Barclays chief Kuan Li Li no stranger to challenges

Ms Kuan Li Li says being the head of a bank today is not just about being a rainmaker and bringing in the bread. "It's actually about being able to manage and harness the whole operating ecosystem." -- PHOTO: LIM YAOHUI FOR THE STRAITS TIMES

WHEN leading banker Kuan Li Li took on the top job at Barclays Singapore last year, she also took on the kind of challenge that would make most executives' heads spin.

Her mission involves steering the bank through an increasingly complex regulatory environment while also aiming to deliver good financial performance and instilling a strong compliance culture.

They might seem contradictory at first glance, but Ms Kuan, who is the bank's country manager and chief operating officer, believes she is more than ready to guide the company forward.

She told The Straits Times: "We're living in the VUCA world - volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Today, being the head of a bank is not just about being a rainmaker, bringing in the bread. It's actually about being able to manage and harness the whole operating ecosystem.

"That means you don't just comply with the rules, but you also have to anticipate what's on the horizon. I believe I'm the right choice for this job, because of my tax and legal background."

The promotion of Ms Kuan, who joined Barclays Singapore as Asia's head of tax in 2004, came at a time when the British banking giant was stepping up its compliance and governance standards after several international banks were accused of interest rate rigging.

As part of that initiative, Ms Kuan's first task was to create local accountability at the bank.

"We report functionally to the United Kingdom headquarters, but Barclays Singapore now has its own cut across all local functions," she noted.

"I started the Singapore Country Management Committee, which brings together all functional heads to a monthly meeting where we discuss in depth all the regulatory changes that may affect our operations.

"I've also set out to close the outstanding regulatory issues - such as the data loss prevention requirements under the Technology Risk Management Notice - again with local hands-on (means) instead of waiting for the UK management to make the changes."

The road ahead will not be easy for Ms Kuan - who trained as a lawyer - as regulatory tightening continues to loom over the post-Lehman banking industry.

"The industry, including Barclays, is still grappling with exactly how to respond to the structural reforms that are taking place across different jurisdictions.

"My approach is to deep-dive and manage the operational issues at hand. That entails a lot more work than otherwise required of this job, but I'm not going to just blindly sign off on things that I don't agree with."

Meanwhile, Ms Kuan has no doubt that Barclays, which celebrates its 325th anniversary this week, will continue to stay and grow here despite rising costs and stringent regulations.

"In terms of revenue booked, the Barclays Singapore branch is the third biggest for the group. We're still the No. 1 bookrunner for euro-denominated bond issues and our extensive network in Africa will continue to be our competitive edge," said Ms Kuan, one of the few female chiefs in Singapore's traditionally male-dominated banking world and Barclays' first female country head in Asia.

Her journey to the top of the financial world has not been easy, but she is no stranger to challenges, having overcome her humble beginnings as a poor student who had to support herself through cleaning and waiting jobs.

Born and raised in a financially strained family in Klang, Malaysia, Ms Kuan had no more than $3,000 in her pocket when she travelled to Australia to study at the University of Sydney.

"To sustain myself, I worked as a house maid at the Regent Hotel - now Four Seasons - where I cleaned 12 rooms with toilets three days a week for five years. During the holidays, I would work six days a week, along with doing banquet waitressing at another hotel in the evening."

She said those tough years taught her the value of resilience and hard work, adding: "If you had to clean toilets for a living, I don't think there's any challenge you cannot overcome."

After graduating with a double degree in economics and law, Ms Kuan became a senior tax accountant at Ernst & Young in Singapore in 1990. In 1994 she joined PwC, where she looked after a tax portfolio of more than 10 financial institutions. This set her up for the next stage of her professional life.

"I was supposed to advise these banks on tax matters, but I'd never worked in a bank so I wasn't sure I could do it well. That's why when HSBC offered me the job of tax manager in 1997, I knew I had to take the opportunity to explore the industry."

Before joining Barclays, her stint in the banking industry also included four years at DBS Bank as its head of tax, a position that constantly tested her ability. "It was a baptism of fire, because DBS as a full service bank has a wide array of businesses that I needed to keep my eye on. I had to think on my feet all the time."

But even as she began her ascent in the banking world, Ms Kuan never lost sight of her role as a mother.

"You may not believe this, but I always try to knock off at 6.15pm unless I absolutely need to stay back for work. Surely God did not give me two wonderful children for me to not spend time with them."

She is also trying to instil the same culture at Barclays for working mothers. "A typical Asian thinking is that you never leave before your boss. So I set the example myself: I'm almost always the first one to knock off.

"If you ask me the secret for mothers to have a successful career, I would say you need to work smart as much as you work hard. Instead of spending long hours in the office, manage your time and work through your priorities properly.

"You must also figure out which stage your life is at. Are your children too young or too many for you to commit to a career? Once you figure out that you're ready, go for it. Don't wait for the stars to be aligned."

Join ST's Telegram channel and get the latest breaking news delivered to you.