People

'Tolerating mistakes can boost creativity, success'

OCBC Bank group chief executive officer Samuel Tsien also cites self-confidence and determination as prerequisites of success. The bank has established a solid regional franchise over the past decade, with investments in its four core markets of Sing
OCBC Bank group chief executive officer Samuel Tsien also cites self-confidence and determination as prerequisites of success. The bank has established a solid regional franchise over the past decade, with investments in its four core markets of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Greater China.PHOTO: SINGAPORE EXCHANGE

OCBC chief says missteps will occur as exposure to new things needed for progress

To Mr Samuel Tsien, the maxim of learning from one's mistakes has become more than a cliche.

Its relevance in today's world is more pronounced than ever.

Progress necessitates exploration and exposure to new things, which invariably lead to mistakes sometimes, says the group chief executive officer of OCBC Bank.

Mr Tsien believes adopting a more tolerant attitude towards mistakes would be helpful in promoting innovation, creativity and eventual success.

"I would go beyond encouraging people to learn from their mistakes.

CROSS-CULTURAL SENSITIVITY

We need people with more regional exposure, who have a deeper understanding of different business practices and a greater tolerance towards cultural biases.

MR SAMUEL TSIEN, group chief executive officer of OCBC Bank, on how understanding the nuances of cross-cultural communication are vital when the bank interacts with parties outside its home country.

"I would rather put it this way - be more tolerant of mistakes, from yourself as well as others.

"In this respect, we as a nation can do more to cultivate such a mindset," said the affable Shanghai-born career banker.

Other principles that form the backbone of his management philosophy include honesty and gratitude. Showing appreciation is also essential.

"You may take many things for granted, but a lot of effort could have gone into the work or service that you received," he added.

It is sound advice from a man who has more than 30 years of banking experience, with a good number of them at the helm.

Mr Tsien, 60, joined OCBC in 2007 as head of its global corporate bank before being appointed group CEO in April 2012. Prior to that, he was president and CEO of Bank of America (Asia) and China Construction Bank (Asia).

When asked about the prerequisites of success, Mr Tsien highlights two essential qualities: self-confidence and determination.

Referring to OCBC's acquisition of Hong Kong's Wing Hang Bank, Mr Tsien said: "Any acquisition will have uncertainties, as they did in the Wing Hang case. "

EXPANDING ASIAN FOOTPRINT

South-east Asia's second-largest bank has established a solid regional franchise over the past decade.

In 2004, it bought a stake in Indonesia's NISP, which it has since increased to 85.1 per cent.

Two years later, it invested in China's Bank of Ningbo.

In 2010, it clinched a deal to buy ING Asia Private Bank, which was combined with OCBC Private Bank and named Bank of Singapore.

The most recent was its $6.23 billion acquisition of Wing Hang Bank in 2014.

"These investments are all in our four core markets of Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia and Greater China. Our strategy has been about broadening and deepening our presence in these markets," said Mr Tsien."We've never veered away from that focus."

OCBC does not have ambitions to be a global bank, though it is an international bank.

Mr Tsien said: "We are international in that we have offices and branches to serve our customers from our core markets when they are in different parts of the world, but we don't have to be a local bank in every spot just like global banks."

SPRINGBOARD FOR DIVERSITY

OCBC's acquisition of Wing Hang Bank - the largest takeover of a Hong Kong lender since 2011 - was attractive in terms of both funding and earnings diversification, Mr Tsien said.

"Wing Hang's deposit franchise is primarily in Hong Kong dollars - which is US dollar-linked - and US dollars. The franchise substantially increases our US-dollar funding base, which is the most dominant currency for international trade and capital flows."

Wing Hang's contribution also diversifies OCBC's earnings base.

With its inclusion, the Greater China region accounted for 20 per cent of group pre-tax profits at the end of the third quarter, whereas a few years ago, it was single digit, Mr Tsien added.

The Hong Kong lender also serves as a springboard for OCBC to pursue its Pearl River Delta strategy. With 12 of its 32 branches in China in the Pearl River Delta, the combined OCBC and Wing Hang franchise has a strong foothold in the region. Mr Tsien believes the Pearl River Delta holds significant promise, and is likely to receive more attention from the Chinese authorities as an economic zone.

As one of China's growth hubs, it overtook Tokyo to become the world's largest urban area in size and population as early as 2010, according to a recent World Bank report. The size of its economy is on a par with that of Indonesia, South-east Asia's largest economy and the world's fourth most populous country.

Boosted by Wing Hang's branch network in the Pearl River Delta, OCBC will pursue opportunities with customers - from Guangzhou to Shenzhen to Zhuhai, to Hong Kong and Macau - who have cross-regional banking and financing needs, Mr Tsien added.

This lends OCBC a strong competitive edge as most foreign banks are better established in northern China, but have a smaller presence in the south.

NICHE CONSUMER FOCUS

For China as a whole, OCBC's retail banking strategy will not revolve around the mass market, Mr Tsien said. Instead, it will focus on the high-end market, using its overseas network to support the needs of Chinese nationals.

"It's tough for foreign banks like ourselves to make inroads into mass-market consumer banking in China as our name recognition is not as strong as the local banks and our branch network is not as comprehensive," he said.

"Higher than mass - premier, private - it's possible. Even with that, we have to be very competitive, and our advantage is the ability to service them overseas."

SOFT GROWTH OUTLOOK

Meanwhile, loans growth for the group is likely to come in at a "low- to mid-single-digit" figure this year, as loan demand is "pretty soft", Mr Tsien said.

Loans growth last year will also probably be in the low single-digit range, he added.

But Mr Tsien remains unfazed.

"We need to put this into the right context. NPLs (non-performing loans) have been extremely low by any standards."

"So even if they were to rise, we need not panic as they are, in a way, normalising, and this is not unexpected. Nonetheless, I don't expect NPLs to increase to a level of grave concern."

NPLs are unlikely to hit levels seen during the global financial crisis, which means they would be much better than during the Asian financial crisis, he added.

The group had a non-performing loan ratio of 0.9 per cent at the end of the September quarter, matching that of DBS and compared with 1.3 per cent for UOB.

To improve its net interest margin, OCBC is targeting a higher loan-to-deposit ratio (LDR) of between 85 per cent and 90 per cent, Mr Tsien said. As of end-September last year, its LDR stood at 83.5 per cent, versus 89.7 per cent for DBS and 81.6 per cent for UOB.

When Mr Tsien is not focused on the day-to-day operations of the bank, he is strategising for the future. A night owl by habit, he is usually up till the wee hours.

"The issues I think about - not necessarily worry about - revolve around how to grow the banking business, which is now becoming much more regional, much more cross-border," he said.

Knowing how to read between the lines and understanding the nuances of cross-cultural communication are vital when the bank interacts with counterparties, clients and government agencies outside its home country, he added.

"We need people with more regional exposure, who have a deeper understanding of different business practices and a greater tolerance towards cultural biases."

• This interview is an excerpt from the Singapore Exchange's Kopi-C: The Company Brew column that features C-level executives of companies listed on SGX. A longer version of this article can be found on SGX's My Gateway website.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 11, 2016, with the headline ''Tolerating mistakes can boost creativity, success' People'. Print Edition | Subscribe