As we walked into Wei Christianson’s office, a middle-aged Chinese man slipped quietly out of it.
Morgan Stanley’s Beijing-based China chief executive had met us in a conference room but the FT’s photographer had insisted on capturing her afterwards in more personal surroundings.
Was he the boss of a large corporate client who had the next slot in Christianson’s busy calendar? “We have a large pipeline [of deals] right now,” she had told me earlier. “I can’t talk about it but there are two or three big ones.”
Hoping for a scoop, I press on her visitor’s identity. “He’s my driver,” she says, bursting my bubble.
Christianson, 57, doesn’t give scoops away that easily – or much else. Also co-chief executive and managing director of Morgan Stanley’s Asia-Pacific business, she measures her words carefully. But for a woman who appears to be very much in control, her entry into the investment banking world was a bit of an accident.
Five years before she became a banker, Christianson was at a party in Hong Kong. She was talking to a neighbour who suddenly said: “You’re a godsend.”
“To do what?” she asked.
“To list Chinese companies in Hong Kong,” came the reply.
The neighbour was a senior official at Hong Kong’s market regulator, the Securities and Futures Commission, which was preparing for the first-ever overseas listings of Chinese companies in the then-British colony. The SFC was looking for someone with Christianson’s skills to join its corporate finance department ahead of the influx of such initial public offerings.
Christianson is now one of the highest-ranking figures in Asian investment banking. “I don’t believe that women in the financial services sector are treated very differently in China than they are in the US or Europe,” she says. “Banking is only one portion of my job right now. I spend a lot of my time focusing on supervision of all our business platforms and building our management team.”
Her role is twofold. She chases deals and represents Morgan Stanley’s Asia and China franchises globally. At the same time, Christianson must oversee the development of Morgan Stanley’s overall China business. This encompasses a wide range of joint ventures – in everything from asset management to securities and trusts – in which foreign investment banks can only hold minority stakes.
“The restriction on [foreign] ownership is unfortunate,” she says. “We’re lucky in the sense we have great partners … Hopefully it will open up soon. I’m cautiously optimistic.”
Christianson grew up in China and came of age just as Deng Xiaoping was consolidating his grip on power, ushering in a long period of political stability and economic growth. That translated into an opportunity to go to university in the US – at Amherst College in Massachusetts – after which she studied law at Columbia University and worked as a corporate lawyer in New York.
In 1992, Christianson and her American husband, also a corporate lawyer, moved to Hong Kong for his job. She, meanwhile, was contemplating a career change. “After giving birth [to my first child] I realised there was no way I could travel; but if you were a corporate lawyer in Hong Kong, you travelled,” she says. “I wanted to have more kids and build a family, so I had to do something else but I didn’t know what.”
That’s where her new neighbour came in. Christianson understood both the law and the securities business, and was fluent in Mandarin and English. “My neighbour said: ‘You’re hired.’ I said, ‘Wait a minute, I have to see how much you pay – I’ve got to support a family,’” she recalls. “The next day I went to their offices and got the job.”
Christianson’s husband, however, felt she had a brighter future ahead of her as poacher, rather than gamekeeper. “He said I don’t see you thriving as a regulator,” she says. “He put the idea in my head to become a banker. I was intrigued but I didn’t really know what it entailed.”
In the late 1990s, she joined Morgan Stanley’s investment banking arm and – apart from a detour from 2002 until 2005, to run Credit Suisse’s China business and then to Citigroup – has steadily climbed up the ranks. This year, Christianson’s China investment banking team advised Shuanghui International on its successful $7.1bn takeover of Smithfield Foods, America’s largest pork producer, the largest US acquisition by a Chinese firm.
Investment banks operating in China have also been under the scrutiny of the US Securities and Exchange Commission for their hiring practices – specifically for the employment of so-called “princelings” with family connections to senior Chinese leaders and the executives who run the country’s state-owned enterprises. Earlier this year, the SEC opened a formal investigation into practices at JPMorgan. It has subsequently asked other large banks, including Morgan Stanley, about their business in the country, although these inquiries do not amount to formal probes. Christianson says she cannot comment on the SEC’s actions.
As an investment banker advising Chinese companies on restructurings, stock market listings and overseas acquisitions, Christianson has in a sense come full circle – back to her time at the SFC in Hong Kong and her early years in China. “I was at the SFC when Chinese companies first had the opportunity to raise funds outside China. I was very proud to be associated with that,” she says, adding that the corporate restructurings at state-owned enterprises in the run-up to their IPOs in Hong Kong and elsewhere have “been very significant in the history of China’s reform”.
For her generation, the broader sweep of Chinese history is never far away. Christianson’s mother was a doctor who joined the communist revolution in 1939, and later became a hospital administrator. Her father was in the military.
“I was raised during the cultural revolution, when people didn’t have many options,” she says. “But sometimes there was a little light at the end of the tunnel and you had to work really hard and persistently towards that light … I was old enough to remember but young enough not to participate. I was not in the Red Guards but I have other memories … ” She stops herself, careful not to reveal too much. But the subject lingers. “I am amazed, thinking back to how horrible everything was,” she suddenly adds. “It all seems quite sad now and yet there were sparks of optimism because of this very strong desire [people had] to try to make something out of nothing … I don’t want to get into personal stories but I can tell you one thing – what I’ve learnt from my parents is the toughness of the human spirit. No one can defeat you but yourself.”
Tom Mitchell is an FT Beijing correspondent