Women in trade finance: Interview with our Certified Trade Finance Professional (CTFP) graduate

Singapore, 13 January: We are all aware that diversity in leadership positions is key for any growing business and yet globally, women are still some way off from achieving gender parity with men. The World Economic Forum’s (WEF) Gender Gap Report 2020 findings represent a sobering prediction: another 100 years to close the gender gap. Furthermore, the study reveals that gender gaps tend to widen at the seniority level, with the presence of women on corporate boards at 18%.

Despite these barriers, the trade finance industry continues to showcase women who have overcome these challenges. In our ‘Women in trade finance’ series, we spoke to Ling Fong Tay, who heads Transaction Services, Product Management, at SEB. Ms Tay is one of our recent graduates in Certified Trade Finance Professional (CTFP), an advanced professional trade finance qualification that offers in-depth knowledge of the various trade finance products, techniques and compliance issues.

Discover Ms Tay’s journey within the banking industry and how her love for learning has enabled her to achieve her career objectives.

ICC Academy: Tell us about your background?

Ms Tay: I began my career in consumer banking at DBS.  From here, I made the switch to transaction banking by moving on to ABN AMRO, DBS again and then Deutsche Bank.

Having spent most of my professional life in cash management, I was keen on making a transition to trade finance. This opportunity came along in 2016 with the position to head Transaction Services, Product Management for Asia with SEB, a Nordic financial services group.

Being an advocate of lifelong learning,  I decided to enrol in the ICC Academy’s flagship programme, the Certified Trade Finance Professional (CTFP) in June 2020.

ICC Academy: Can you talk us through your journey to reach your current position?

Ms Tay: I started working in consumer banking before moving to wholesale banking, working within business development and product management and gradually transitioning into sales and cash management. The career mobility provided me with excellent exposure to domestic, regional and international client segments across different geographies.

Working in trade finance has always been in my career roadmap. Whilst looking to switch to trade finance, I came across the position at SEB. As the Head of Transaction Services, Product Management for Asia, my role involves checking market movements, identifying latest customer demands, and providing intel on regular trade front in each market that we cover.

ICC Academy: Describe some important elements of your work; what does a typical day or week involve?

Ms Tay: SEB is headquartered in Sweden with offices in international financial centres, and in Asia via offices in Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong and Singapore.

During the course of 2019 to 2020, a number of banks either scaled back or withdrew completely from the markets that SEB operates in.  We have demonstrated our commitment to existing clients and started new business relationships in areas where other banks exited.  My core focus is to seamlessly integrate and leverage the Asian franchise to provide a harmonised client experience as well as to help create value in our clients’ business.

On a strategic level, I take care of local and regional product requirements to ensure that we keep up with the regulatory landscape and deliver relevant and value-added services in a timely manner to our clients. Having a good network of market intelligence on what’s happening with external parties such as fintech companies, as well as competitor banks, is an integral part of my job. I keep my colleagues, both in Asia and in the Nordics, posted on the dynamics of transaction banking landscape so that we can adapt and respond to competition and regulatory changes.

I see “balance” playing an essential role in what I do on a daily basis: balance between the tactical and the strategic especially where there is a conflict between investment prioritisation and resource availability, balance between trusting my hunch and interpreting the data and balance between compromising to be a good team player and sticking firmly to my guns to be a vocal advocate for clients.

ICC Academy: What skills have helped you reach a senior position within the team?

Ms Tay: I have been fortunate to have worked in various roles to hone my hard skills.  Other than that, I believe that having soft skills is equally important. The versatility to adapt quickly to the changing business landscape, keeping an eye on collaboration opportunities with partners, having the curiosity to learn such as taking up industry validated certificate programmes and finally being compassionate towards people I work with is crucial.

Hard skills can be picked, it’s the soft skills that makes us tick

Developing a collaborative mindset is important to see us through in the world of technology disruptions. Banks alone can no longer create an end-to-end solution to monopolise clients’ entire value chain. We must learn how to think like big techs and collaborate with these challengers. This will help us grow together as one of the participants in the ecosystem and remain relevant to our clients.

Having open dialogs to brainstorm ideas within the teams also helps ensure there is integration with the global strategy and product roadmap of the company.

ICC Academy: What is your favourite part of the job and the most challenging?

Ms Tay: I enjoy everything that I do in my current role. What I value most is the deeply entrenched relationship that we share with our external stakeholders and clients.

The challenging bit is not much to do with the job itself. It’s rather in terms of increasing the share of mind of colleagues in the head office. Most of the attention is in the areas of financial crime prevention and keeping up with Europe-centric regulatory demands. Hence, my focus is on creating visibility and demonstrating the franchise value for Asia and in helping my colleagues navigate the nuances in this region.

ICC Academy: Singapore is considered as one of the world’s technological and financial centres. How has the pandemic affected this and what do you think the future looks like for banks in the region?

