Sridhar Chandrasekharan
© Tony Healey

In a world where executives are quick to seek out new opportunities and higher pay packages, there still survives a dwindling breed of loyal corporate soldiers.

They can be identified by three things: their long careers at the same organisation, their proclaimed love for their work, and their email addresses, because most use only one — the company address.

Sridhar Chandrasekharan, chief executive of HSBC’s asset management business, which oversees $415bn of assets, is one such corporate soldier.

After 24 years at the UK-based bank, he refers collectively to himself and HSBC as “we” and uses an email account even when contacting old friends. 

One such friend recalls asking Mr Chandrasekharan why he does not use an alternative email account to manage his private life, and potential career opportunities. “But Sri’s like, ‘I’m not going to change jobs. I’m happy’,” the friend says. 

Mr Chandrasekharan has worked at HSBC since graduating in 1993. After working his way up in the bank’s markets division, he shifted to asset management in 2010 and became chief executive two years later. 

When HSBC relocated its fund operations to Hong Kong in 2015 — in the midst of a fiery debate about the location of its headquarters — the 46-year-old shifted too.

We meet on one of his frequent visits to London. He insists that his move was motivated by the bank’s ambitions to expand in Asia, rather than discussions about regulation, taxes and Brexit, which engulfed the parent group for almost a year.

He believes China and India will become the industry’s main engines of growth as investors in developed markets shift their savings to cheaper, passively managed products.

“I think the sense was Asia is very fast growing from an asset managers’ perspective. China, for example, is looking to reform its pension system, India has its Employees’ Provident Fund system, where they are looking to make some advances, and the Government Pension Investment Fund in Japan is also evolving.”

He reveals he is looking for deal opportunities in this changing landscape, but stops short of a definitive commitment to acquiring in Asia. “We are growing and we see an opportunity to grow,” he says.

There is something of a mandarin about Mr Chandrasekharan, who is the son of a public servant and seems comfortable in the bland conference room where we are sitting, which is decorated with a single, forlorn plant.

His answers are sometimes paragraphs long and I am startled by his extensive preparation for our interview. He attributes his methodical approach and skill in technical analysis to his upbringing and education.

“I went through a somewhat prescribed pathway when I was growing up,” he says, recalling his engineering degree at the Indian Institute of Technology and MBA at the Indian Institute of Management, two of the country’s most prestigious universities.

“I joined HSBC straight away after [university] in India. I have been at HSBC ever since.”

According to Mr Chandrasekharan, the job at HSBC shook up his life by sending him abroad — first to Indonesia, then the Philippines, Hong Kong and London. He sees his career, which is conservative by some measures, as thrilling, especially after he made the leap to asset management.

“I find the asset management industry to be tremendously interesting,” he says when I ask why he switched.

“There are, to my mind, some very favourable trends as far as the asset management industry is concerned. The first is of course what has been much written about, the need for people to source retirement income primarily from investment returns.

“The other is that financial services, or indeed financial markets, are increasingly complex, so therefore one way in which to address some of the complexity is to find somebody who is acting as an agent on your behalf.”

The topic is geeky, but Mr Chandrasekharan hits on a crucial point: in a world of low returns, investment advice is in demand but the appetite for fees is low.

Most banks and fund houses are intermediated by powerful financial advisers who direct investors towards certain products in exchange for fees.

In recent years banks have curtailed their investment advice businesses after strict rules to promote transparency and competition came into force in the UK and a number were hit by mis-selling fines. In 2011, HSBC itself paid a £10.5m penalty for wrongly offering certain bonds to elderly clients. 

But a new model of investment has introduced the possibility of selling funds directly to consumers, sidestepping advisers entirely. China-based Tianhong Asset Management has attracted 300m users to Yu’e Bao, its online money market fund, in just over three years.

It is seeking to pre-empt a regulatory clampdown on unadvised investment by introducing a background advice system, where a robo-adviser profiles investors online and offers them portfolios that suit their needs. 

Mr Chandrasekharan becomes excited when he talks about robo-advice technology, which is cheap and enables fund companies to retake business from independent advisers. 

In the UK, the financial watchdog has opened the door to this by clarifying its definition of financial advice. Many lenders, including HSBC, have since launched their own robo-advice systems where investors use online questionnaires to generate automated advice.

The question, according to Mr Chandrasekharan, is whether automated advice can become nuanced enough to offer answers based on people’s particular circumstances, rather than general categories. 

“You could theoretically use technology to have something that is bespoke for individuals,” he says. “We would legitimately each have different financial goals depending on our life stage.”

And what are Mr Chandrasekharan’s own goals? Financial and otherwise?

“It is not any mystery the sorts of things that I would be saving for,” he says smiling. A comment that sums him up: here is a man who has always saved for his retirement.

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