My name is Derek Hillen and I was not born into a stockbroking dynasty. I grew up on an avocado farm in southern California and spent my youth hoeing weeds, swatting flies and killing rattlesnakes. I wasn’t very good at math either and a career on Wall Street seemed about as far away as Saturn on a cold night.
Escape to Montreal
I went away to university, attending McGill in Montreal thanks to two reasons: my Dad is Canadian and he worked as an airline pilot so I got real cheap tickets. I was becoming interested in Asia and after taking my first economics course – and failing – I decided liberal arts was for me.
I ended up majoring in East Asian Studies, mainly because it was the fastest way to graduate and gain my freedom. I slugged it out over two summer schools so I could do my four year degree in three years. Everyone thought it was because I was such a good student. No, I just hated going to school!
Taiwan and China
During my time at McGill, I had to take introductory language courses to Mandarin and to Japanese. These were tough subjects but I found them interesting and after graduation I went to Taiwan to continue learning Mandarin. This was in the mid-1980s and mainland China was just opening up to foreigners studying there. At that time, Taiwan was a much better option because it was more advanced and you could get a job to support yourself.
There were no jobs in China then and everyone who was anyone had a bicycle. And that was about it. Although I always have a soft spot in my heart for Taiwan, I would recommend a young person today to go to China to learn Mandarin and see from the ground up what is going on there.
After two years in Taiwan, I did some travel around China and a buddy and I took the Trans-Siberian Railway from Beijing to what was then East Berlin. This was in November, 1988 during Gorbachev’s “Perestroika” and “Glasnost” era. Russians of Chinese descent were for the first time since the revolution being allowed back to visit distant relatives in northern China.
They came, they shopped and they left with bags bulging with VCRs and other home appliances that China was just beginning to produce en masse but which the USSR, despite its bombast, couldn’t figure out how to do. I spent many evenings drinking vodka with them as the train chugged across the snow covered Siberian steppe, conversing in Mandarin and learning what was going on in Russia. It was fascinating.
World of Pain
After travelling around Europe for a few months I decided to go to Japan and study for a few years. I picked Sapporo, on the northern island of Hokkaido and home to a beer brand. That sounded good to me. I spent three years there learning traditional Japanese karate and getting the shit kicked out of me by Japanese nationalists. I also learned to speak Japanese; mainly useful stuff like, “Where is the nearest hospital?” and “I think it’s broken.”
The End of the World
Alaska was calling and I had long had an interest in the area so I limped out of Japan and returned to the US. I bought a used Goldwing motorcycle and rode solo up the AlCan Highway 4,000 miles to Alaska to find work. I ended up living in my tent on the tundra in Naknek, Alaska and working in the local supermarket.
My job was to scrape bubble gum off the floors after closing. (Hey, it paid well with overtime!) Naknek was in the middle of nowhere and the locals were fond of saying, “Naknek ain’t the end of the world but you can see it from here.” Yep.
Two years later I was back in Alaska on another motorcycle and this time found work on a salmon seiner on Kodiak Island, home to the world’s largest bears. We worked the shore inside the bear preserve. It was like living in Jurassic Park. You were not even allowed to go to the outhouse without an elephant gun in hand. In the morning you would see bear prints in the mud the size of trashcan lids. These really were flesh eating monsters.
How I Got Into Finance
I didn’t catch much fish so I wound up back in Taiwan looking for another English teaching job. This was early 1993. I went to an interview at a brokerage firm, I didn’t know what that was, but they were looking for someone to “correct financial essays once a week.” It was work and beat scraping up bubble gum and living in a tent. I showed up in my only suit and tie to the interview. Here is what happened:
Them: “Are you here for the broker’s job?”
Me: “The what?”
Them: “The broker’s job where we will train you to be a stockbroker and send you to Singapore and Hong Kong.”
Me: “Yes. That’s me!”
And I never looked back! They were a local Taiwanese brokerage that was going international. They did train me – all in Chinese – and they did send me to see clients in Singapore and Hong Kong. I had to stay at the YMCA and eat at McDonald’s on my business trips and was earning $1,000 a month. My rent was $500 a month. It didn’t matter; this was a huge opportunity and opened up a whole new world for me. No more teaching English and no more gum scraping!
I worked hard for those two and half years there when I was hired away by UBS and sent to New York in 1995. The farm boy had landed on Wall Street. At that time the firm was still SG Warburg and I was probably the last person hired under that name. Swiss Bank bought Warburg, Dillon Read and eventually did a reverse takeover of their larger rival and adopted their name: UBS.
I have been a stockbroker ever since. I worked at UBS for 7 years in New York and in Taiwan. I also worked at CLSA in Hong Kong for 4 years and am now in Hong Kong working at Mirae Asset Securities. I have taken two different sabbaticals over the last 18 years to do what I love most: long distance sailing. Aside from that, I have been broking the North Asia/China story for the whole time. Currently based in Hong Kong, the clients I cover include senior portfolio managers at the big mutual fund houses as well as hedge fund owners and everyone in between.
I am now happily married with two small children.