The WFE's Women Leaders 2023 - Vanessa Lau, Group Chief Financial Officer, HKEX

By: Vanessa Lau, Group Chief Financial Officer, HKEX Mar 2023

Name: Vanessa Lau

Organisation: HKEX

Job Title: Group Chief Financial Officer

1. Brief description of nominee’s role/job:

Vanessa Lau joined HKEX in 2015 and was appointed Group chief financial officer in February 2020. She has over 25 years of experience in financial services. In addition to overseeing the Group’s financial and treasury functions, Vanessa’s remit expanded in 2021 to include investor relations, corporate services, facilities management, procurement and business management functions. This expansion has helped to transform the role of finance at HKEX from a traditional numbers function into an important strategic business partner – reflecting the Group’s ongoing focus to increase its attractiveness and competitiveness as a key component of one of the world’s leading global financial centres.

Vanessa is a member of the HKEX Management Committee and reports directly to Chief Executive Officer Nicolas Aguzin. She is also on the board of HKEX Foundation, which was launched in June 2020, as HKEX’s dedicated charitable arm to deepen HKEX’s connectivity and commitment to addressing the social and environmental challenges faced by our communities.

In December 2022, Swiss Re announced that its board would nominate Vanessa as a new independent non-executive director (INED) at the upcoming AGM of shareholders in April 2023.

2. Short bio (career highlights, education, interests/hobbies):

Vanessa started her career as an accountant at PricewaterhouseCoopers and later worked at McKinsey & Company where she advised corporate clients on strategy. Vanessa took on her first CFO role at the metals and mining giant Alcoa’s subsidiary, Global Rolled Products in New York. She subsequently worked as a metals and mining research analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in Hong Kong.

Vanessa became CFO at Alcoa’s subsidiary when she was 35 years old, which helped the company “tick all the diversity boxes of gender, youth, and ethnicity.” Taking a senior position in a male-dominated industry wasn’t always easy, especially at a time when the global metals and mining industry was facing a difficult time as aluminium prices had dropped from all-time highs of over USD3,000 per tonne, to lows of around USD1,300. Vanessa cites the guidance and support of the experienced Group CFO in helping her learn the ropes at such a challenging time.

Vanessa believes that her varied career has been instrumental in the way she approaches her Group CFO role at HKEX, and this has helped her develop into a well-rounded, business-savvy CFO with a strategic, forward-looking management and leadership style. For example, she always seeks to understand the mindset of the group’s broad and varied stakeholder base, adapting her communications style appropriately. She believes that these perspectives, and her experiences, have helped her grow into the current role, particularly as her remit expanded to include spearheading organisational change, and incorporating corporate services, facilities management and procurement functions into her department.

Vanessa holds an MA in Mathematics & Computation from the University of Oxford, and she is a chartered accountant, having qualified with The Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and Wales. She was named on Crain’s New York Business “40 Under 40” Rising Business Stars in 2010.

In her leisure time, Vanessa loves music and brings her portable keyboard with her wherever she is travelling!

3. What were your professional highlights and challenges in 2022?

2022 presented a unique set of circumstances for HKEX. Geopolitical tensions, the Ukraine war, and ongoing pandemic-related disruptions continued to pressure global businesses, and HKEX was no exception. Global capital markets were significantly affected, resulting in weak investment sentiment and a decline in trading and fundraising volumes for the majority of the year. That said, there were also bright spots, excitement and positive developments for HKEX in 2022. Following the appointment of our new CEO in 2021, we went out to the market with our new vision of building the Marketplace of the Future in early 2022, setting out to create a purpose-led, client-centric and sustainable financial ecosystem that connects China and the world, capital with opportunities, and today with tomorrow.

As the CFO of HKEX, my biggest challenge was knowing how to strike the right balance between the enthusiasm of pursuing new projects and investments to deliver on our strategy, while also remaining prudent in our cost controls and measures given the increasingly challenging macro environment. My team and I focused on taking a methodical approach across the entire organisation, helping all departments and all levels align their objectives and activity with the new strategy. One of the ways we did this was through the stronger implementation of our Group Project Portfolio Board.

