Success in the asset management industry is not gender specific, says UBS official


Women must put their hands up to be counted in the fiercely competitive and male-dominated industry, feels Charlene Huang

Having led a team that helps oversee multibillion dollar assets in the world’s most dynamic markets, Charlene Huang, co-head Asia-Pacific of Global Multi-Managers (GMM), the global real estate arm of UBS Asset Management, believes that her success in a male-dominated industry has been a natural progression with the help of her family and colleagues.

An expectant mother of six months, Huang, in an elegant black dress, arrived at UBS’s office on the 52nd floor of the International Financial Centre in the morning for a meeting, before setting off couple of hours later to the airport for a flight back to Singapore, where she is currently based.

Educated in Australia, Huang got a job in London focusing on performance analysis in a top real estate intelligence service, before joining UBS Wealth Management in 2007.

In 2014, she was promoted to her current post, where she is responsible for investment selection and growing the GMM clients, among others, for UBS Asset Management’s Asia-Pacific real estate business, three years after serving as an assistant portfolio manager.

In an interview with the South China Morning Post, the multibillion dollar asset manager shared with us her investment tips, the beauty of managing real estate assets, as well as tips for aspiring future female leaders in her industry.

As a real estate asset manager, which countries do you favour for investment?

In Asia-Pacific, we like offices in Australia though there are a few difficulties with other sectors in the country. We are bullish on offices in Sydney and Melbourne, rather than in other Australian cities. Part of the issue is the access to property – in the Sydney CBD, we’ve seen a lot of regeneration and renewals and we want to make sure that we are able to access good quality stock.

At the same time, it is also equally important for us to consider the foreign exchange impact while making cross-border investments.

How is your exposure to the China property market in view of the polarised situation between its tier 1 and tier two cities?

In China, residential property is considered a social good. So, the government comes out with policies to ensure that prices don’t heat up too extensively. We have very limited exposure to the Chinese residential market partly because of that reason. I think it is more of a policy driven market and hence difficult for investors to gauge.

But in commercial property that’s not the case. We have a bigger exposure to the office market in China. However, our exposure is confined to the tier 1 cities – they probably are the only cities in China that can be classified as a core market, because of the tenant demand, the depth of the market, more international investor profile, the liquidity and stability of income.

There is a general view that there are several buying opportunities in the Singapore market now? What are your views on the same?

We do see a lot of investors buying property in Singapore. A lot of it relies on whether the cooling measures are going to be relaxed. It is more of an opportunistic buying. The commercial real estate market in Singapore is facing an oversupply right now. The office market in terms of leasing is expected to see a few more years of downward trajectory.

How did you enter the sector as an asset manager? Many people consider it a stressful experience?

I fell into the shop quite accidentally. It wasn’t planned. I was working in London back in the day. I used to work for a company called IPD, which is a benchmarking company specialising real estate and I focused on performances analysis. That’s how I started in the industry – I was quite young [at the time] and looking for a job. When I worked at IPD, some of the work that I did in research and analysis was not that different from what an analyst or a portfolio manager did. So it was just a kind of natural progression.

What is the most exciting thing about being a real estate asset manager?

I like the people best. It’s a very dynamic industry. The most exciting thing about the industry is it is not homogenous. Every single market, every single asset that you are looking at is different. And very often it is up to us to find the opportunity. For example, equities, every unit of equities is traded the same, but in real estate every single building you look at is different. That’s quite exciting.

And obviously in terms of pricing, it is a lot less transparent than anything that is publicly traded of course. So the price discovery process is quite interesting – how you find value, how you think you might be able to create value out of it.

How do you strike a work-life balance and what do you think of being a female leader in a male-dominated industry?

I am very fortunate to have a supportive husband. In spite of the long working hours, he helps me a lot with child care and I think that is absolutely crucial.

In UBS, we have women specific talent programmes to identify the next generation of women leaders. So the company has also been supportive.

But I think I was never brought up to see myself as being different. I have never felt different from a boy, never ever felt throughout the course of my career that “oh this is something I can’t do.” A lot of it is about teaching women from a young age that you are not different.

What do you think are the advantages of women in asset management?

I would actually not “pigeonhole” women by saying that: “Oh! women have these characteristics. I think all women are different. Some are thoughtful and considerate while others are very aggressive. You don’t have to be a woman and a negotiating mother to be a caring person. It doesn’t have to be like that.

What are your words of advice for women who want to work in the asset management industry or for those who want to take on more leadership roles?

The most important thing, obviously is to put your hands up. You should say you want it and you want to do it.

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