Spotlight On China   Asset Management Outlook 2018 2000x500 Min

Spotlight on China - Asset Management Outlook 2018

The scope of this document is to share our thoughts on China’s current asset management landscape, the impact of the high level of activity in the WFOE space and the potential opportunities and challenges for global players from a human capital perspective. Given this is a sector where changes happen quickly, it is important to note that the factual content is based on market research from public sources as of mid-April 2018, plus our first-hand experience in dealing directly with many asset managers and candidates in China over the past eight years of operating onshore. China is the core of our focus, now with half our business based in Beijing and Shanghai.


Asset management opportunities continue to dominate conversations with industry practitioners in China across the front, middle and back offices. We see this first-hand, being engaged in an increasing number of searches for international asset managers as they vie for more access onshore and look to launch private fund products.


The focus of global players on China is understandable. For example, the domestic private fund industry, including both wealthy individuals and institutional investors, tripled in size in 2017 to hit RMB 30.9 trillion (USD 4.74 trillion), according to the Asset Management Association of China.


Yet what this race also brings, without exception, is a dilemma common for businesses: how to attract, hire and retain the right individuals to capitalise on this unprecedented opportunity.


There is no quick or easy answer. Inevitably, it depends on individual ambitions, patience and depth of resources at each firm. Plus, it is too early for any kind of roadmap or tried-and-tested approach to provide a benchmark or model for a successful wholly foreign-owned enterprise (WFOE). We are on a voyage of discovery, and flexibility is key to long-term success.


Finding answers is further complicated by the fact that most firms are at different stages of the lifecycle. At the same time, the asset management landscape is still evolving, from a regulatory as well as a product perspective.


The only consistent theme, it seems, is an ever-tighter squeeze on an already-shallow talent pool.

This all makes the careful and strategic planning around human capital a critical success factor for global asset managers as China’s domestic landscape develops and evolves.


The information provided below is current as of 9th April 2018 and is subject to change. It is for your general information only and is not intended as legal advice. Data source: Asset Management Association of China (AMAC).


The numbers speak for themselves in terms of the pace of foreign asset managers entering the market:

  • 27 foreign asset managers have set up WFOEs since September 2015 – 17 of which have been done since the start of 2017

  • 11 global asset managers have secured private fund management (PFM) licences

  • 6 of these asset managers with PFM licences have launched onshore private fund products

PFM funds launched to date

Tracking the onshore flow to China



We share the excitement and commitment that the world’s asset managers are showing to China, based on this “moment in time” for the industry. And, as the market’s potential continues to unfold, we predict that it will represent the single-largest human capital opportunity – and challenge – over the next five years.


At the same time, we also share the appreciation of foreign asset managers of the complexities and challenges in navigating the market.


Regulatory clarity is one of the key issues that foreign asset managers face, despite the easing ownership limits more broadly on foreign joint ventures across asset management, life insurance and securities.


Other considerations relate to asset managers making a call on when – and how quickly – to grow their business. This includes the best route for launching their funds, as well as the best approach to take to fill the talent gaps that exist, and develop sufficient human capital.


The pace at which foreign managers are actively hiring talent to fully implement their China growth strategy is different from firm to firm.


However, the length of time a firm has had a WFOE does not always necessarily dictate how aggressive they are about ramping up their headcount in China.


In fact, some asset managers are being deliberately cautious about the speed at which they grow. They are slowly adding firepower even though they might have more of a track-record onshore.


Conversely, we are seeing some of the asset managers that are ‘newer’ to the market, with more recently-established WFOEs, looking to make a quick impact.


They view a team of any less than 10 individuals who focus on investments, clients and relationship management as lacking in manpower and expertise to effectively run a successful WFOE to manage private funds.


Further, if they can find enough people to fill the required roles, these firms believe they will have an edge going forward in terms of being more appealing to candidates looking for their next move.


For firms with this ambition, we believe they need to fill a variety of senior positions to deliver a full-scale offering.



