The KBC branch in Hong Kong is small but offers clients from this part of the world all the services they need over there: payments, trade finance and treasury. Apart from the operational bank services they offer strategic advice of the kind clients are accustomed to from KBC in Belgium. In the front office there are relationship managers, such as Silvie Vermoote.
'Together with my colleagues I help some 200 clients with their activities in Hong Kong,’ Silvie Vermoote explains. ‘These are firms that do business from or to Belgium, but also with the other home markets of KBC: the Czech Republic, Hungary, Slovakia and Bulgaria. Our clients appreciate the fact that we don't just regard them as a number, as we don't serve the entire world but are always accessible and available for them.’
The firms that KBC supports in Hong Kong don't manufacture there but oversee their activities in China administratively and financially, something which takes a good deal of local knowledge. ‘For this reason I am almost in daily contact with my KBC colleagues in Shanghai and Singapore.’
Seven hours earlier
In Hong Kong the day begins six to seven hours earlier than in Belgium. In the morning the branch concentrates on local, more operational issues, such as treasury requirements: ‘In Europe clients paid in euros, but here in Asia suppliers want American dollars or Chinese yuans. Before our client is able to conclude a deal with the supplier, he wants to be sure that his margin can't be eroded by the exchange rate. He wants that kind of certainty right away, not just towards the end of the day. Furthermore the financial markets are more liquid for certain currencies during the morning, so that there are gains to be made if I get in touch straightaway with our dealing room.’
Another daily activity is payments. Generally speaking that goes smoothly, but it's always possible for something to go wrong: ‘Sometimes for example the very long names of Chinese counterparties can contain spelling errors. If the payments department fails to pick these up straight away, the transaction will go wrong.’
Relationship managers are of course also heavily involved with customised financing solutions. ‘Take for example Van der Erve. As their Beconnected establishment is now also delivering directly to major customers, they are required to maintain stocks of their own. If they had to finance these themselves they would find themselves short of cash in next to no time. In addition we provide advances for the invoices that Van der Erve sends out. The final customers in Europe often don't pay straight away and we provide financing arrangements to cover the period the firm has to bridge.’
Focus on the long term
From mid-afternoon onwards there is space to get in touch with key people at clients in Belgium. These will be more concerned with the overall shape of the desired financing arrangements or about future strategies. These regular talks are also important, as the staff at KBC are anxious to understand the needs of the local establishment in the wider context of the company as a whole. ‘Take for example the sharp increase in Van der Erve's funding requirement: two years ago they did not require any stock financing. In the course of a strategic meeting our client explained that they were well aware that textiles were a highly competitive market and that they therefore wished to focus on clients for the long term who were prepared to order big volumes at a reasonable margin for Van der Erve. We see this as a solid strategy, which is moreover consistent with the way in which the business is run in Belgium.’
At KBC we too want to be a partner for the long term, as reflected in the fact that we have already been working together constructively in Hong Kong for eight years.