SUCCESSFUL SINGAPOREANS ABROAD

Leading banker rises above O-level setback

Mr Tan Kah Chye, who put himself through school in Canada selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopaedias, was chairman of the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce Banking Commission until June this year. He is now an independent trade finance an
Mr Tan Kah Chye, who put himself through school in Canada selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopaedias, was chairman of the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce Banking Commission until June this year. He is now an independent trade finance and asset management adviser. PHOTO: MIKE LEE FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

Salesman stint during student days in Canada prepared him for global roles in big banks

He grew up speaking Hokkien and failed his O-level English exams, but this did not stop Mr Tan Kah Chye from becoming one of the world's top bankers.

The 51-year-old started his career at Citibank in Singapore, and has since worked in London and Frankfurt, taking on global roles at banks such as Deutsche Bank, Barclays and JPMorgan Chase, specialising in trade finance.

He has also served as chairman of the Paris-based International Chamber of Commerce Banking Commission. Mr Tan is now an independent trade finance and asset management adviser for banks and other financial institutions.

EARLY STRUGGLES

The father of two sons did not have an easy time as a student.

PERSUASIVE

Maybe the encyclopedia and vacuum cleaner sales helped. A lot of that was done over the phone... I learnt how to talk to people as if I have known them for the last five years.

MR TAN KAH CHYE

"I was brought up in a Hokkien-speaking family, and learning Mandarin and English was like learning foreign languages," recalls Mr Tan, who attended Haig Boys' School. He went to St Joseph's Institution (SJI) after two years at another secondary school.

  • HOWTO GET MORE S’POREANS INTO GLOBAL ROLES

  • 1. Invest in human capital.

    Mr Tan is a big believer in investing in people. Even though Singaporeans are relatively few in number, they can still make a big impact, he says.
    “If you fully maximise a person’s potential, he can outperform.”
    The training people receive in school makes a big difference. “It’s important to focus on maths and science but you cannot ignore liberal arts, which teach people how to communicate effectively.”


    2. Train children to speak up.
    Many Singaporeans are not sufficiently eloquent and are unable to communicate effectively, Mr Tan says. “It’s a cultural thing. Within the family, we tell children not to talk back to their elders.
    “If you keep telling kids that, they’ll never challenge their managers when they grow up.
    “This culture starts from our families, and then goes into schools and workplaces.”
    Still, Mr Tan acknowledges that younger
    Singaporeans are increasingly more outspoken and articulate. “Give it a bit more time, and hopefully we’ll see more Singaporeans taking on global roles.”

"I attribute a lot to my years in SJI. Before I went there, everyone in school spoke Hokkien. At SJI, everyone spoke English and the students were more confident."

  • NAME: Tan Kah Chye

    AGE: 51
    JOB: Independent trade finance and asset management adviser, previously held multiple global banking roles
    BASED IN: Singapore, previously

    in London and Frankfurt

If he had moved to SJI a year earlier, his English might have improved enough for him to pass his O-level examination, Mr Tan said.

"Unfortunately, I did not pass O-level English, so I couldn't make it to any of the junior colleges, polytechnics or pre-university institutions... I was quite devastated."

It was around the same time that the family's commodities trading and production business ran into difficulties. By the time Mr Tan finished Secondary 4, the business had gone into a tailspin and was no longer sustainable.

Mr Tan wanted to study abroad, but the family's finances meant he had to look for the cheapest option.

LIFE OF A SALESMAN

This took him to Canada, where he attended high school after serving national service in Singapore.

Mr Tan then went on to Dalhousie University in Nova Scotia, Canada, where he studied business.

He lived in Canada for six years.

"It was very tough.

"I had to pay my own way with some help from the family...

"The difference was made up by me working," says Mr Tan, who put himself through school selling vacuum cleaners and encyclopaedias.

The job involved being picked up by a van in the morning and dropped off in a town or village for a day of door-to-door selling.

"There was very strong motivation to get into a house to make a sale, because it can get extremely cold, especially in winter," says Mr Tan. "It was very good money, but very tough to sell.

"The success rate was low, and I could go for weeks without making any sales."

However, not only did his stint as a salesman help pay for school, but it also stood Mr Tan in good stead when he returned to Singapore after graduation to find a job.

Mr Tan called up a friend and said he wanted to get a job in a bank.

"He told me he had a good friend who worked in a bank called Citibank... Neither of us was familiar with the bank, and we figured it was American." One more phone call later, Mr Tan had a job.

"Maybe the encyclopaedia and vacuum cleaner sales helped.

"A lot of that was done over the phone... I learnt how to talk to people as if I had known them for the last five years," he says.

Since then, Mr Tan's job placements have "always come from people I know".

"In my career, no one has ever asked to see my transcript or certificate... Sometimes, I wonder why I even got that piece of paper," says Mr Tan, jokingly.

TOP BANKER

Mr Tan went on to specialise in trade finance, which includes activities such as lending, issuing letters of credit, export credit and insurance. One of his "hardest but among the most enjoyable" roles was a seven-year stint with Standard Chartered Bank as its global head of corporate trade and cash, a Singapore-based position.

"I made my mark in the industry globally at StanChart.

"They run a huge global trade finance business. Revenue multiplied many times in the seven years I was there, and I carried out a lot of interesting transactions, incorporating investment banking techniques into trade finance."

Besides Citi, he has also taken on roles in JPMorgan Chase and Deutsche Bank, among others.

He was also vice-chairman of corporate banking at Barclays.

In between, Mr Tan returned to Canada to study for a Master of Business Administration.

He also became the chairman of the International Chamber of Commerce Banking Commission, a position he held from 2010 until June this year.

It was a pro bono role Mr Tan took on due to his "personal, great interest in industry initiatives".

Mr Tan returned to Singapore from London this year so his younger son could start national service.

He is now an independent consultant, and is a senior adviser to the Commonwealth Bank of Australia and the International Chamber of Commerce Academy.

He is also on the board of British fund manager Markham Rae.

Mr Tan says of his career success: "In many ways, I have been blessed with good people...

"It doesn't matter how smart you are or how many hours you put in. Without the right team, you won't get the job done."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 15, 2015, with the headline 'Leading banker rises above O-level setback'. Print Edition | Subscribe