Ms Tay: The pandemic has spared none. Singapore closed its worst year of economic performance in 2020 where GDP contracted by 5.8 per cent and the pandemic has wiped out thousands of jobs.  However, I am still optimistic about the recovery path – Singapore’s efforts in containing the Covid-19 spread has alleviated the growth slump. Even in the middle of a pandemic Singapore has signed the world’s largest trade pact, the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) together with 15 other countries. This is in addition to the bilateral free trade agreement in ASEAN. I think our strategy as a nation and people is to remain open and stay connected with the rest of the world, while still taking precautions as we see subsequent waves hitting near our shores.

We are also expecting to see supply chain diversification in South East Asia (SEA). Corporations are starting to rethink their business contingency strategy, whether to concentrate their supply chain in a single location or setting up little outposts in different parts of the world to avoid supply chain disruption in future. As of now, the situation is still very fluid and as a bank, we are keeping an eye on the market situation.

ICC Academy: Describe your experience with the ICC Academy’s Certified Trade Finance Professional (CTFP) programme? Why did you decide to take it up and how has this helped you achieve your career objectives?

Ms Tay: With a career expansion from cash management to trade finance, I decided to take up a professional certification in this area.

I enrolled in ICC Academy’s advanced level Certified Trade Finance Professional (CTFP) because this certification is authored by leading trade finance experts from the ICC’s Banking Commission, making it one of the most credible programmes available in the market. Each course is structured to ensure the essentials of global trade finance have been sufficiently covered. The lessons provide a broad understanding of all trade finance products – from letters of credit through to supply chain financing techniques.

I was able to complete the programme in just under two months as the course content is highly organised and delivered via the Academy’s e-learning portal. This enables self-paced and self-directed learning anytime, anywhere.  I had complete control and ownership over when and where I want to complete the lessons – all it takes is focus, discipline and commitment.

Besides learning the technical side of trade finance, one of my objectives of taking the professional certification was to develop a network with trade finance professionals.

I am now connected through the recently launched ICC Alumni Network, with 800 other graduates from 92 industries, who graduated in 2020.

ICC Academy: Do you see a lack of diversity at the top in terms of leaders in trade finance?

Ms Tay:  I personally do not perceive the lack of diversity working at SEB. In fact, we pride ourselves as leading in this area, with 47% of SEB’s managers being women and among senior managers, 36% were women as of 2019.

In general, this is not always the case. In my opinion, the pathway to accelerating gender parity has become evident. It’s time companies offer equal opportunities to all members of society, leverage gender diversity and invest in employee talent through ongoing upskilling. Business and government should work together on creating a new economic and social narrative for action and coordinating the process for change.

Encouraging women in leadership, shining a spotlight on female role models, creating inclusive workplace cultures and changing mindsets, cultures, and policies – are all attainable ways to close the gender gap.

The other thing is having more ‘lean in’ groups, that champion the interest of women in the professional world.

ICC Academy: What advice would you give women aspiring for leadership positions?

Ms Tay: For women aspiring for leadership positions, my advice to you is:

Be courageous: Step up and step out of your comfort zone to explore new opportunities; you never know if you never try.

Be confident and compassionate: Believe in yourself and practice self-compassion when you encounter any setback; treating others with compassion will also pay dividends in your personal and career development.

Be curious: Curiosity fuels and motivates learning – be on the continuous lookout for learning opportunities to drive both professional and personal growth.

ICC Academy: What advice would you give to junior employees who want a career in trade finance?

Ms Tay: Thanks to the recent advancement in technology, big data and cloud computing, trade finance is transforming into a much more exciting area. With so much disruptions happening around the world, the traditional way of doing business is changing. There’s a lot of untapped potential with the emergence of new players in the market, supported by enabling technologies such as blockchain, artificial intelligence (AI), Internet of Things (IoT) and machine learning (ML) which hold the promise of transforming banking and reshaping trade financing.

I would like to suggest that junior employees build a firm grounding with the fundamentals and actively seek opportunities to take on different roles within their organisation or participate in cross functional projects. Staff in operations should aspire to have some form of contact with customers and work in a client facing role. There are varied roles within trade finance from operations to client services to even a product sales role. Depending on individual interest and motivation, one should aim to get exposure to different parts of the same business to have a 360-degree overview.

It’s equally important to keep tabs on the industry trends. One way is to keep an eye on what the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC) is doing like the ICC AOKpass mobile app, the ICC Global Survey on Trade Finance and the ICC Centre for Entrepreneurship, to name a few. Such market insights, coupled with a wide professional network, will go a long way in helping you develop a keen business acumen to navigate the VUCA world.

For more information, please contact:
Priyanka Satapathy
Communications and Events Manager
Priyanka.Satapathy@iccacademy.com.sg