DBS’ Lee Woon Shiu on the Art of Curating the Best Solutions for Asia’s HNWI Clients
Lee Woon Shiu spends some of his limited spare time volunteering at The National Gallery of Singapore, guiding visitors through the world’s largest collection of Southeast Asian art, helping to promote their appreciation of the culture and heritage of Singapore, and its links to Asia and the world. So too in his role as Managing Director and Regional Head of Wealth Planning, Family Office & Insurance Solutions at DBS Private Bank, Lee is passionate about curating the most relevant wealth management solutions to meet the ever-expanding needs and expectations of the bank’s clients in Singapore and across the region. He met with Hubbis to offer his own invaluable insights into the art of wealth management today.
Lee presides over a team of 45 in Singapore and Hong Kong which covers the family office offering, wealth planning, insurance solutions and the in-house trust business for DBS’ private bank operations. “We have three core distinguishing characteristics at DBS,” he reports. “First, the bank has a strong pedigree and reputation; as the former Development Bank of Singapore, our history mirrors the nation’s in many ways and we are clearly here to stay for the long-term, committed to private banking as a key growth area for the bank and for Singapore in the next decade and beyond.”
Secondly, he is confident in the support from the bank’s top management for the wealth business. “The senior management continually emphasises the importance for wealth management and trust to be at the core of a private banker’s DNA at DBS,” Lee explains. “And that incidentally is why we are also fully committed to the trust business, which is a vital element for us, part of our pedigree.”
Thirdly, Lee points to DBS’ immense strength in Singapore and wider Asia, but also to the bank’s global reach, through London and Dubai. “We understand the needs of our Asian clients, and can also offer them the international connectivity and expertise they require today,” Lee explains.
Holistic wealth planning
”With our stability, reach and management commitment,” he continues, “bankers here are dedicated to incorporating wealth planning and family office discussions high on their agendas. In fact, when our bankers meet clients, their first step is not to try to sell, but to endeavour to understand them fully and then strive from a holistic planning perspective to meet their needs and expectations. Once we take care of those needs, the business will flow naturally.”
Lee nevertheless observes that a fundamental requirement of the bank’s private banking clients - those with wealth from SGD5 million up to the super-wealthy in the hundreds of millions – will have investment expertise as a primary expectation of the bank.
“For this,” he explains, “we have a strong CIO team to advise and guide our clients on investment strategy. Also, our bankers will always seek to view and service clients holistically. In other words, they will see the bigger picture of the client’s assets, aspirations and family members, including those living overseas – so as to serve the clients’ broader needs, both for now and for the future.”
Lee also notes that DBS is a relatively young bank and as a result, still fleet of foot. “That to some extent helps us look at things afresh, and to be relevant to each of the generations.”
The bank is actively engaging the second and third generations of clients – for example, by creating opportunities for them to interact with and engage the social enterprises supported by DBS Foundation, which is dedicated to championing social entrepreneurship in the region. Its initiatives include providing grants to social enterprises to support them in driving positive societal change, as well as mentorship and partnership opportunities, amongst many others.
“We find that the younger generations not only have aspirations and ambitions, they often also have a vision to do good for society,” Lee elucidates, “and that is where we can engage them through these different touchpoints. We’re not just the family’s bankers, but also an institution with a strong social and moral compass. This has actually made a lot of difference for us.”
He explains further, noting that the bank’s Future Leaders Programme that launched some years ago has been acclaimed by participants because it goes beyond the nuts and bolts of private banking and deep into the realm of the bank’s role in promoting societal integrity and values. “This is where I think we are making a gradual, but very clear, influence on these next generations,” he remarks.
Lee also highlights what he calls the bank’s forward-thinking mentality. “We are always looking ahead,” he explains, “as we seek to imagine how we can more proactively look after our clients.”