The (perhaps obvious) reality is that WFOE structures represent a new chapter in the evolution of onshore funds management and distribution. As we are still in the early stages, no one firm or advisor has established the winning strategy. As such, many firms are setting out on the journey with a strategy, but learning along the way, and thus flexing when needed. This combination of a well-thought-out goal and process, along with a flexible mindset, seems to be the key.


One of the early building blocks is which investment strategy the firm will pursue, as this will have the biggest influence on headcount. Some firms are focusing purely on one product, others are seeking investment teams within Equity, Fixed Income, Multi-Asset and Quant. This clearly has a multiplier effect on the size of the team needed. A cautious approach with a single asset class investment strategy, could be a total of sub-10 headcount. This is also applicable to those players just getting started in China, who tend to be in search of two or three key individuals as a minimum to lead and build the business, such as a general manager, a government relations / regulatory relations person and head of investment. However, if the firm wishes to run more aggressively and invest in multiple lines of product, then the overall number could be 25-plus within 18 months.   


Below is a rough breakdown of the more “full blown” WFOE structure, with headcount next to the functional areas. Using this as a guide we have observed several firms seeking to stay sub-10 headcount, and some aiming closer to 30 in the medium term.    


We are finding that a top-down approach to hiring makes the most sense for foreign asset managers in China. Sequencing of hires is important, the leaders need to help to hire their team, and skipping to mid-level hires without a GM or CIO in place has resulted in problems.


The top of the pecking order are general managers, followed by heads of investment / chief investment officers. The next critical hire is the head of compliance / chief compliance officer. Language and the ability to be culturally dynamic between local Chinese and global is absolutely key.


In each case, asset managers need to assess a variety of attributes to determine if an individual is the right fit for a WFOE. We see some specific requirements for each role:

General Managers / GM

  • Onshore market knowledge and experience, to ensure a deep and rounded understanding of the scope of the opportunity

  • A good cultural fit, and with English-language fluency, since they will need to be in regular communication with global headquarters and aligned with the strategy and vision of the firm

  • The ability to offer strong leadership for the business, including motivating and managing staff on the ground, many of whom are likely to be relatively new to the firm

  • Persistence, given that they will encounter various hurdles and challenges during the early stages of a WFOE, and in securing licences and approvals to launch funds

  • Connections, in terms of clients as well as government and regulatory officials, especially if there is a need at any time to try to smooth or quicken the approval path

  • Mainland national who has previously studied, worked and lived overseas – but has also more recently worked in China to have forged the required connections and market insights

Heads of Investment / CIO

  • Knowledge of China’s investment landscape and domestic markets

  • A track-record in leading big investment teams

  • Experience in working overseas in a similar investment role, to ensure they understand and can apply the type of structured investment process that their new employer will demand

  • Understanding and appreciation of the regulatory landscape

  • Cross asset class experience is generally desired

  • First class communication skills in English and Mandarin are essential

Heads of Compliance / CCO

  • An ability to understand and apply the technical aspects of the job in a market where rules change frequently

  • Language and cultural skills to liaise with counterparts in Hong Kong, Singapore and further afield

  • Knowledge of – and ability to meet – standards of international best practice to help global colleagues get comfort in understanding the reality of the situation onshore

  • A regulator network based on contacts and experience in getting approvals



For candidates as well as their potential employers, there are a number of factors that matter to them in their decision-making about their next move. It is a two-way street. Below are some recurring themes we have observed from both sides of the table.


Motivators to move firms –

  • The firm’s apparent commitment to China, based on the stated strategy, plans for growing its WFOE and its track-record to date in terms of implementation

  • The levels of responsibility and trust that the candidate feels they will receive in their new firm

  • The chance that they will be given sufficient autonomy to do their job without feeling they are under a management microscope

  • Increase in their compensation package

  • The opportunity to join a firm with an existing presence, to tap into their market positioning and onshore experience

  • With newer market entrants, some candidates feel they can play a more pivotal role in the firm’s development in China and have a greater impact on the business


Factors that make a move less appealing –

  • If there is any question about the company's commitment to the WFOE long term

  • In moving to an international asset manager with more established operation, there might only be openings for middle-tier and junior roles

