People

The day an ATM floated out to sea after huge tidal wave

Ms Wendy Lim's career in the financial services industry started after she was shortlisted by Citibank in 1991 at a Singapore job fair in the United States. Since then, she has worked for AT&T, HSBC and ANZ, where she ran its retail bank operations i
Ms Wendy Lim's career in the financial services industry started after she was shortlisted by Citibank in 1991 at a Singapore job fair in the United States. Since then, she has worked for AT&T, HSBC and ANZ, where she ran its retail bank operations in the Asia-Pacific.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

Manulife Asset Management CEO's work life has been anything but boring

Manulife Asset Management chief executive Wendy Lim has worn many hats during her 25-year career in the financial services industry in Singapore and across the Asia-Pacific.

But among her most memorable experiences was dealing with a situation where an ATM from her bank branch in American Samoa floated out to sea after a huge tidal wave.

"In my first week at ANZ, the team arranged a briefing on mobile banking in Fiji for me. I thought they meant high-tech Internet banking using cellphones. But it literally meant "mobile" banking - a van being driven from village to village in Fiji to collect deposits," said Ms Lim, 47.

Thrilled to run ANZ's retail bank operations in the Asia-Pacific, which included American Samoa, Fiji, Solomon Islands and Papua New Guinea, she said the experience "brought her back to what banking was about".

"Cash was very big in the Pacific. They would queue at the branches to empty out accounts, and because the branches were air-conditioned, we also had to deal with issues like overcrowding because people would hang around for the air-con."

But novel experiences are second nature to Ms Lim, who as a child was made to try everything from formal ballet to Chinese dance, and later in her teens, backup dancing for the local TV station, tennis, track and field and gymnastics.

"My parents taught me that I was too young to know what I did not like," Ms Lim said. That gave her one of her biggest life lessons, which later translated to a practice of trying something new every year. "One year, it was to get a boat licence. Another year was salsa dancing. I even tried skydiving one year, and scuba-diving the next."

Her storied career in the financial industry almost did not happen because she had wanted to be a professional dancer when she was 16. Her parents, however, struck a deal with her - she would further her studies first, and take up professional ballet after that.

"But no one told me I won't be as flexible after several years of not training as a dancer," she said. So her plans changed, and she pursued a business undergraduate programme at Indiana State University, and later, an MBA specialising in international business.

Her career in finance started after she was shortlisted by Citibank in 1991 at a Singapore job fair in the United States.

"My very first job after my training was to manage Ready Credit - Citi's most successful product." She did that for three years, and at 24, switched over to AT&T to promote its calling services in South-east Asia to business and leisure travellers.

"At the time, AT&T had huge ambitions to be a telco player in Singapore, but StarHub got the licence. My job was to facilitate calling services for the American military travelling through Singapore. So I got to go on aircraft carriers like the Kitty Hawk," she said.

"I remember that in my job interview, my boss asked how I felt about handling crowds. When I got on the US aircraft carrier... I realised what he meant. We were in the middle of a few thousand military men, and had to work with hotels to provide access to Americans using AT&T calling cards. It was daunting."

In 1997, she rejoined Citigroup as marketing director of global consumer banking, and began promoting retirement planning. "We were looking to highlight the urgency of retirement planning as the average person has only about 40 years of income producing to support 20 years of financial security... We highlighted to clients that they needed more than just CPF to have a desired retirement lifestyle," she said.

From retail banking, she joined Citigroup Asset Management in 2001 as its regional head of marketing for the Asia-Pacific. But new challenges beckoned when she got a call from HSBC in 2003. At the time, HSBC wanted a chief marketing officer in Singapore to help build its brand as the world's local bank. She was later promoted to head of retail banking in Singapore.

Building the HSBC retail brand included making sure that each customer contact was positive, she said.

To that end, she would personally read every single customer complaint, and use the feedback to improve service.

"People usually hate dealing with customer complaints. But I tell my staff that if the situation couldn't be helped, they would have quietly closed their account and walked away. But if you are able to resolve a complaint, you can turn the customer into a very loyal customer."

To get further feedback on how to improve customer service, she said she used to host a monthly luncheon with 20 random retail clients to "hear the good, bad and ugly".

It was then that she realised the bank itself needed to build a relationship directly with the clients, after finding out that customers were mostly unhappy about the rapid churn rate of relationship managers.

In 2015, she was hired by Manulife to jump-start its asset management business. "Traditionally, Manulife managed assets and insurance monies from affiliate businesses. But they wanted someone with an extensive retail banking background as that is one of its strategic business focus."

Having undertaken a myriad of top management positions in at least five financial institutions, Ms Lim finds the greatest satisfaction in roles that create an impact and can positively change people's lives. That came about partly because of a mentor she had when she went through Citi's management associate training programme at the start of her career. Ms Lim said her mentor helped "set her straight" in the way she evaluated ideas.

"When someone came up with an idea, I always tended to think of things that can go wrong. And if there are few negatives, that means it's a good idea.

"But she pulled me aside one day, and said: 'Do you know how negative you sound? When someone comes up with an idea, you tell them they haven't thought about this, or this isn't going to work because you didn't do this.' She actually stopped me, and asked: 'Have you ever thought about evaluating things based on what are the positives?'

"That was a big change for me."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on July 10, 2017, with the headline 'The day an ATM floated out to sea after huge tidal wave'. Print Edition | Subscribe