Sitting in the bar of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in Hong Kong, Raymond Tse still remembers his two-year MBA study from more than a decade ago vividly and with a big smile.
He recalls everything, from his classmates with whom he remains friends to his room in the dormitory by the sea in Hong Kong. Seeing this immaculately groomed businessman sitting in one of the poshest hotel bars in Hong Kong, it is hard to imagine him as a hard-up student.
But Mr Tse was one of the first MBA students to study at Hong Kong University of Science and Technology’s business school just over 10 years ago.
Talking about his MBA experience he says that one of the things that made the strongest impression on him was the technique of analysing a business’s strengths, weaknesses, opportunities and threats (SWOT) – one of the tools taught in business schools.
This basic management concept helped him to win his first job in the financial industry, he believes.
“I went to a job interview and the guy who interviewed me asked me to do a SWOT analysis of myself,” says Mr Tse. He got the job.
This first step on the ladder was as a sales executive at Datastream, the financial data provider later acquired by Thomson Financial, the US financial data company.
These days he is regional managing director at Thomson’s Asia Pacific operations, supervising more than 100 sales people in the region and selling complicated data to some of the world’s most important financial services companies.
All this is a far cry from his undergraduate days. When he graduated from university in 1991, he says, he knew nothing about the commercial world: all he wanted to do was to become a chartered engineer.
At the time, his future looked bright. Hong Kong was about to kick off its biggest infrastructure project in recent years – the new airport. This promised to create hundreds of engineering jobs after a prolonged downturn in the construction industry.
With that in mind, and a civil engineering degree in hand, he got a trainee job in the government drainage services department. This might put many people off, but it did not deter him. “I thought it was a pretty good starting point,” he says. “I knew that in five years I would become a chartered engineer.”
However, he soon changed his mind and after little more than six months in the job he decided to give up engineering altogether.
“I made some new friends, you know, investment bankers, traders, stockbrokers. I realised that I wanted to make a lot of money too. Engineering would not get me very far,” says Mr Tse.
His next job did not get him very far either. He starting selling cuddly toys, but again quit after three months.
“When I was with that trading firm, I realised how little I knew about the business world. I didn’t even understand what a letter of credit was,” he says.
So he decided to do an MBA, even though he was not convinced it would teach him how to understand such documents.
With little money and work experience, his options were limited to two full-time programmes available in Hong Kong, one offered by the Chinese University of Hong Kong and the other by the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology. In spite of HKUST’s short history – it started teaching the MBA only in 1991, a year before he applied – he says he was attracted by the school’s experienced faculty and teaching emphasis on finance. To his delight, he was accepted by HKUST and spent his next two years on the university’s stunning campus. Like many MBAs, he believes those 24 months changed his life. “I was a blank sheet who didn’t even know how to draw a supply and demand curve. For me, every day was an eye-opener,” he says.
He did learn more than just how to draw those lines. As HKUST was not very well known then, he and his classmates had to persuade companies to allow them to conduct field studies.
“It was like cold-calling. That’s how I learnt to become a good sales person,” he jokes.
But he realises that the effort put into acquiring his MBA had paid off when he was asked to do the SWOT analysis of himself – the analysis that earned him his first job.
Looking back, he says the academic training he has acquired from the MBA, including marketing, accounting, human resources and finance, was most useful in the earlier years.
After a while, however, it was the people he met and the connections he built that helped him to work his way up at Thomson. When he encounters problems at work, from marketing strategies to human resources issues, he often turns to his former classmates for ideas.
“I remain friends with all of the people in our study group from those days,” he says.
Two of his biggest challenges now are to help Thomson to expand into Japan and China.
“We have been in Japan for many years but getting into the domestic market is another issue. There are many local data providers already so we will have to compete with them,” he says.
“In China, the problem is different because the market is still emerging. There are also many data providers to choose from but the difference is the market itself doesn’t know what it wants yet.”
Like many MBA graduates, Mr Tse is a keen promoter of the MBA. A thoughtful and straightforward character, he is concerned about developments in the Hong Kong market.
“I have read somewhere there are 500 ways you can get an MBA in Hong Kong – distant programmes, online programmes, you name it,” he says.
“I hope it does not put off those who want to pursue an MBA.”