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Growing My Asia Banking Career from China

At the turn of the century, Stefan Baumann looked like he was set up for life in Germany. Having graduated with a degree in economics from the University of Cologne, he began corporate life on a training programme for a media company and started working for a consultancy. That was, until Asia started calling him again.

Now heading into his fifteenth year of banking in Asia, in a career that has already taken him to Shanghai, Guangzhou, Hong Kong and Singapore, Stefan sits down with MBA Admissions for a virtual catch up. Read on for three reflections from the MBA2004 alum on how he successfully grew his banking career from China.

Experiencing the real Asia

As the Head of EMEA for MNCs in APAC at Deutsche Bank, Stefan and his team look after the banking needs of MNC subsidiaries that are investing in Asia Pacific. Focusing on this corridor of activity, he encourages young banking professionals to enhance their expertise and understanding of Asia by looking beyond the more international bubbles of Hong Kong and Singapore.

“If you want to come to Asia and only focus on these two bubbles, you’re really missing out on so much of what is really driving the market here,” says Stefan. “I’d encourage young professionals to live and experience the big markets of China or India first, and then dive into the likes of Thailand, the Philippines and Indonesia. Chinese culture is of course prominent in many of these places, so China is a good place to start.”

Stefan’s Asia adventure also began in Indonesia. Having just finished high school, the then 19-year-old Stefan packed his bags to take on an internship in Jakarta thanks to his mother’s business connections.

“I loved it,” says Stefan. “It instilled in me this constant desire to try and figure out exactly where the world was heading. There wasn’t the same buzz around Asia back then, but I always felt the pull to come back here. Even after graduating from the University of Cologne, I immediately enrolled in an intensive Chinese language course at the Beijing Language and Culture University. I travelled, I learnt, I grew, but I still wanted more – and that is what ultimately led me to CEIBS.”

Embracing challenges

Attracted by the dynamism of Asia, Stefan got to know CEIBS at an MBA admissions fair in Frankfurt. After being admitted as part of the 2004 intake for the programme, he left his job in consultancy and flew to Shanghai for the 18-month journey. During those transformative months, Stefan developed his core business skills, knowledge of China – and also his patience.

“My fondest and deepest memory of the MBA was working on group projects with my peers, but I have to admit it wasn’t always a picnic,” recalls Stefan. “Back then there was a ratio of four Chinese students to every one international. Our ways of working and approaching projects were sometimes very different. I can vividly recall being sat in a discussion room at 2AM, tearing my hair out because I didn’t know how we were going to have something tangible to present in class later that day. But each time, magic happened and we made it.”

For Stefan, overcoming these challenges represented one of the most valuable takeaways from the programme. Something that has stuck with him even to this day as he witnesses many corporate expats being sent from European Headquarters directly into Asia – with mixed results.

“I think that’s the problem with the expat model. From a cultural emersion perspective, many expats, without these prior cultural immersion experiences, may not have the right attitude to adapt to and run with some of the differences,” says Stefan. “If you come in with an attitude of ‘this is how it works in head office, and this is how we’re going to do it here’ then maybe Asia isn’t right for you. What CEIBS gave me were the tools to embrace these challenges. If you embrace them, then Asia is the type of place that will embrace you right back.”

You may not be the first to get hired – but that is OK

After graduating in 2005, Stefan was focused on finding career opportunities in China. Many of his international peers left China shortly after finishing the programme, but it was important for Stefan not to lose momentum on his career development trajectory in Asia.

“I could see there was a big demand for my Chinese peers back then, but companies didn’t quite know what to do with us internationals. It may be different now, but I guess we didn’t neatly fit into many of the predefined buckets of recruitment,” says Stefan. “It wasn’t easy, but what helped was finding the right strategy to approach target employers – that, and being tenacious.”

Having focused his initial search on German multinationals based in China, Stefan’s lucky break came in the shape of Deutsche Bank.

“You have to own the fact that, as a candidate, you’re a bit unorthodox compared to the majority of applicants,” says Stefan. “I sent my CV and cover letter to a senior banker at the bank’s headquarters in Germany. The letter then found its way to the team located in the Shanghai branch, and they took a chance on me.”

The reward for his patience came in the form of an invaluable hands-on education in China’s rapidly developing banking sector. Over the subsequent ten years, Stefan would take on more responsibility for the bank in China, from VP Senior Relationship Manager in Shanghai, to General Manager of the Guangzhou branch and then Head of Credit Strategy in Hong Kong.

“Having the China angle on the changing landscape of Chinese and multinational corporate clients has really helped my profile to stand out as I have climbed the career ladder in Asia over the years,” says Stefan. “If you’re ready to grow out of your comfort zone, then the challenge is here waiting for you.”