Singapore, Tianjin, Hangzhou, Mumbai – they’re all cities in Asia, and they’re all points of interest on Christian Hecker’s curriculum vitae. The 31-year-old has been bitten by the travel bug. He’s crossed Vietnam on motorbike, backpacked around New Zealand’s South Island and visited the desert wastes of Iraq to inspect renewable energy projects co-financed by his bank. And those are just a few of his travel highlights to date. He also spends most of his time travelling the world – not always Business Class, but almost always on business. Since 2014, he’s been working for the Wholesale Banking division at ING-DiBa.
In his private as well as his working life, he regards himself as an adventurer who never tires of collecting new experiences. And yet he comes from a rock-solid family home in Dresden, where his mother works as a civil servant and his father as a researcher. So Christian’s decision to train as a banker at Dresdner Volksbank after completing his secondary education and his Zivildienst (the civilian equivalent of national service) was no surprise.
But he wanted more. Having completed his training, he applied to study for a Bachelor of Science in Business Administration at Frankfurt School of Finance & Management “without much hope of being accepted”. Of course he was, and from then on spent three days a week back in the classroom. He spent another three days a week working as a bank clerk at Commerzbank. “I’d never had to cope with such a workload before,” Christian admits, as he reflects on his high-pressure studies. But today, he’s positively grateful for the experience. As he says – with a smile that conveys both exhaustion and relief – you can only push your boundaries if you’re constantly testing your limits. If nothing else, his studies acted as the springboard and initial stimulus for all his trips around the world.
But he had to learn what it’s like to cope in foreign cultures the hard way, literally by jumping in at the deep end. At an early stage in his degree course, while Christian was still only in his second semester, his employer sent him off to Singapore because he had successfully completed a project in Frankfurt. “I was jubilant” says Christian, who still clearly remembers the call from the HR department. “At the time they played things down, joking that they were planning to give me a ‘bit of a beating’,” he recalls. “I got everything else in writing.” He accepted his mission without knowing exactly what he had let himself in for – and ended up analysing his bank’s potential customer base in South-East Asia from their Singapore office. “That was my ‘blood in the water’ moment,” admits the 31-year-old. “I’ve always been interested in new cultures.” His time in Singapore was something of an epiphany, kindling his wanderlust for frequent, long-distance travel. Upon his return to Germany, he applied to spend his semester abroad at Frankfurt School’s partner university in Hangzhou, one of southeast China’s megacities. He spent his semester studying Sinology and Business Studies at an elite university – and then received another call from the HR department: “Mr Hecker, we’re planning to give you a hard time again!” Immediately after completing his semester abroad, he travelled straight to Tianjin, a city of eight million in northeast China where Commerzbank had just opened a new branch office. “It was a tad crazy,” concedes Christian. “Shortly after I started work in Tianjin, my boss – the only other German in the office – went on holiday for several weeks.” And all of a sudden, the new arrival found himself working as acting manager of a bank branch he knew very little about, staffed exclusively by Chinese employees who in turn knew very little about the big German bank they worked for.
His current job at ING-DiBa seems almost humdrum by comparison. After working for the Wholesale Banking division in Frankfurt for three years, he was transferred to Mumbai in 2016, where he is responsible for the bank’s collaborative venture with India’s Kotak Mahindra Bank. His remit is to leverage opportunities and coordinate cooperation between the two institutions. This includes identifying synergies and developing processes for successfully collaborating on shared customer accounts. Sometimes this means asking really basic questions such as “Who are our clients?” or “Who could we give joint support?” For Christian, the whole thing is a “great adventure”. He regards himself as a “frontline problem solver”. “To a certain extent, I’m my own boss here, because working together as partner banks is something new for both institutions, so there’s plenty of development work still to do. Data formats, processes, products, clients – there are a lot of things to be harmonised between two such large banks,” explains Christian. Strictly speaking, however, “we” isn’t quite right. Christian is on his own, working at the head office of an Indian bank with more than 42,000 employees. “I enjoy it; I’m working with colleagues from all over the world, it doesn’t matter to me which country somebody comes from. The important thing is that we work well together as a cross-border team, adding as much value as possible for our exacting clients.”
After he got back from China and finished his degree course at Frankfurt School, Christian’s adventure continued – as a corporate customer adviser responsible for clients in emerging economies in Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. At the same time, he achieved breakthrough success as a lecturer at Frankfurt School, making multi-day specialist presentations in places like Cairo, Singapore and various parts of Europe. It was a whirl: one worldwide ticket, please! “I travelled from Venezuela to Ethiopia, from Dubai to Iraq. For 12 months, I was on the road almost the entire time,” recalls Christian, noting that the most exciting thing was discussing issues with locals in emerging countries, because there was such a strong contrast with Europe. Demand for many products significantly outstripped supply, and companies were growing at breakneck speeds in a profusion of totally different sectors. The challenge here was not to develop a product for a few cents less than the competition, but to build up enough capacity to deal with an overflowing order book.
Christian Hecker is a globetrotter whose travels have turned him into a free spirit who also loves his home country – a European who is also a passionate cosmopolitan. And a highly educated individual who would also like to give something back. “Education is a sustainable solution for many of the world’s biggest problems,” he maintains. Which is why he and a few friends set up a small aid organisation some years ago, to support a school in Cambodia which he had encountered on his travels. In 2015, he flew over there with a friend and built a school building complete with two fully equipped classrooms, financed by donations from friends and acquaintances. “Not everybody is as lucky as kids here in Europe – I wanted to make at least a small contribution to improving educational opportunities in developing countries,” he explains. And yet, when asked which part of the world made the most favourable impression on him, he answers: “New Zealand’s South Island. It’s awesome – so much nature, much of it unspoiled, and I thought the people were very special.” And what does he think is most important for the future? “The world has shrunk. Travelling from Frankfurt to Mumbai doesn’t feel much more strenuous than taking the train to Berlin or Munich.” The way he sees it, as people around the world are brought closer together, it is more important than ever to be tolerant and open towards other cultures and countries rather than erecting walls to keep them out.
Asked about his favourite memory of his time at Frankfurt School, Christian replies: “In actual fact, I had the best time during my semester abroad in China. After finishing my exams, I was able to spend a couple of weeks travelling, and then spent almost a month in New Zealand. It was fantastic!” And how important does he think alumni are for a business school? “Alumni have a crucial role to play and are currently very much under-used. The alumni network is one of the most valuable things you can take away from your degree course. I’ve already been able to help a number of fellow students kick off their careers at ING bank. Institutions need to find better ways of contacting alumni who’ve finished their studies.” Especially as alumni can do quite a bit for their alma mater. “I’ve delivered presentations for Frankfurt School, we’ve set up an internship programme, I’m happy to support Frankfurt School at trade fairs or anywhere else they need help. I still stay in very close touch with Frankfurt School.”