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Agnes Lew: Keeping it Real in the World of Wealth Management

July 21, 2016
Agnes Lew, senior vice president and director of Wealth Management at East West Bank
Agnes Lew, senior vice president and director of Wealth Management at East West Bank

Agnes Lew is the senior vice president and director of Wealth Management at East West Bank. Since taking the helm of Wealth Management in late 2012, the department’s revenue has grown almost ten-fold, and this year Bank Investment Consultant magazine named her as one of the top 20 program managers in the country for the third year in a row.

How did you grow your division so fast?

To be successful in the wealth management business, being sincere, genuine and “keeping it real” are very important. We must spend the time to listen to and understand our clients’ needs and should never recommend something that we wouldn’t do for our own family in similar circumstances. Our associates really have that as a backdrop for what motivates them.

I love to build stuff and problem solve. It is a lot of fun to build a team and, when we do our jobs well, we serve an important and needed function in the society. With automation and the internet, a bank is no longer a place for just transactions, as that can be mostly done online. Clients are looking for their bankers to be trusted advisers who can give them a holistic approach to managing their wealth.

We feel strongly that we are not just here for a job; we have a greater purpose. With many of our clients, it’s about educating them on options for planning a good retirement so they don’t outlive their savings. Longevity and the associated costs are one of the major “risks” these days, even for high-earning professionals. Many of us, including myself, sometimes make the mistake of spending more time planning our annual vacation than taking a hard look at our retirement planning, which is critically important.

For high-net-worth individuals and successful business owners, it’s about prudent wealth preservation and wealth transfer. Many of our successful business owners have golden hearts, but may not know the tools to be charitable in the most tax-efficient way. As a by-product of wealth planning, we share with them financially effective ways to give to whatever worthy causes they choose to support. As an example, East West Bank has a long tradition of supporting the arts. In addition to being the financial bridge for our clients, we are also the cultural bridge. Many of our clients enjoy the arts and want to be philanthropic in those areas, and that fits well with their overall wealth planning.

Wealth management is something that everyone needs, and when we are focused on doing the right things for our clients, the business will grow in due course.

It’s not like there’s a book that we are following. We are just trying our best to build this and I make mistakes along the way. I still have much to learn and that is what keeps me going every day!

You were educated as a scientist at Caltech. How did you get into finance?

I was doing research in biochemistry. By chance I learned about a technology company that was founded by some California Institute of Technology graduates. I went to work for that company and after a few years, the company went public and the founders became billionaires. They asked me to help them manage their personal investments. One of their venture investments was to start a cross-border brokerage firm. So basically overnight, I had to become the president of an existing U.S.-focused brokerage firm and I transformed the business into a cross-border platform with a de novo Greater China presence. I had to quickly get my licenses, build the technology platform and get approval from the regulators. That was my first foray into the financial industry: through one of the investments my bosses had. And, as the saying goes, things come back full circle; I feel very fortunate to be at East West Bank and doing exactly what I love to do – being the financial bridge between the East and West.

Do you think your scientific background influences the way you do business?

Being trained in the sciences provided a foundation of being intellectually curious. I always want to learn from others and don’t mind being the dumbest person in the room. Instead of getting emotional and jumping to conclusions, we should look at all the facts first and analyze the situation from multiple angles. That’s what you’re trained to do as a scientist.

One of the books I read recently is written by the 2002 Nobel Prize winner in economic sciences, Daniel Kahneman, called “Thinking, Fast and Slow.” In this day and age, with the pressure to produce results, we human beings have a tendency to act quickly. This book has made a strong impact on me and helped me make better decisions, both professionally and personally. It helped me understand the two systems that drive the way we think: system one is fast, intuitive and emotional; system 2 is slower, more deliberative and more logical. I am learning to be more thoughtful and to minimize mental glitches. I hope to earn the trust of our clients and colleagues on the basis of fairness and merit.

Got any investment advice?

There’s not one investment solution that is a be-all and end-all for everybody. How do we apply this to our work as a trusted financial adviser? I share with our associates that our job is like that of a doctor. A good doctor would thoroughly examine a patient before diagnosing. A good financial adviser should do the same and not take shortcuts. We need to do a thorough job to understand our clients’ needs and recommend solution(s) with their best interests at heart.

For high-net-worth individuals, proper estate planning is a must. Our team is particularly adept in helping high-net-worth new immigrants to navigate in the U.S., because in China, there are no estate taxes and the planning needs are very different. Our U.S. and Hong Kong wealth management teams work seamlessly to help our clients so they are well taken care of around the clock and that is something we are proud to say is "Only at East West Bank!"

A good banker should not be just about getting a paycheck or advancement. It makes us happy that our clients can sleep well at night knowing they have done [their] best to mitigate the longevity risk and, for those who have the means, they have done prudent planning for the next generation and perhaps given back to society. I truly hope, in a small but meaningful way, the wealth management team at East West Bank makes a positive impact on the communities we serve.