Lee Wong is an articulate and perceptive pundit on the ills and realities of private banking. Having close to 20 years of experience in the field, the 46-year-old could have easily been a lawyer instead. But a gut-feeling switch in career before the age of 30 landed her in a current, self-determined “sweet spot” of managing family wealth.
The corporate lawyer-turned-banker says, “I can safely say that this is my calling. I guess I was drawn to the job because you can have a real affiliation with people — I was really happy when setting up my first trust structure for a client, and having looked at their face, seeing how thankful they were; it felt good.”
Today, she oversees Lombard Odier’s wealth planning and family services in Asia Pacific, still connecting with a fair share of individuals — albeit mostly ultra-wealthy families. According to Lee Wong, she is also one of the lucky few to be able to deal with clients completely on their terms.
She explains, “The wealth planning industry blossomed and grew in financial institutions and as you would expect, these are revenue-driven organisations. So the biggest challenge for me during the most part of my career was fulfilling certain KPIs.
“But I always believed that your practice needs to meet the needs of the clients. So I hardly paid attention to what needed to be sold. I see what is required from the client’s perspective. And again, luckily I’ve been blessed that I’ve survived all these years without being unsuccessful, despite the difficulty.”
Lee Wong joined Lombard Odier, which operates on a pure advisory approach, last year. The Swiss private bank business itself is a 222-year-old family business, with sixth- and even seventh-generation members on the board of managing partners.
But when it comes to enduring family businesses, one must first understand the challenges family businesses face. Lee Wong spells it out, “Firstly, there’s disputes. I think when you put people together, let alone family members, there is naturally going to be drama. Human beings, by nature, have the propensity to create drama.
“Secondly, it’s dependency and entitlement. Typically in one generation, you could easily have doubled the size of the family. And by the third generation, you would have multiplied by a fair bit so by the sheer number of mouths, if wealth stays stagnant, it will eventually dissipate. So it is important that every generation groom the next to carry the drive and the attitude of a wealth creator.”
With such risks, Lee Wong and her team thus help clients to create a proper governance framework, in order for key members to make decisions together, including how to resolve disputes, and eventually to build a value system. Past this stage, family businesses are able to thrive and even, give back to society.
Lee Wong outlines the concept of wealth in relation to this progression into philanthropy, “When I look at family wealth, I see four components. The most visible part is financial capital. Then you have human capital: The very human beings that comprise a family. Third would be intellectual capital, because the knowledge base and the skill sets of the family as a whole bring in itself, wealth. It’s power that you can use. And lastly, there’s social capital.”
And according to Lee Wong, these four pillars are never mutually exclusive. “The growth of the financial capital is actually the effect of a thriving human and intellectual capital. And when your human and intellectual capital is strong, the social capital becomes an outward expression of these elements.”
The well-versed steward of wealth sees this charitable consequence when she maps the life journey of most, if not all, of her clients. “I believe building family offices naturally lead to building family foundations — members want to express and support causes that are meaningful to them or speak to them passionately.”
Personally, the mother of one, a pre-teen named Aidan, is also passionate about philanthropy. She has conducted coding workshops for underprivileged kids. Though Lee Wong admits, “Now, the question is how much time I have to actually work on it.”