Anthonia Hui, CEO and co-founder of Singapore-based independent wealth management firm AL Wealth Partners, had spent over 30 years working in banking before she embarked on what have been more than 10 exciting, challenging and very rewarding years running the firm.
Hui also helped found the Singapore Association of Independent Asset Managers (AIAM) in 2011 and with her wealth of experience and contacts, she has a deep understanding of the business challenges faced by independent wealth advisory firms and their wealthy clients.
She met with Hubbis to speak about her own business values, to extoll the virtues of dedication to the client, and to talk about her love of golf, of the performing arts….and even a more recent fascination with poker.
Neither Hui nor her firm is driven by growth for growth’s sake, nor are they single-minded about wanting to cash out to a third-party buyer. They are instead driven by Hui’s total commitment to alleviating the many anxieties that her wealthy clients feel about their money, whether it be preservation and/or accumulation, transmission to other family members, or regulatory and compliance burdens. She shared the view that “wealth is not wealth if it doesn’t have a clear purpose” thus she sees her role to help alleviate the client’s consciousness and be mindful to the purpose of having these wealth and work with the client and their families to find sustainable way to evolve to the relevance of the world to utilise this wealth for both the family enjoyment and to the good of the world.
She believes that she has what is effectively an obligation as a trusted advisor to empathise with these clients, then to offer them a genuinely personal, entirely professional, all around offering. And she knows from her experience in the past decade running AL Wealth that this very often results in her firm being given the mandate to help manage the client’s entire net-worth. Transparency in fee structures and candid impartial advice are key to the relationship.
Hui also knows that most clients who deal with the private banks split their assets and relationships between several of them, whereas her approach as an established autonomous adviser very often results in such a close relationship that the client’s trust is absolute.
She often sees her role virtually as a counsellor, facilitating clients and their families restructure their portfolios, reorganise their family succession structures and help to draft a family constitution to put in place governance. She also acts as the strong pillar of support to her clients and their next generations, to help manage the emotional stresses that can arise from having such wealth and meeting their family’s expectations. She works with empathy in a holistic, sensitive, and all-encompassing manner.
Hui was born in Hong Kong and educated only to high school level. But neither her lack of formal further education, nor her being a woman in a wealth management world in Asia more often populated by men, have held her back. She believes that women should stand tall as people carving out their niche in the world, in their own right, and not to seek to claim specific rights or privileges because of their gender. There is no need to seek recognition of their achievements as “action talks lounder than words”.
Hui is, therefore, a remarkable example of someone who has indeed achieved, and then surpassed, the expectations of many around her, and possibly even her own earlier hopes. She has literally done it ‘My Way’ in the immortal words of Frank Sinatra and in the Singapore she and her husband have called home for close to two decades, she has earned the respect not only of her peers and of her clients, but of the wider community at large.
Growth for growth’s sake is not in Hui’s playbook. “If the primary reason for establishing and running a business is money, then grow as fast as possible and look for the exit route further ahead,” she says. “But I am not seeking an exit, if I was, I would not have got involved from day one. That is my first principle.”
Secondly, she says she started the business because she has a moral and personal commitment to my clients. “Accordingly, I prefer to be an independent. Of course, this does not preclude the possibility of me exiting the business in the future, after all we all get older. But right now, I do this because I still really enjoy what I am doing.”
Making a go of it
Hui is a well-known character in the Asian wealth management scene. She is a regular speaker at some of the leading industry events in the region and often speaks at Hubbis forums.
“The concept of going independent had never come to my mind until I realised that working inside the bank was making it impossible to provide the client with the best advice, the best services,” she had told the audience at one Hubbis event last year. “I was caught in between wanting to be successful and respected in a corporate career, while on the other hand I want to do the right thing for my clients.”
The final catalyst, she recalled, was yet another new boss, to add to the numerous reporting lines Hui’s former bank had in place. “I said to myself ‘enough is enough’ and began planning for my new life as an independent wealth manager.”
Look back with pride
Ten years on, Hui is delighted with her decision. She notes that a lot of clients spend more time worrying about their wealth than enjoying it and she revels in alleviating some or all of these problems. “Wealth can too often become a burden to their lives, so I am here to try to lift some of that from them,” she reports. “If not careful, wealth can create all sort of mental and health strains and stresses. We can help them by assuaging those anxieties and managing these sorts of burdens. Empathy is vital.”
Hui believes from her past and recent experience that the major ‘brand-name’ banks often do not either see or do not cherish the qualitative value in their client relationships, largely because they look at everything from a transaction basis.