The rise of the family office
For example, DBS in 2019 entered a successful partnership with E&Y and co-published the inaugural Asian Family Office report. “It was timely and really well-received,” he reports. “In fact, it was such a positive experience that this year we will partner another global institution to publish a report comparing the East and the West in terms of family offices and family governance models. This type of engagement will continue to position us as a thought-leader in our markets, proactively looking ahead for our clients.”
Lee observes that the growth of the family office space is entirely in tune with the growing appreciation of the wealth planning journey that encompasses wealth creation, wealth preservation and wealth transfer from generation to generation. The family office crystallises all of these missions in one formalised entity.
And of course, the single family office (SFO) which was the core subject of the 2019 report, is most relevant for Asia’s growing ranks of uber-wealthy families with anywhere from USD100 million of wealth to manage, and very often many multiples thereof.
Lee refers to data from the ‘Wealth X Billionaire Census 2018’, detailing that about 29% of the world’s growing ranks of billionaires are in Asia, a number that will soon significantly eclipse the 30% figure for Europe and the 26% figure for North America. And he notes that there are already an estimated 10,000 or more SFOs globally, with at least half being set up in the last 15 years, with Asia's numbers growing fastest of all.
“There has been a rapid expansion of the concept in Asia,” Lee reports, “and Singapore is at the forefront of attracting them here with a range of hard and soft incentives, and a highly conducive infrastructure. Irrespective of location, there are consistencies to the motivations behind setting up a family office, ranging from having greater control over investments, preserving family wealth and ensuring its inter-generational transfer, consolidating assets, dealing with a sudden liquidity influx, increasing wealth management efficiency and mitigating family conflicts.”
Whatever the scale…
Lee extrapolates from this to reiterate that wealth planning is essential no matter what the scale of an individual’s or a family’s wealth is, and shouldn’t be put aside. “There are many reasons why people avoid it,” he comments, “for example, they might consider it bad luck to think or talk about mortality, they might be too busy and say they will come to it later, they could be unsure how they want to will their wealth, they could have concerns over their children’s spouses, and so forth. Clients tend to defer difficult discussions on their future, their estate and succession planning, but we emphasise that these conversations should take place sooner rather than later.”
Lee returns to the topic of the bank’s way of thinking about wealth management and its clients. “We seek to offer a complete range of products and services across corporate activities, investment activities, family office services, life insurance solutions, trustee services and so forth,” he explains. “Clients can come to us, and we can look after their entire spectrum of needs. The bank takes a very long-term and broad-based view of what we can provide, and how to build for the future.”
This, Lee elucidates, is one reason why certain services are considered vital limbs of the DBS body, for example, the in-house trust operations. “We believe in being accountable to the client’s family over the long-term, to offer them the full array of services and expertise,” he explains, “and that is why we are dedicated also to our traditional in-bank trustee services. It might not be a key profit centre, but the offering certainly helps us to provide a more complete service, for both the clients today and the future generations.”
DBS Trustee has been providing trustee and fiduciary services in Singapore since 1975 and is wholly owned by the bank. DBS Trustee acts for private family trusts, as well as numerous Real Estate Investment Trusts (REITs) listed on the Singapore Stock Exchange.
Lee widens his perspective again to explain how the private bank is offering not only traditional private bank services, but also tailoring its services and style to the types of clients and newer challenges of today.
“High-net-worth clients these days are considerably more complex in terms of their assets, investments, location and even their residence and domicile,” he observes. “As a result, these clients feel they need banks that have expertise far beyond Singapore’s shores, as local clients, for example, might have assets, homes, family members spread across the UK, Canada, the US, Australia and so forth. Therefore, we aim to provide teams that offer expertise across borders, who are able to give these clients advice and spot where they will need additional support, and also stay abreast of regulatory developments and implications for our clients’ assets.”
Another challenge to which DBS is rising, Lee elucidates, is trying to counter clients’ often short-term mindsets and task them to take a longer-term view of the horizon. “An example might be that when we offer life insurance solutions, the clients might say ‘well those returns are below what I am achieving on my China investments’, but we need to help them see that this is a different type of solution, one that fits into their wealth planning protocol, that counters the potential for less-than-rosy eventualities that can take place in anyone’s life.”
