Roll Call Alum

Come Rain or Come Shine

How Bankee Kwan grows in wisdom through storms and crises

Bankee Kwan is the Chairman and CEO of Celestial Asia Securities Holdings Limited, or CASH, the conglomerate well-known for its wealth management and investment businesses, as well as for the household name of home improvement retailer, Pricerite. Owner of two listed companies, Bankee told us he was born to a grassroots family, precisely as the lyrics of the New Asia College anthem describe, ‘empty-handed, and with nothing’ (my translation).

His father ran a handbag-making cottage industry. As was common for most cottage industries, the shop is at the front and the living quarter is at the back. At night, the leather cutting bench became Bankee’s bed after some casual sweeping. The young Bankee was once awakened horrified by a rat biting his ear. Since Primary Two, he went to school in the morning and returned home in the afternoon to help with such factory chores as thread trimming, packaging and moving goods until nine o’clock in the evening, when he could finally sit down to study and finish his homework.

‘Having tasted the bitterness of manual work when I was a child, I was determined to study at university as knowledge changes destiny,’ Bankee recalled. 

While coming first in class every year at primary school, the playful and energetic teenager did not care much about his secondary schoolwork and was only an average performer at first. What motivated him to catch up and finally won him the opportunity to enter the business school of CUHK was a comment by his crush back then, who is now his beloved wife, ‘Come to me only when you get a place at university!’

‘That’s why one needs some driving force to achieve goals,’ Bankee concluded half-jokingly.

In 1984, Hong Kong was undergoing an economic downtown. While most of his peers worried that graduation meant unemployment, Bankee aced his very first interview and became the first one in class to land a job. And this was no ordinary offer, but one from the world’s fourth largest bank at that time, the Sanwa Bank Limited of Japan. Although he claims to be blessed with ‘a bit of career luck’, the truth is he always prepares well for everything. He worked for several banks afterwards. In just a few years, he became the youngest first vice president in Asia.

Interestingly, his English name ‘Bankee’ and the word ‘Banker’ differ by only one letter, which makes one wonder whether he got this name after entering the banking industry. Bankee surprised us with another remark about his dear wife. In Secondary Three, he gave himself an English name, one that his female classmate, now his wife, thought was no good. Inspired by one of his then favourite songs by Michael Jackson, Ben, and the names popular in those days like Winky and Franky, he gave ‘Ben’ a slight twist and added an ending sound to it. Voilà, Bankee! ‘Everything is written in the stars. I really went on to become a banker.’

Bankee <em>(left)</em> at the University Mall with his CUHK pals, Wong Chuk-yan <em>(centre)</em>, now a world-renowned fund manager, and Haksin Chan <em>(right)</em>, currently head and associate professor at the Department of Marketing of the Hang Seng University of Hong Kong <em>(courtesy of interviewee)</em>

At the age of 32, Bankee was promoted to chief lending officer and senior director of American Express Hong Kong, where he supervised elites from all around the world. Climbing fast up the corporate ladder, Bankee was considered by the headquarters as a successor to the chief executive post of the Hong Kong branch. They were ready to send him to New York for a two-year training. That was when he started to hesitate, as he knew deep down he did not want to settle for steadiness. Should I stay in the comfort zone forever and enjoy an easy life? Or should I make more new attempts when I am still young? After much inner struggle, he resigned.

During the pre-1997 emigration wave, Bankee moved to Canada for a month and a half. The extrovert could not but feel desolate under the foreign sky. He hurried back to his hometown Hong Kong and became a consultant to advise listed companies on corporate restructuring and management. In 1998, when Asia was seriously gripped by the financial crisis, Bankee took the resolute action of acquiring Celestial Asia Securities at the verge of its bankruptcy, and embarked on his journey as an entrepreneur.

The financial crisis marked the beginning of his road to entrepreneurship. What followed was the double blow of the bursting of the dot-com bubble and the 9/11 attacks in 2001, when Bankee acquired the money-losing Pricerite Home. Shortly after came the SARS outbreak in 2003, which sent the retail industry into a deep freeze. Then in 2008, when CASH Financial Services Group migrated from Growth Enterprise Market (GEM) board listing to Main Board listing, the collapse of Lehman Brothers unfortunately triggered the global financial tsunami. Later, there was the European debt crisis in 2012 and then the recent COVID-19 pandemic. Since the very start, Bankee has been sailing across the stormy seas of running a business. And yet, he has always been able to brave all weathers. His secret: steadfast devotion to keeping the company financially healthy.