The quest for differentiation
She has long upheld the view that the word innovation has been overused in the IAM world, and a better buzzword may be differentiation, setting the IAM business apart from others, and creating a unique value system to suit their chosen market niche.
“I make my fees by offering clients value,” Hui reports. “As I said I also help them manage their emotional exposure to their wealth, which of course one cannot charge for, as it is intangible. Nevertheless, where it becomes tangible is that we increase the share of their wallet. In fact, while so many HNW and ultra HNW clients are often multi-banked, most of my clients have only one external adviser and I often handle their total financial net-worth under our management. In other words, 100% of their wallet.”
These clients have made their money, she remarks, and she believes that the role of the IAM should then err on the side of conservatism. “We should be firstly focused on preservation and security,” she observes, “and then on helping the clients make returns commensurate with agreed expectations.”
Sharing and caring
The relationship, Hui elucidates, is paramount. “My ability to understand where they come from, how they make their money, what that means to them, what they want to do with it and how is it going to impact their family in the future, my understanding of all these facets makes my conversation with them easier and they can then share their thoughts and their worries with me.”
One source of concern for wealthy individuals and families is of course the intensifying global compliance regime. Hui in 2011 helped establish the Singapore Association of Independent Asset Managers (AIAM) as a voluntary group of senior wealth management professionals. The AIAM has since its inception focused heavily on the vital importance of transparency and compliance.
For example, the AIAM some years ago established a compliance support centre for its members and, by default for their clients. Hui explained at the 2018 Hubbis compliance event how the regulatory burden will continue to be on the clients and on the advisers and that dealing with these challenges in a forthright manner is essential to keep clients in step of the developments and therefore lowering their regulatory anxieties.
Step by step
Hui and her husband Leonardo Drago, who handles the asset management side, keep their firm modest in size. “It is difficult to find like-minded, experienced professionals,” she comments. “Not many people subscribe to these values and to our principles.”
The younger generation, in particular, want more instant gratification,” she elaborates, “but my approach takes many years. Are they prepared to invest that sort of time?” Not often, she says.
But AL Wealth Partners, she reports, has highly-seasoned co-founders as relationship managers who have more than 40 years of international banking experience, while in recent years in the private banking business she remarks how many top-level people changed jobs. “How then can you truly say you value the relationships, when you keep moving your client from one bank to the other,” she wonders. “Clients do not like that sort of change, they already have enough stress in their life.”
Hui says the fickleness of the corporate world is a worrying trend because while of course the RMs can bid themselves up to far larger remuneration packages, the emotional stress for their clients is not alleviated. “The client becomes a commodity,” she warns.
Accordingly, Hui reiterates that to succeed outside a brand-name bank one needs to have a close personal relationship with the client, one must have empathy with them so there is genuine trust. “To survive and prosper as an IAM you must be able to remove or assuage whatever pain a client is suffering from,” she observes. “The pains the clients feel in banks are due to changes of RM, changes of CEOs and so forth, all of which simply prove what the clients often feel, namely that the banks are not client-centric, even though they claim to be, time and time again.”
HUI’s priorities – broaden the reach, expand the advice
Hui has defined a number of priorities for the foreseeable future. “We have evolved a very successful investment strategy in the past decade and we now want to broaden our reach to more people who suit this type of structure,” she reports. “We want to grow our funds under management through the institutional and the family office structures, while also maintaining and strengthening our investment client’s business.”
Hui also reports that she has been approached by a number of their HNW clients who feel that they have the need of a family office service but don’t want to incur the cost and the manpower of having their own family office. “They need someone to take a holistic view in terms of managing all their wealth, from business investment and financial wealth as well as human capital. They need structure, and often need help managing the family dynamics.”
Accordingly, Hui explains that her firm is now offering more of a counsellor and facilitator role, for example for how the structures and plans meet the family’s value system and inter-generational expectations.
“Where there are clear gaps,” she reports, “we will then look at how to restructure what they are doing and help with future planning and advise on family participation, family governance, generational planning and so forth. This is not an accounting or concierge service, there are too many competitors doing that, no, this is all about ability to dissect complex wealth structure, provide a holistic view to help these families identify the clear purpose, simplify the structure and then help map out their path to solve their issues”
Hui’s enthusiasm for her business, her passion to serve her clients and her dedication to helping the independent wealth management industry flourish in Singapore are evident for all to see. As the challenges continue to mount for everyone in the private wealth industry, AL Wealth Partners future appears to be in good hands.