Banker thrives on her mantra: 'Never say die, just do it'

Head of UOB Private Bank recalls varied and challenging experiences in career

Ms Ong's do-or-die attitude has stood her in good stead over the years. It is also the driving force behind her determined efforts to build up UOB Private Bank.
Ms Ong's do-or-die attitude has stood her in good stead over the years. It is also the driving force behind her determined efforts to build up UOB Private Bank.PHOTO: UOB

In a dusty corner of the home she was moving out of some three years ago, banker Ong Yeng Fang discovered 15 boxes of name cards she had gathered over the years.

She recalls how a wave of nostalgia swept over her, taking her back to her early days as a young executive when she was constantly thrown into the deep end - an experience which she has since become accustomed to.

Before Ms Ong turned 25, DBS Bank sent her to Bangkok to become its head of credit and marketing in Thailand.

By the age of 27, she had been sent to negotiate deals on her own and, when she was 32, she had to give a speech in the Thai language at a press conference filled with more than 40 reporters.

The head of United Overseas Bank (UOB) Private Bank, Ms Ong, now in her late 40s, says, referring to her name cards: "I realised I'd accumulated so many contacts over the years.

"When I was 27, I was managing the Bangkok International Banking Facility (also known as BIBF, through which foreign banks make offshore loans to Thai firms). I had to negotiate through a lot of things, including term sheets, with a particular client."


He asked if I was the one he spoke to, and said I was young but sounded like I knew a lot. 'You didn't sound like you're this young,' he said. It was good to hear that I was performing beyond my years - I had to, as the only one managing the department.

MS ONG YENG FANG, who was managing the Bangkok International Banking Facility when she was 27, on a client who was shocked to find out she was younger than expected when he met her.

That client visited the office after speaking on the phone with Ms Ong, and was shocked. "He asked if I was the one he spoke to, and said I was young but sounded like I knew a lot. 'You didn't sound like you're this young,' he said. It was good to hear that I was performing beyond my years - I had to, as the only one managing the department," Ms Ong says with a laugh.

It was in such situations where she stretched her limits, and working in Bangkok, where she picked up Thai, was a baptism of fire.

"I was given heavy responsibilities by my former boss. As a relatively new banking exec - three years with DBS - I had to learn everything from scratch. I was the head of the department, and those reporting to me were much older."

Ms Ong was engaged when she headed to Bangkok in 1993, before she married and had a son, all the while shuttling between the Land of Smiles and Singapore until 1998. Her son, now 21, is doing his national service in the air force. He will be going to Singapore Management University. She also has a 17-year-old daughter studying at Dunman High.

Ms Ong says: "Managing people, managing them in a different culture and language, oh my goodness, you really learn. That's why I like bankers with international exposure."

It is why Ms Ong - who joined UOB in 2014 after leaving Julius Baer where she was managing director - made sure to hire and groom such bankers.

UOB Private Bank has 115 relationship managers, up from 52 in 2014, and staff strength has grown to over 300, including those in back offices and operations.

She says: "We've a lot of diversity within the private bank. We've Vietnamese who speak French, Singaporeans who speak Korean... When you're put in a situation where you have to meet certain clients and there's a language barrier, it's very useful (that a staff can speak their language).

"We've a home-grown market head who speaks Bahasa Indonesia fluently and was posted to Jakarta. Not all managers move, but he fitted the bill - he had international exposure. He also knows Thai and Buddhism culture, and clients love him because he can communicate well. I always encourage staff... to have a third language and a variety of interests."

Ms Ong walks the talk; she studied French, and is fluent in conversational Thai, Mandarin and Hokkien. Her language skills have come in handy during some of the toughest moments in her career.

Take the speech she gave in Thai when DBS took over Thai Danu Bank in 1998, when she stayed up until midnight working on a five-page script in Thai - but phonetically in English - for a 9am conference. Or the time when she had to act as a translator in China, while in the credit department, when she was asked to cover China's strategy for DBS.

She notes: "These are the tough moments when you're put in situations where you have to react, and cannot fail because you're presenting an image of the bank, of Singapore, to the Chinese officials."

The same do-or-die attitude has been the driving force behind Ms Ong's efforts to build UOB Private Bank, which she was asked to join to overhaul the whole platform.

"The investment platform that we've built is 'open architecture', and more than matches the standard of the other Swiss banks. Today, whatever offerings the market has, we're able to come up with the same or better pricing," Ms Ong says, making good on her 2015 pledge that "come end of this year, I'm very confident that whatever a Swiss bank does, I can do".

That was instrumental in the bank drawing in clients and good banking staff, she notes.

"I started speaking to good people two years ago, and kept the conversations going. Some may not have been ready then, or may not have thought our platform was ready. But now it's built, people are keen. I'm getting a lot of CVs from headhunters, of experienced, talented people, that I hadn't seen before."

She interviews people every day. "We could have increased the number of frontliners by a lot more but I'm not focusing on quantity but quality."

Ms Ong adds that specialists with extensive experience are also hired, including those who have managed the money of private banking clients in difficult conditions.

"You can be a product person who's intellectual but have you actually managed money before? That's the difference. We want to make sure people know how to manage money and that they do it well."

They include foreign exchange specialists and those in the discretionary portfolio team - recruited last February - have "performed above the benchmark, which I'm proud of", Ms Ong says.

She herself has had varied experiences, from investment and corporate to private banking. She works more than 12 hours a day to reach goals such as tripling the number of clients from Greater China by 2019.

The bank's assets under management (AUM) have also grown 50 per cent from September 2013 to September last year; UOB Group's total wealth management AUM was $88 billion in June last year, up from $83 billion in June 2015.

Ms Ong has adopted the work ethic of her mentors - including those from her early days such as Mr Chong Kie Cheong, who was UOB's head of group institutional financial services before retiring in December 2011, and Mr Lim Yin Kiat, who is working past his retirement age as credit head at a foreign bank - and the passion she grew up with at Raffles Girls' School, her alma mater.

"One of them retired three years ago, and another is still working in his 70s. The fervour to work hard is there. And in school, the teachers and principals would always say never say die and to just do it. It's the attitude, the fire in the belly...

"I still run very fast these days. Sometimes my people say they can't catch up and I tell them to just try their best. It's important to lead by example."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on January 30, 2017, with the headline 'Banker thrives on her mantra: 'Never say die, just do it''. Subscribe