‘Over-borrowing flushes you with only a transient moment of glory and plants time bombs. Take the coronavirus outbreak as an example. A company that lives merely on bank loans without a sufficient cash flow is doomed to face difficulties in operation or even to close down. Running a business is all about tenacity. Manage your financial risks well on fair weather days to maintain stable and sustainable growth. Spare adequate fiscal strength to cope with emergencies and crises. This is the ultimate success factor.’

Another recipe for success is to stay calm regardless of any foreboding outlooks. ‘I handle all situations with calmness at heart. I never get too happy nor too sad. Even in times of major setbacks, I remind myself to feel content and go with the flow. Responding to changes in life, I adjust my mindset, my pace and my attitude to cater for the latest development needs and make progress with society.’

It is not surprising that obstacles await business starters along their road to success. For Bankee, not only did he go through a bumpy ride in the business market, but he also actually encountered the Indian Ocean tsunami. The narrow escape put him into deep thoughts about life. If it had not been for three coincidences, he and his family would have fallen victims to the catastrophe.

They had planned to stay at a seaside hotel that Christmas. As it was peak season, the hotel was fully booked. They had to stay at another one instead. When the massive tsunami hit the shore, the hotels along the coast were the immediate targets of the scourge.

Due to a flight delay, Bankee and his family arrived at the hotel late. Instead of checking into the room on the first floor they had originally reserved, one that leads directly to the swimming pool and the beach, they were allocated a room on the third floor. ‘If I had insisted on staying on the first floor, we would have been washed away by the waves the next day. I would not have been able to talk to you right now.

‘So don’t care too much about small benefits and brood about gains and losses. With our limited wisdom, human beings can never take control over destiny.’

Bankee was supposed to have breakfast with some friends he travelled with on the second day of his trip at the restaurant on the first floor. He was exhausted the night before and so he overslept. When the tsunami struck, he was still in his room on the third floor with his family, narrowly escaping the calamity that took 300,000 lives.

‘To me, family always comes first. My experience of surviving the disaster has taught me to further cherish my loved ones and seize the day, for I can never tell what the future holds and what will be taken away from me.

‘The world is ever changing and out of our hands, and we therefore have to learn to treat the changes with a tranquil heart. All we have to do in order to keep ourselves ahead of the game is to always strive for improvement and never stop learning. I always wish to go back to CUHK to study history one day when I retire, as one can learn from the past to know the present.’

Bankee receives from renowned mathematician and director of CUHK’s Institute of Mathematical Sciences, Prof. Yau Shing-tung, a souvenir in appreciation for his establishing the ‘Bankee Kwan Fellowships for Mathematics Studies’ in September 2001 to subsidize doctoral students in mathematical research <em>(courtesy of interviewee)</em>

Coming through tsunamis both figuratively and literally, Bankee understood deeply that ‘change alone is eternal, perpetual, immortal.’ ‘We must be aware of potential crises and manage risks well. Keep equipping ourselves with qualities that help us embrace opportunities. Seize any opportunity that comes to you, as chance only favours the prepared.’

Like many alumni of New Asia College, Bankee is deeply influenced by the lyrics of the College’s anthem: ‘In hardships, we forge ahead; In weariness, we grow in passion. (my translation)’ ‘I didn’t quite get what it meant by “grow in passion” before but now I do. To “grow in passion” is a state of mind—to value different scenarios of life with an open mind and with tender feelings. Like New Asia, I started “empty-handed, and with nothing”. That is all the more reason for me to do my best to make breakthroughs and create new landscapes.’

He went on to offer his word of advice to young people: ‘You will never know what is going on in the world unless you go out and see it. In this cosmopolitan city of Hong Kong, see more and listen more to understand yourselves and the world. Take the initiative to do more, learn more and ask more. Strengthen your foundation, and someday, you will soar.’

Reported by christinenip@cuhkcontents
Translated by charmainekwok@cuhkcontents
Photos by Eric Sin

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alumni Bankee Kwan startups Business School Faculty of Business Administration New Asia College