People

Pure grit and more to succeed

At DBS, SME banking head Joyce Tee feels that building strong relationships with her clients is key to helping them define their needs, and manage risk and debt successfully in order to grow their businesses.
At DBS, SME banking head Joyce Tee feels that building strong relationships with her clients is key to helping them define their needs, and manage risk and debt successfully in order to grow their businesses.ST PHOTO: DAVE LIM

DBS banker Joyce Tee's childhood spent hawking helps her reach out to SMEs

What does it take to go from a childhood spent hawking wares in Sungei Road to heading up a business division at Singapore's largest bank?

If Ms Joyce Tee's life is anything to go by, the answer, as always, is pure grit and hard work.

The affable 51-year-old, who now heads DBS Bank's small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) banking unit, unspools her life story over two hours in vivid detail.

She was born in the months after Singapore's independence, to Malaysian parents who had migrated here in search of work.

Her mother, who was illiterate, worked as a domestic helper while her father sold goods door to door.

As the third of five kids in a poor household, Ms Tee had to grow up fast and start contributing early to the family - at age four, to be exact.

By then, her father had set up a small stall in Sungei Road to sell items such as pens and lighters.

One of Ms Tee's jobs was to pull in customers. "I had to stand on a wooden carton, because I was short, and shout at the crowds to come to our shop. I did that until I was 16, when I started feeling shy that my friends might pass by and see me!"

LIFE AS A 4-YEAR-OLD HAWKER

I had to stand on a wooden carton, because I was short, and shout at the crowds to come to our shop. I did that until I was 16, when I started feeling shy that my friends might pass by and see me!

MS JOYCE TEE, on how she helped pull in customers for her father's stall in Sungei Road, where she also honed crucial skills.

CHANGING LIVES AS A BANKER

It makes me happy to see my clients grow and reach new levels in their business. Every decision I take has to make a positive impact and a difference. Some clients have even told their children: 'This auntie is the one - if not for her, we wouldn't own this shop.'

MS TEE, on the satisfaction she gains from servicing SMEs, by helping them to find solutions that meet their specific needs.

Working at the stall helped her with her memory and maths skills. Because they sold a variety of goods whose prices changed often, they devised a system of tagging each item with a line of Chinese poetry - a kind of code that only she and her father could decipher.

Later, she began having entrepreneurial ideas of her own. At the ripe old age of 11, she told her father they should sell music cassette tapes, to go with the cassette players and electronics he was already selling.

"He gave me several hundred dollars to start this new business, but my first inventory was a disaster. My supplier didn't take me seriously and sold me old cassette tapes, so they didn't sell," she recalls.

"I studied the market and found a better vendor. Meanwhile, I still had to sell the old stock, so I slashed prices and added nice wrapping. Business improved and, when I started secondary school, I even hired a relative to man the stall."

These business skills came in handy when she went to the United States for her undergraduate studies. She had planned to do them locally but her English grades were not good enough to make the cut at the National University of Singapore. She eventually decided to go to the US as her future husband Jimmy Tan was going there too.

She spent two years in various jobs, which included working as a tuition teacher and bank teller, to save up about $5,000. Her father matched the sum, giving her enough to pay for one year of tuition at the University of Oregon.

She set off for her new life there in December 1985.

"I had never been on a plane before. Two weeks before I left for university, Jimmy took me on a flight to Kuala Lumpur just so I could learn how to navigate the airport and take a flight by myself when the time came," she says.

Mr Tan was to join her in Oregon eight months later.

But her life in the US got off to such a rocky start that she flew back about a month into the semester.

"I cried almost every day. It was winter, it was raining every day, I felt so alone. After three weeks, Jimmy told my parents, you'd better take her back," she says.

She flew home, to her parents' chagrin, but returned to Oregon with Mr Tan the following semester.

This time around, life was more bearable, but still not easy. To save on tuition costs, she squeezed as many classes as she could into each semester to graduate faster.

Adding to that hectic schedule, she took part-time jobs to earn money for tuition fees, working as a tutor, cafeteria staff member and a consultant for the university. She even cooked meals for other dormitory residents for a small fee.

Yet she still aced her studies, becoming one of only two Singaporeans from the university to receive a full scholarship to do an MBA.

Once that was done, she moved to Houston in Texas, where Mr Tan was then completing his own MBA.

They soon married and began putting down roots in their new home. They lived in Houston for 11 years, raising two kids - a daughter and a son - and it was not long before Ms Tee made her mark in the corporate world there.

Her first job, at Grant Thornton, was to help minority business owners get a leg up in corporate America. She helped them come up with business plans, resolve disputes and get contracts with big companies.

On the side, she and her husband found time to run a Popeyes franchise, getting up at 6am on weekends to sell fried chicken.

After two years at Grant Thornton, she moved to a small bank. She opened seven branches for Metro Bank and secured new clients. She later oversaw all the seven branches and became a senior lender.

The family had to return to Singapore in 2000, as Mr Tan's father had taken ill.

Leaving the US was something Ms Tee did with a heavy heart. She and her husband and two kids had built a rich life there, and were in the midst of applying for citizenship.

But family is family, so Ms Tee returned, taking up a role at OCBC Bank as a relationship manager. In 2004, she moved to DBS.

She led a small team looking at lending to SMEs dealing with soft commodities such as rubber, and those in the marine sector.

"We started with no customers. I had one relationship manager working under me. But we grew the business and the team," she says.

She sees it as her job not just to dispense as many loans as possible, but also to kick-start discussions with SME bosses about how to manage risk and debt.

"Giving them too many loans and making them too leveraged leaves them less nimble and burdens them with obligations. We must be responsible bankers and start a discussion: What is the right amount of leverage for you? What is the right solution for your financing needs? We are not here just to lend money for you to spend on whatever you want."

What these conversations often lead to are solutions that might not mean a straightforward loan.

"Let's say this SME has won a contract, but now has to buy special equipment to fulfil it. The SME comes to DBS for financing. I don't have to give the money to the SME. I can instead disburse the funds directly to the equipment supplier through a special account."

Not every SME boss would accept such arrangements easily, so relationship-building is a must, she says.

"You have to tell them exactly what you're trying to do. You're not trying to stifle or suffocate them. You're helping them be more structured and lighten their debt load."

With all the thought that goes into it, servicing an SME can take as much time as servicing a large corporate, Ms Tee notes, but the task is one that she takes on gladly.

"It makes me happy to see my clients grow and reach new levels in their business. Every decision I take has to make a positive impact and a difference. Some clients have even told their children: 'This auntie is the one - if not for her, we wouldn't own this shop.'

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 07, 2017, with the headline 'Pure grit and more to succeed'. Print Edition | Subscribe