To help this process of encouraging wealth planning etiquette amongst clients, Lee explains that DBS aims to engage several generations of a family, not just the founders. “In the old days, these conversations would only be held with the patriarch or founder. But we’ve found it more sensitive and effective to use a multi-faceted approach – so when we broach these subjects, we do so not just with the first generation, but also the second and third, for example. This helps us ease into these conversations more smoothly, as different touchpoints within the family can help advocate for and achieve what we believe are the right structures and outcomes.” he reports.
DBS has a presence in 18 markets across Asia and throughout what the bank calls the three key Asian axes of growth: Greater China, Southeast Asia and South Asia. As such, the private bank operations have immense reach into the wealthy families of the region. Headquartered and listed in Singapore, the bank's “AA-” and “Aa1” credit ratings are among the highest in the world, placing the group in an enviable position for government, corporate and private finance.
Building on its strong Asian heritage and insights, years of experience in wealth management and an award-winning research team, the bank strives to provide clients with an innovative, high-quality suite of products and services. “We have cemented our position as one of the largest private banks in Asia-Pacific, and a leading wealth manager in Asia that is also at the cutting-edge of digital transformation,” Lee comments.
“We conduct thorough research and select best-in-class solutions for ourselves and clients,” he reports, “for example, we work with a panel of tax advisors, fiduciaries, lawyers, accountants, insurance companies, residency/migration experts and other firms across the board. We are agnostic in terms of final selection, as this must be driven by the quality, as well as the fit for the individual client.”
In the life insurance segment, DBS does, however, promote one firm above others, namely Manulife, with which the bank has entered a long-term partnership. “We tell clients upfront that we have this relationship,” he explains, “but in this case, it works in their favour as we can conclude deals more rapidly and easily owing to the strong relationships at all levels within DBS & Manulife. Should the client still want to review a much wider array of options in the market, we then bring in a broker who can offer the full suite of choices.”
Mining down further into the bank’s approach, Lee explains that if, for example, the bank is lining up a law firm to work with a client, that lawyer should embrace the bank’s approach – holistic and long-term, rather than transactional.
At the epicentre
Lee believes that while private wealth in the region continues to expand rapidly, DBS has been gifted a key role at the epicentre, due to Singapore’s studious and prescient positioning for the wealth management market of Asia Pacific.
“Singapore has made itself somewhat of a fortress for private banking in the region,” he says. “Firstly, the laws, regulations, and governmental support are all robust, highly relevant and very forward-looking. For example, we understand that MAS is considering adapting trust laws to allow for a perpetual trust here, which will be a major attraction, bringing us in line with offerings from jurisdictions such as Jersey or the Cayman Islands.”
Secondly, he notes the appealing tax and other incentives for foreign HNWIs and families to establish structures and fund management operations onshore in Singapore. “We have the GIP – the Global Investor Programme – run by the Economic Development Board of Singapore, which facilitates residency here for wealth originators. Singapore has now extended this to encompass the types of principals who might not be cash-rich yet, but who might have founded the next Tencent, the next Grab, the next Gojek, so we are opening the doors to this new generation of entrepreneurs.”
The third key factor in Singapore’s continuing progress is the conducive environment it offers today for advisors and professionals to move to Singapore. “Taxes are low, education and facilities are excellent, security and healthcare are outstanding, accommodation is of high quality,” he observes. “This all adds up to a critical mass of expertise, the broad culture of excellence and endeavour that wealth management clients here and who come here are seeking and indeed require.”
Singapore is indeed emerging as a front runner in the single family office (SFO) space. “I think we increasingly see Singapore playing a more active role because of several factors. Stability, which is key for ultra-high-net-worth families. Number two, the tax exemption benefits that Singapore offers to family offices. Number three, the ecosystem – Singapore has advisors across the entire suite of family office solutions, from banking, law, accounting, trust and all the way to digital and software technology. Simply put, Singapore is the go-to jurisdiction for family offices and ultra-high-net-worth families in Asia.”
