The WFE's Women Leaders 2022 - Vanessa Lau, Group Chief Financial Officer, HKEX

By: The WFE Focus Team Mar 2022

Member: HKEX

Nominee’s name: Vanessa Lau

Nominee’s 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 of duties has helped to transform the role of finance at HKEX from a traditional accounting function into an important business performance partner as the group continues 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 the HKEX Foundation, which was launched in June 2020 as HKEX’s dedicated charitable arm to deepen HKEX’s connectivity and long-standing commitment to addressing the social and environmental challenges faced by our communities.

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 Global Rolled Products subsidiary in New York. She subsequently worked as a metals and mining research analyst at Sanford C. Bernstein in Hong Kong.

Vanessa became CFO at the Alcoa 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 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 USD 3000 per tonne, to lows of around USD 1300. Vanessa cites the guidance and support of the experienced group CFO in helping her to 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 and 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 of 2021 (ie why should you be on this list):

2021 was a challenging but rewarding year at HKEX. The second year into my current position as HKEX’s group CFO, my portfolio expanded significantly. A lot of what I achieved in 2021 was in respect of advancing my vision of transforming HKEX’s group CFO function from a role focused on the traditional areas of financial and management reporting, compliance, budgeting and treasury, into a more strategic function that contributes directly to the bottom line of the business: The opportunity to drive positive change and move the business forward in new ways has really inspired me.

A lot of the initiatives we implemented in the team were part of my goal to build a finance department that could drive change across the organisation and support HKEX’s strategic vision. Introducing a group-wide team of “finance business partners” has really kick-started the delivery of my vision. I also looked to re-skill some of the team to work more closely with divisional business heads, not just reporting monthly numbers, but helping to better understand what the numbers were showing, allowing them to better run and understand their business areas. This has helped each of our divisions to better deliver on their projects and priorities. I believe that finance should be a front-and-centre partner of the business, not just a back office “bean counter.”

In order to reinvent the finance function, during the year I focused a lot on bringing up the “bench strength” of the team. When I first joined HKEX, I noticed that the finance department comprised roughly 95% accountants and 5% admin staff. I have now added to the team a broader range of skill sets, including strategists and ex-bankers working on special projects. These changes require me to put a lot more focus on talent and people development within my department, including mentoring staff, which I have really enjoyed.

During the year I have also been busy building a revitalised procurement function, incorporating the corporate services team as well as upgrading facilities management at the group, an important function that touches everyone at HKEX.

Innovation was another key highlight of 2021. My work to drive automation across the finance department to replace some of the more repetitive manual tasks, allowing my team to focus on higher value-added work, meant that we were well-positioned to handle the challenges of remote work during the pandemic in 2021.

My department was also the first in HKEX to implement RPA (Robotic Process Automation), which paved the way for other divisions to implement RPA. What started in the finance department was rolled out to 10 different business functions across HKEX, which now has over 200 bot programmes in place. It has resulted in savings of an average 42,000 hours annually, and helped HKEX secure the APAC Pinnacle Award in 2021 from Blue Prism, a global leader in intelligent automation.

All these changes came about at the right time as HKEX was expediting its business transformation journey under the leadership of our new CEO, Nicolas Aguzin, who came on board in May 2021. Our goal is to build a modern finance function that is fully equipped to support the growth of the bourse as it continues to build the marketplace of the future.

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

I have been fortunate to have support throughout my career from some experienced mentors. The role these people have played in my career has continually strengthened my belief that teamwork and departmental cohesion is a vital element in any business success.

Despite not having seen my McKinsey mentor for two years due to Covid preventing me from visiting London, we still talk regularly about my career. I believe that no matter what stage you are at in your career, impartial advice is always needed!

I have also been blessed with mentors supporting me at HKEX. One of HKEX’s board members acts as a formal mentor to me and gives me advice on everything from the long-term progression of my career and mid-term advice on business decisions, right down to more micro considerations about how to best communicate ideas or thoughts.

When I was younger and working in London, I often looked to global leaders for inspiration, including the well-known leader, Richard Branson. Over the course of my career, I have worked in a diverse range of industries, and I was always impressed with Branson’s ability to build a number of successful brands across industries as different as aviation and music. His ability to apply business insights from one field to another always impressed me.

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

I attend a lot of HR and alumni events, speaking to new recruits about my experiences. One of the key messages that I try to convey is: The path is never straight forward, and there’s more than one way to get to where you want. My own career progression is a good example.

I have worked in male-dominated industries like metals and mining when I was with Alcoa in New York, and I never found that being female was a disadvantage because I never imposed any limitations on myself that might serve to hold me back.

I always enjoyed the work that I did, and I think that women who want to advance their careers need to ensure that they are passionate about what they do, that they learn something new every day, and that they are prepared to stumble and pick themselves up again and again. Enjoying the journey you are on is fundamental, because it ensures that you are always open to trying new things and making the most of the opportunities that present themselves.


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.