The concept of taking a regimented, high-level approach to reviewing all Group projects and prioritising collectively has always been there. But in 2022, we were able to take it up a notch, and be more selective and decisive about our priorities throughout the year. I’m pleased that we were able to make the tough but right decisions, allowing us to pause non-vital projects and keep costs at bay, while also progressing our new vision.

Separately on a team level, I was thrilled to be able to expand the “bench strength” of our core Finance Function in 2022. This was the result of years of coaching and developing senior employees within my team, as well as hiring the right senior talent to complement our existing skill sets. In 2022 specifically, I hired two new managing directors and promoted a senior vice president to a managing director. With the right attributes, experiences and capabilities in place, we are now in a much better position to expand the scope of the Finance Function beyond accounting, and embed us in more Group-wide projects and initiatives. And this is a vision I’ve had for my team for several years.

This is also significant because it will allow me to focus more of my energy on my role on HKEX’s Management Committee, supporting the CEO and other colleagues on more strategic, organisational and management decisions as we continue to realise our new vision of building the Marketplace of the Future in the coming years.

And finally, this year I was delighted to be nominated for an independent non-executive director (INED) role at Swiss Re Group. This is a huge milestone for me professionally and personally. Even though I had always been interested in becoming a board member one day, I never thought that my first official board seat would be with a world-leading, multinational listed company. The interview itself was a very eye-opening and inspirational experience, helping broaden my perspectives for my role at HKEX. It was also very special to have the example set by my chairman and other HKEX board members, who provided invaluable guidance as I went through the different interview stages. I am hoping that I can set a good example for other female leaders who aspire to take on board positions, and together, we can progress the board diversity agenda of our markets.

So overall, 2022 was a challenging but rewarding year – one where with the support of my colleagues, I was able to overcome new challenges, execute my long-term vision for HKEX’s Finance Function, and go on a completely new journey with the opportunity presented by Swiss Re. With China and Hong Kong’s gradual reopening, the return of global connectivity, and the renewed momentum in capital markets, I’m looking forward to 2023 with even greater excitement and enthusiasm.

4. What and who inspires/has inspired you to achieve your professional success?

Last year I mentioned my mentors from HKEX and McKinsey when asked this question and it’s somewhat difficult to come up with anything new, because my mentors have continued to be instrumental to my success, guiding me and giving me lots of frank advice throughout the year, including during my recent experience with Swiss Re.

But what I did realise specifically in 2022 was that I tend to draw a lot of inspiration from my international outlook and desire to keep learning new things. I developed my career in a very international way, having spent time at global companies and in different markets. Therefore this international way of thinking gives me a wider breadth of tools and ideas to choose from when I lead my team. And I’m excited that my next step with Swiss Re is only going to help broaden my international perspective.

Additionally, this year I found new inspiration in my chairman and CEO. While they’ve always been a source of inspiration for me, seeing up close the responsibilities that the HKEX chairman juggles in several high-profile and board-level roles, and witnessing how our CEO rolled out a bold strategy in a challenging year, were both incredibly inspirational, making me want to push myself too and not be afraid.

5. What advice do you have for other women who aspire to be in leadership positions?

I think you should never be afraid to step up to a new challenge. It’s far easier to turn down new opportunities because they take up a lot of time and preparation, and you may think that you don’t have a good chance. But until you open the first door, you’ll never get there!

I also find having mentors who really hold up a mirror to me – i.e. giving me constructive feedback after meetings and highlighting development areas – very helpful to my growth and career progression. You can find mentors from official programmes, or approach people you have a connection with. Most importantly, your mentor should be open to giving you constructive feedback, meaning they can’t just say how good you are all the time! And likewise you have to have an open mind too, and really consider what they say and remember that they are only saying what they’re observing.


The views, thoughts and opinions contained in this Focus article belong solely to the author and do not necessarily reflect the WFE’s policy position on the issue, or the WFE’s views or opinions.