As ING Investment Management restructures its senior management in Asia, new CEO Alan Harden is using the opportunity to reinforce some basic principles. “The first step is to deliver on our promises, before we start building out,” he says. “We need to point out the things we do well and to refocus, so we end up doing fewer things, but doing them better. We have a dozen or so strategies that are strong and that needs to become more explicit.” He is thinking in particular of ING’s Asian debt, property securities, currency management and Asian equities as core skills. On the equities side, Harden says a key strength is having analysts and managers in each of the 12 countries ING is present in around the region.

As part of the new drive, Harden has appointed former Citi colleague Douglas Hymas as CEO of ING’s Japan operation. “We will be looking at what we do in Japan and making changes there, but it won’t be a radical departure from what we have been doing,” says Harden.

He has also named Bas van Buuren as regional head of institutional sales and business development. Van Buuren will move to Hong Kong from Singapore to take charge of ING’s focused development of its institutional business. The group recently picked up a mandate from the Philippines Government Service Insurance System and Harden is keen to reinforce the group’s strong regional network. He says the firm intends to work much harder at cementing its reputation in the region. “Improving the profile puts you in the frame for RFPs and it helps attract good people.”

Having a presence in so many markets, and with the benefit of global network, Harden says he has benefitted greatly from the depth of resource at his disposal. Having joined the company in September just as Lehman Brothers was going to the wall, he was grateful for the breadth of the ING network. “I have always valued tenure, but never more so than at that time. I knew that someone in the organisation would have an answer to my question, whether it be in Hong Kong or Amsterdam or New York. To know that the network is working 24/7 around the globe, that’s a powerful thing.”

Harden spent several years in the region as head of Asia-Pacific at Citigroup Asset Management and head of investment services at Standard Chartered Bank in Singapore prior to moving to Dundee to head up Alliance Trust’s business in 2004. One of the key changes he has noticed since his return is how much more accommodating the local regulators have become, allowing a much wider range of investment management “by recognizing the importance of skill”. ING have 1200 staff in Asia, 300 of whom are investment professional. Harden says, “I am looking to strengthen the staff to support that active decision making. We have a full investment management organisation in each country, with CEO, CIO, IT head, head of ops, sales, etc. Then we build as much synergy across that as we can, which is very much what I am driving, without changing the local nature of it. So that each local market has a range of products to suit. This provides a confederacy of investment management skill. We aim to build a business in Asia that suits Asia.”

He sees a few countries are doing extremely well. Korea, Japan are singled out as having great potential. ‘Almost quirkily’, he says, ING has not built a meaningful presence in Hong Kong or Singapore as yet. “Our local business here serves a regional customer base, so we will be rolling out a higher profile in these two centres.” A third of the company’s assets are derived from the insurance side and Harden is committed to working with local partners to cement their position.

But it is the ‘doing the basics well’ mentality that prevails. Harden recognizes that clients question whether they have been rewarded for the risks they have taken. “The old adage that time will square it, is now a big question mark. Active versus passive management will be a lively debate for another year at least. The debate has hardly started. Right now, the argument is much more fundamental and focused on transparency and clarity of the message. Clients are looking for simple, low risk products and the industry is having to get back to some of the basic things that investment management is supposed to deliver.”