His final comment focused on the emotional quality of the bank’s engagement with its team members, and them with their clients.
“We embrace and espouse the view that wealth need not be purely self-driven; it should be seen in the context of how it can positively impact wider society,” he elucidates. “This type of meaningful engagement gives our team members a stronger sense of purpose beyond their daily endeavours.”
Lee’s Key Priorities for 2020
“The coronavirus has to be the number one priority right now; we need to ensure our colleagues, team members are healthy,” Lee reports, addressing his key priorities for the year ahead. “We recognise the dangers of the virus, but we are at the same time optimistic we will ride this out. And of course, this extends to our clients as well.”
Secondly, Lee wants to make sure DBS offers its clients a proactive view of new regulations, new products, new concepts that will make their wealth planning easier and more effective. “We can call this broadcasting to the clients, not only here but worldwide, and including the younger generations of wealthy families who might later seek to move to Singapore, or to bring their start-ups or businesses here.”
And thirdly, Lee is aiming to boost connectivity and rapport between the DBS offices in the region, and globally. “We work closely with our DBS offices across the region, but there’s room to enhance this even more to ensure our clients’ needs are well-met, whether they are in Singapore, Thailand, Dubai, or anywhere.”
Getting Personal with Lee Woon Shiu
Lee is a Singapore boy, born and bred, and completed his law studies at the National University of Singapore before heading to the UK to further his legal studies. His first job was for the Singapore law practice Drew & Napier in 1995, working on IPOs/capital markets, before then moving to Beijing, where he worked with the US law firm Coudert Brothers in the firm’s M&A practice.
Before joining DBS in his current role in March 2019, Lee was formerly Managing Director & Head of Wealth Planning Trust & Insurance at Bank of Singapore. He had moved there in January 2010 from ING Asia Private Bank, where he had been Head of Wealth Planning Trust & Insurance for six years from March 2004, after four years in a regional Asia role at Merrill Lynch.
He has therefore gained over 20 years of expertise in marketing, client development and professional training in family office structuring, trusts, high-net-worth life insurance and estate planning in Asia Pacific. Over the year, he reports he has handled a wide variety of challenges and assignments, thereby building a broad expertise in wealth management.
“Life is all about timing and opportunities,” he comments. “While I was on the road to becoming a partner practising law, I saw the opportunities that the early Merrill Lynch move offered, and I felt that I could always return to law, if I so wished later on. It was a good move, and here I am still enjoying life in wealth management, which suits me ideally and which has a great future in Singapore and regionally.”
Lee is fluent in English and Mandarin – often lecturing in both languages – and is also conversant in Cantonese, Hokkien and Hainanese.
Lee enjoys the outdoor life when away from the pressures of work. Trekking is a pleasure and a challenge for him, with a recent trip to Mount Kinabalu in Malaysia and a trip planned for later this year to Mount Jade in Taiwan. Training for and running marathons is another passion.
Less vigorous pastimes include volunteering at both the National Gallery of Singapore as a guide, and also for the DBS Singapore Gallery. “This is a love of mine,” he reports, “as our heritage, art and culture are both fascinating and dear to me.”
Lee is also an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Wealth Management Institute of Singapore’s Nanyang Technological University, lecturing several times a year on various programmes including the Master’s programme on wealth planning and trust.
Aside from his role at NTU, Lee has also spoken as a guest lecturer at universities in China, and his views on family businesses are regularly featured in the leading local and global media, highlighting his expertise in the areas of strategic structuring of HNWI’s estate and succession planning, family governance and even philanthropic strategies.
Lee also enjoys watching sports, especially tennis. “Nadal is my favourite amongst the men and Plíšková amongst the women, she is world number two right now,” he reports. “I am sufficiently interested to have gone to the US Open, Australian Open and French Open in the past, and plan to get to Wimbledon someday.”
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