Alan Harden arrived in Hong Kong in September to start his new job as Asia-Pacific CEO at ING Investment Management. He had already been dealing with the firm's headquarters in Amsterdam to prepare for the role. He expected to inherit a big, on-the-ground organisation that had been put together by his predecessor, Chris Ryan -- the firm has onshore capabilities in 12 markets and sourced $122.5 billion from Asia-Pacific clients -- and build on that.
A number of plans were on the table, such as developing alternative investment products and multi-asset class solutions, as well as growing distribution in various markets through additional channels such as independent financial advisors and tied insurance agents at third parties.
Harden had spent the past five years in London running investment firm Alliance Trust, and he had watched the credit crunch unfold there. Things were turning grim, but he was looking forward to moving to a region still brimming with optimism.
He showed up in Hong Kong a self-styled pessimist, having seen first-hand how financial markets were being damaged, and sought to introduce a dose of realism to his new colleagues. It didn't matter. Within a fortnight, Lehman Brothers had collapsed and the US government began to bail out AIG.
"We had to re-evaluate our strategy, quickly," Harden says. Fortunately an organisation that had been through the Asian financial crisis, the tech bust and Sars was able to do so -- "with a push", he says.
The firm scrambled from ambitious growth plans to restructuring assets, cutting costs and figuring out where it could grow business. He says this year inflows have resumed from both ING IM's life-insurance parent as well as from third parties, which account for roughly two-thirds of ING IM's business.
A number of initiatives, such as developing alternative investment capabilities in Asia and broadening distribution, have been cut back or shelved. (ING Real Estate Asset Management is a distinct business outside of Harden's responsibility.) In today's environment, clients are looking at fixed income and ways to find yield. But Harden says the firm can't just develop product for this environment; it has to figure out where more business will come from over the next 12-18 months, across a diverse range of onshore markets.
The firm has recently hired Jane Caire as head of product management and development for Asia-Pacific. She has lived in Asia for 15 years, supporting business growth at firms including HSBC, CLSA, Franklin Templeton, and Citigroup Asset Management (Harden used to run Citigroup AM's regional business out of Tokyo). She then served as an independent consultant to clients including Harden's most recent employer, Alliance Trust.
"Two strategies we're emphasising are emerging-market debt and Asian real-estate securities," Harden says. He also suggests that unit-linked investment products will grow in popularity.
He has also had to oversee cost cutting. He would not specify which areas are being slashed. He prefers to emphasise what is not getting pruned: portfolio management, research and trading. "We're upgrading those groups," he says, noting that despite a general hiring freeze, he continues to look at select individuals.
Now that the firm has decided what businesses to shed and which initiatives to support, Harden says he is turning more positive about the business and the climate. While he does not say he is bullish, he says for the first time in six months he is "not negative". He sees improving data regarding bank profitability and corporate profits for certain sectors, and predicts that financial markets will improve on the basis of rising expectations -- so long as global authorities don't commit major policy errors, he adds.
He sees his biggest challenge now selling ING IM's brand. "We have all the ingredients here -- scale, performance, performance. Yet we're hardly known. The ING brand is known, but ING as an investment manager, perhaps not." For an organisation that is among the world's biggest 25 asset managers, Harden reckons it's time for the firm to get the recognition it deserves.