He ought to know: He did it.
It was 1996, the twilight of British Hong Kong, when Sullivan arrived with a resume that couldn’t get him into a bank in the City of London. The former fighter pilot and chartered surveyor was soon hired as a stock analyst.
“You didn’t need a CV that was perfect,” said Sullivan, now 55. What you needed, he said, was gumption — and the will to chase business.
But like the Union Jack and other trappings of empire, those days are long gone. Two decades after Britain returned its last major colony, the balance of power in this city, and its financial industry, has tilted decidedly toward all things China.
More and more, even experienced bankers are struggling to find and keep jobs if they don’t speak Mandarin, the lingua franca of the mainland. The same goes for those without a mastery of China’s business culture, or, more, connections across the border.
Granted, this shift was underway long before the fireworks popped over Victoria Harbor on July 1, 1997, marking the end of more than 150 years of British rule. Colonial privilege — the perks of one’s passport and kinship with the home office — could never withstand globalization. China’s economic rise, and the world’s rush to capitalize on it, only speeded the change.
And so it is that another British tradition is going the way of “God Save the Queen” in Hong Kong.
For years, the territory’s Chinese, and even its China-savvy expatriates, derisively called indulged Brits FILTH, which stands for Failed In London, Try Hong Kong. Expats who might have never worked in the City, Europe’s financial hub, could walk into good jobs and cut deals in the soft-carpeted confines of the Hong Kong Club or over a pint at the Captain’s Bar in the Mandarin Oriental.
Now FILTH is in terminal decline, its fate seemingly sealed by cost-cutting throughout the financial industry.
John Mullally, an executive recruiter, said that as recently as 2010, expatriates from Britain and the rest of Europe, plus those from the U.S. and Australia, landed 40 percent of his finance job placements. Today, that figure is 15 percent.
“On a weekly basis I get quite a few senior bankers that 15 years ago would have picked up a job straightaway, but today they’re really struggling,” said Mullally, who runs Robert Walters Plc’s banking practice in Hong Kong.
At Citigroup Inc., Chinese students will account for the majority of university graduates the firm intends to hire full time in Hong Kong next year, according to James Mendes, the U.S. bank’s Asia-Pacific head of recruitment. For the past two years, JPMorgan Chase & Co. has hired more than 40 percent of its full-time graduates and interns for Hong Kong from local universities, a number the bank expects to increase as it ramps up business in the region.
Private banks are also looking for China-skilled staff to help them capture a slice of the country’s burgeoning wealth. Bank of Singapore Ltd., a unit of Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp., for example, hired 20 Mandarin-speaking relationship managers in Hong Kong this year.
Scarce, too, for expats are perks like generous housing allowances and memberships to such elite clubs as the Royal Hong Kong Yacht Club, which, unlike most Hong Kong institutions, has retained its “royal” association — or, for Americans, the American Club.
Ben Quinlan hardly qualifies as FILTH. But he’s felt the walls close in. Born in Hong Kong and educated in Australia, he doesn’t speak Mandarin.
When he returned to Hong Kong, in 2007, he hoped to land a job in investment banking. Instead, he had to settle for one in internal strategy at UBS Group AG, where speaking Chinese wasn’t a requirement.
“Young junior bankers without language skills are so rare these days,” said Quinlan, 33, who now runs his own financial consulting firm.
Most global banks have tried to bring in Chinese power brokers. Many of these bankers are not only bilingual but also bicultural — products of elite Western universities who can move seamlessly between China and the global Wall Street. Many also bring deep connections to China’s leadership and state-owned enterprises. Now mostly in their 40s and 50s, they include Morgan Stanley’s Wei Sun Christianson and Credit Suisse Group AG’s Janice Hu.
For the most part, divisional and regional leadership roles in Hong Kong are still held mostly by expatriates. But a new generation of Chinese financial pros, most with language skills and many with top degrees, have filled the lower ranks — and seem destined to rise.
That’s bad news for all expats, FILTH or otherwise.
“People here are very pragmatic, and they will adjust their line of sight to where it allows them to make the most money,” said Mullally, the recruiter.
Two decades ago, Sullivan broke into Hong Kong finance as a 35-year-old Royal Air Force veteran with no experience in the industry. He moved on from equity research into a successful career in sales trading, albeit one outside the big leagues of the Goldmans or Morgan Stanleys.
Now his career has taken another turn. After two years working for the Chinese, overseeing sales trading at securities firm Haitong International Securities Group Ltd., on May 31 he was given his marching orders. His position had been made redundant.
He’s looking for a new job in Hong Kong and says he’s had some promising conversations with recruiters. After 20 years, Asia is what he knows.
“I’ve got nothing in common with the U.K. now,” he said.