a chance to work with the Chinese regulators on the development of the Qualified Foreign Institutional Investors scheme and get a deeper insight into the working of the China securities market.’
What is your view of the plans for scripless shares in Hong Kong and how will that change the centralised depository arrangements?
‘What is happening is that, at the depository level, there will be changes to who gets to be registered as legal shareholder on the share register if one holds securities deposited into the HKSCC [Hong Kong Securities Clearing Company Ltd] nominee. Currently, all the shares in the central clearing system are actually registered in a single name – the HKSCC nominee. Under the scripless market, the HKSCC nominee will basically disappear and be replaced by the names of intermediaries or their underlying clients, if they are willing.’
What will this mean for Computershare?
‘It will mean that we will be running a more meaningful register for companies. Right now, even major shareholders are rarely directly included on the register. For ease of trading, they mostly hold their shares through custodians who are participants in the central clearing system, meaning that those shares will then be held under the HKSCC name. The new scripless model will open a window for the market to become more transparent in terms of ownership and for investors to have more sovereignty in their legal title.’
Will Computershare, as the share registrar, have a closer relationship with the regulators?
‘Computershare will be directly regulated. Right now we are indirectly regulated through the Federation of Share Registrars, but under the scripless model we will be maintaining a more important set of ownership records and regulators recognise that the responsibilities will be higher so they want to be able to directly supervise ad regulate our activities. The supervising relationship aside, Computershare has always worked very closely with different regulators on various market initiatives in all the markets in which we operate.’
What will these reforms mean for companies?
‘The way companies run their register of shareholders will be largely the same. There will potentially be a bigger set of shareholders on the record, but they will have increased the level of transparency regarding the identities of those holding their shares. So from an investor relationship perspective, they will be able to engage more if they know more about
That sounds like a good development from the perspective of shareholder engagement – can we discuss how attitudes to shareholder engagement have evolved over your career?
‘Shareholder engagement is a very broad subject and different stakeholders interpret it in different ways. Issuers will be primarily interested in reaching the people who make investment decisions and vote on company resolutions. Regulators want to ensure that all shareholders are treated equally, particularly in terms of the information they receive and protection of their rights; but they also expect shareholders to get more involved. From the intermediaries’ perspective, I think the first thing that comes to their mind is the level of service versus cost to them.
When it comes to shareholder engagement, your starting point will always be information. If you want your shareholders to be more involved, you need to give them all the information they need. There is a cost to this, however, and as more shareholders come onto the register through the scripless regime, there will be an increase in shareholder communication costs – the more people you have to communicate with, the more it adds up.
Companies can reduce this cost by using more electronic communication. Most of the larger companies in Hong Kong have exercised this option and offer electronic shareholder communication. Our statistics here indicates that only about 10% to 15% of the registered shareholder base will opt for physical communication, but that can still represent a significant cost. For example, we mail out about a million packages, including bulky annual reports, in peak season. With advances in technology particularly in the mobile environment, we should be able to do more electronically.’
One final question – what do you think will be the big trends to look out for in the years ahead?
‘Technology is playing a more important part in our daily life, and anyone working in the securities and financial services industries will see a big impact from the new technologies becoming available. I think we will see some fast-paced developments in these industries as a result of new technology and we need to be ready for that. My worry is that Hong Kong might be moving too slow on this.’
James Wong was interviewed by Kieran Colvert, CSj Editor.
This new series of interviews in CSj is designed to give readers insights into the challenges and rewards of the many different career paths open to Chartered Secretaries. Look out for further interviews in our Career Paths series in future editions of CSj.
SIDEBAR: CAREER NOTES
James Wong is CEO of Computershare’s business lines across North Asia and India, providing registry, employee share plans, shareholder identification and proxy solicitation and governance services to more than 800 clients. James is currently a member of the Hang Seng Index Advisory Committee, a member of the Disciplinary Subcommittee of the Treasury Markets Association and Vice-Chairman of the Hong Kong Federation of Share Registrars. He also sits on the Hong Kong Scripless Working Group, chaired by the Securities and Futures Commission.