UCD graduate moved his family to Hong Kong with just five weeks’ notice

Wild geese Bob Keogh, head of State Street’s Alternative Investment Solutions unit for Asia Pacific

Bob Keogh, from Terenure, has been in and out of Ireland over the years since he left the Smurfit Business School, but is now based in Hong Kong where he is tasked with meeting rising demand for alternative investment servicing in the Asia Pacific region for the leading custody bank State Street.

State Street is on the 68th floor of Hong Kong’s International Finance Centre, a lengthy journey by two crowded lifts, opening out into an office overlooking the harbour, where land reclamation projects add more land to ever more congested Hong Kong.

China’s economy is meant to be slowing down, but there is little evidence of this in Hong Kong.

Keogh was appointed head of State Street’s Alternative Investment Solutions unit for Asia Pacific last September, where responsibilities include growing the firm’s hedge, private equity, and real estate administration businesses.

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After attending Terenure College, Keogh did a B.Comm at UCD, then masters at Smurfit Business School, before joining PriceWaterhouse.

“Most of the people I qualified with all went to Australia for a year. I went in the opposite direction and got a job with Goldman Sachs in New York in 1998. I spent three years with Goldman there,” he said.

“I was leaving for an Irish firm that would split my time between New York and Dublin, and London to a small extent, when Goldman asked me to come back and set up the operations for Goldman in Ireland. So it was the first time we had an office in Ireland. And so I came back to Ireland May 2001,” he said.

In all, he worked for 14 years in the hedge fund business, joining State Street from Goldman Sachs after it bought Goldman Sachs’ Administration Services (GSAS) business.

He ended up running GSAS in Europe and Asia where, as well as setting up the Irish office, he set up offices in Hong Kong in 2007, and Singapore in 2009.

Small environment

For many people, Hong Kong can be a small environment to work in but he finds it useful in his line of business.

“In my business, all our clients are either in a major financial centre in New York, Boston, London, Hong Kong or Singapore. In Dublin you’re kind of physically dislocated from your clients. You literally have to go to London or New York, whereas in Hong Kong, you can visit 10 clients walking in a day. So it’s very close and it’s a relatively small community. You get to know a lot of people very, very quickly,” said Keogh.

“From an alternatives perspective, there are higher expectations on our team to show higher rates of growth in a less mature market [vis-a-vis New York or London]. We’ve only really been in the alternatives business in Asia for the last five years. And it’s grown exponentially,” said Keogh.

“There are large pools of capital in the region that are underweight in alternatives. So we have the view that there will be more and more growth here. We’re really just trying to build up our teams, and our infrastructure, to accommodate that. So we definitely see it growing,” said Keogh.

The attitude to Hong Kong and other regional hubs such as Singapore has changed, and the days where people served time in the former Crown colony before moving back to New York or London are long gone.

Asia has really emerged as a hedge fund and private equity force to be reckoned with.

“We’re building decent teams. We’ve brought expats in, but many are locals coming home who were schooled, went to university, and had their first five or ten years’ experience in North America or Australia. So it’s people coming in with a view of being here, as opposed to a stepping stone.”

Five weeks

The move to Hong Kong for Keogh, his wife and three children, happened within about five weeks.

“It was literally five weeks from getting the final word to actually getting on the plane. We had a two-week holiday – my first two-week holiday for about 10 or 15 years – during that period.

“It happened so quickly in the end, because we were waiting for final decisions from Boston. In the end, we had to email a lot of our friends to say ‘by the way I won’t see you for a while, we’re going to live in Hong Kong’. So it was a bit of a mad rush but it’s amazing how much you can get done, if you need to get it done?”

There is a lot of potential there, in Keogh’s opinion.

“Where I live, most of my neighbours aren’t in financial services. They’re French, they’re Scandinavians, they’re Dutch, and they’re here to access China. So I think there’s more buzz in Hong Kong, in recent years, just because there’s a lot more people coming here,” said Keogh.

As to the perennial debate in the region – Hong Kong or Singapore – Keogh reckons the argument ebbs and flows.

“For me, I think the majority of our clients are in Hong Kong. We were seeing more start-ups in the last couple of years.

“That said, recently we’ve seen a number in Singapore. So, you know, a lot of it comes down to the individuals behind these firms, what makes sense for them. And they evaluate, Hong Kong over Singapore for family reasons, perhaps. I don’t think it’s necessarily a regulatory driven decision. I think it’s more personal.”