SMU Alumnus Reveals How Hard Work, Hunger and Humility Helped him Soar

By the SMU Corporate Communications team

The movie Crazy Rich Asians portrayed how the ultra-rich in Singapore lived, worked and played.  What is it like to engage with this well-heeled demographic on a daily basis? Leon Qiu, 33, who has at his peak, managed more than USD120 million in private wealth, sheds light on his experiences. He describes himself as a rebel at heart and that he “may not have been the brightest crayon in the box, but I compensated with incredible responsiveness to client calls”.


An alumnus of SMU Lee Kong Chian School of Business, Leon graduated with a Bachelor of Business Management in 2010, and a Master of Science in Wealth Management (MWM) in 2014. Leon completed his undergraduate degree with honours in just three years while working full-time as a bartender, getting his foot into the world of private banking by sheer dint of will and hard work.


Today, after more than nine years in the wealth management industry, Leon is exploring new business possibilities in a frontier market. Traversing Southeast Asia’s untapped bionetwork and complex terrain may be a daunting prospect but for Leon, it is a challenge he embraces.


Interestingly, Leon does not believe that immense material wealth guarantees happiness. According to the avid reader, he personally aspires to invest his later years in more charitable pursuits, such as fund-raising for a non-profit organisation. The quote “I will spend the first half of my life earning a fortune and the second half of my life giving it all away” sums up his philosophy.


SMU caught up with Leon to find out firsthand how he has navigated the career ladder successfully since graduation and his advice for aspiring private bankers and entrepreneurs.  


Q: What inspired you to become a private banker?


Leon: I had an awakening that private banking was something I wanted to get into when I first graduated from University. Back in 2010, my peers were bent on landing a job in either investment banking or management consulting. I geared naturally towards a career that was sales-oriented. Looking back, I was enamoured with the stereotypical private banker lifestyle of fine dining, high living, jet-setting, crazy rich Asian style. I worked out this five-year plan on how I would go about achieving my goal of becoming a private banker.


Q: It’s said that life as a private banker is not easy. How do you keep yourself motivated?


Leon: Early on, I learnt to develop a coping mechanism by detaching myself from the inflows and outflows that occur in the funds that I managed. Thus, I would be neither overjoyed if large funds came in nor a wreck if large funds were withdrawn.


Regardless of the financial institution one works for, I firmly believe that you as an individual serves as the true differentiator to a client or prospect. I may not have been the brightest crayon in the box, but I compensated with incredible responsiveness to client calls and meetings. Perhaps this dogmatic focus on delivering no-nonsense superior customer service set me apart in the eyes of my clients. 


The underlying motivation that keeps me in this industry is my genuine interest in people and the fact that you get to learn so much from your clients. I love asking them how they made their money, what mistakes they made and what regrets they have. I am not sure if it is my disarming nature, but clients readily tell all and it is an absolute wonder to bear witness to their tales of old.


I think the constant interactions with my clients at an impressionable age, really shaped my mindset and life philosophy for the better. I tapped on their experiences and applied it to my own life, soaking in priceless lessons. I have become a more productive and open-minded individual.



Q: What influenced you to select the Master of Science in Wealth Management (MWM) offered by SMU?


Leon: Firstly, I felt I needed a step-up in terms of accreditation standard from my degree and preferably wealth management related to remain competitive amongst my peers. Secondly, it being offered by SMU, meant that lectures were cosy and inclusive, intense but consultative which I enjoy. From a personal brand perspective, a private banker with a Master’s from a highly respected local institution like SMU offered some differentiating element to prospective clients. In a recent interview with The Sunday Times, I shared how the MWM gave me the opportunity to exchange professional viewpoints with my course mates and professors in a tri-continental educational experience spanning Singapore, Switzerland and the United States.


Q: What was your biggest takeaway from the MWM programme?


Leon: I did not expect to learn so much. The MWM programme is truly comprehensive and holistic. On a micro level you delve deep into individual asset classes, which on its own is a lot of content to cover. From a macro perspective, you learn about portfolio management and ethical framework. What’s more, you gain a good grasp of the entire wealth management industry from exposures to family office set ups and external asset managers. I realised there was still so much I did not know, and still don’t. My experience with the programme sparked a passion for learning and a life-changing appetite for learning.


Q: How do you think your experiences at SMU contributed towards your success today?


Leon: As a business undergraduate, I aimed to complete my degree and graduate with honours in three years, which shaved off a year. This meant that I had to load more courses per term. I was focused on forming groups only with teammates who had strong complementary strengths. To top things off, I worked full time as a bartender on weeknights and weekends to supplement my finances.  Upon reflection, I guess the entire SMU undergrad experience developed in me, a strong sense of self directedness. 


My postgraduate coursemates were an inspiring lot. MWM attracts such a diverse international student population that you inevitably get exposed to an entire spectrum of intelligent opinions. Also, my initial preconceived notions of certain professionals were shattered. I never would have thought that the employees of a sovereign wealth fund would exhibit such humility or that retired army generals possessed such wit.


Q: Can you tell us more about your business venture?


Leon: In the near future, I am trying to set up a venture in a very interesting market. I am looking to create something that truly generates real tangible value to all stakeholders involved. I had contemplated working for a charity, but most non-profit organisations exist as valuer transferors, moving benefits from donor to recipient. I believe that the future would only reward business models that are both incredibly profitable and socially impactful as well. It keeps me awake at night and I am truly excited by the prospect of a business that can promote real change and transform an economy. Also, I get a real good kick out of doing things people say cannot be done.


Q: Besides work, what’s keeping you busy these days?


Leon: Other than work, I spend time keeping up with my active three-and-a-half-year-old son. 


Q: After close to a decade in wealth management, what’s your advice for aspiring private bankers?


Leon: Go for it. Do whatever it takes to get into this role. Show up, work hard and you will be rewarded. Spend it all, spend it freely, without remorse. You will finally understand firsthand why money cannot buy you happiness. Perhaps then, I hope you will find something more purposeful, or find greater purpose within.


 [Featured photo: SMU alumnus, Leon Qiu (pictured here with his son), a graduate of the Master of Science in Wealth Management (MWM) programme, talks about the real meaning of money.]