  • Working in a Chinese institution can offer a better, more natural, cultural fit personally, including communication with managers

  • Compensation can be better within private funds / local companies

  • Some candidates feel they can contribute in a more meaningful way as a part of the core team rather than a satellite operation

  • Candidate might feel they want to be part of a firm at the start of its global growth journey, which applies to a growing number of Chinese asset managers



What makes certain candidates stand out –

  • Market knowledge and experience within the onshore asset management landscape

  • A good cultural fit with the international firm, and with English-language fluency, to communicate with senior management and colleagues outside of China

  • Connectivity in the local market – not only with clients, but also in terms of government officials

  • Experience in working overseas in a similar role, to ensure they understand and can apply the type of processes and standards of international best practice that their new employers will demand

  • Understanding and appreciation of the regulatory landscape, as well as knowledge of how to operate successfully within it


What makes some candidates less appealing –

  • If money seems to be their number-one driver

  • If they have weak communication skills in English, and lack cultural dynamism

  • Insufficient level of knowledge of the market and connections to be successful

  • If they are not senior enough to have the gravitas to help develop the business

  • Their ability to manage their part of the business and lead or grow teams in what is often more akin to a start-up phase

  • The track-record of a candidate – if it shows they move too frequently between different firms

  • Their experience in working with an international organisation, in relation to their understanding of what is required within an international organisation


Profile has invested significant time and effort building our China business, having been onshore for eight years. Today, half our business is in China and within that we have a team of experienced consultants and in-house researchers focusing on asset management. We have undertaken many searches in this space and work with WFOEs, JVs and local Chinese Asset Managers. We firmly believe that only by being fully immersed in the local market and by working with all client groups can you truly offer insight and advice of genuine value. The days of “covering China from overseas” are long gone.


The landscape in China is rapidly changing and the knock-on effect for human capital is significant. Our experience has taught us to approach the market opportunity with enthusiasm, whilst bearing in mind that for candidates, employers and advisors alike, we are all in the early stages of this journey. Remaining true to our commitment to strive for excellence, the below themes are key to supporting hiring and retention of talent in a dynamic, fast-paced market.


1.  Patience & Persistence 

Sometimes, you need to take a deep breath and move forward, as the opportunity – and the steps taken to grasp it – require a new approach.

2.  Wage Disparity 

Particularly in support functions (especially Compliance), standardisation of salary levels seen in mature markets does not exist yet. Those with similar experience can be 50 to 80% apart on their package. Candidates are aware of this disparity and many less well-paid individuals are aiming for 50 to 100% increases to move.​

3.  Cultural Dynamism 

Clients see the cultural agility to work well between China and International as essential to successful hiring. The often ignored but very real issue on this point is that it is a two-way street; employers also need to show cultural flex in order to attract the best talent.

4.  Strategic Vision (strength and flex) 

Whilst it is imperative to communicate a strong strategic vision for the WFOE, equally important is to always be flexible in delivery in this ever-changing market. Rigidity to every letter of the plan has caused issues for several WFOEs, resulting in costly lessons. 

5.  Hedge Your Bets

The reality is that there is a slight frenzy in hiring activity, and individuals often have multiple options simultaneously. Having a longer shortlist than normal is a good thing as situations change so rapidly. Never assume a hire is complete until the person walks through the door.

6.  Be Opportunistic

If you find the right person, act swiftly, decisively and get the deal done.      

7.  Retention

Employers must be realistic: Once you make a good hire you are now a target. Make sure employees are well-managed, well-respected and never take anything for granted.


Below are examples of what we have completed or are currently engaged in to complete:

Front Office –

CIO / Portfolio Management / Trading / Product Management / Sales

Infrastructure –

Compliance / Finance / Operations / Legal / Human Resources


For more information or individually tailored advice, please do not hesitate to contact our regional Asset Management team:

Hong Kong Office - please contact Andrew Oliver

Singapore Office - please contact Stanley Teo

Shanghai Office - please contact Yao Xiong

Beijing Office - please contact Winni Wei


Andrew Oliver, Managing Director, Profile Search & Selection


April 2018