OCBC mounts China hiring spree to tap growing wealth

The planned hires will be at OCBC's main operations and its private banking unit Bank of Singapore.
The planned hires will be at OCBC's main operations and its private banking unit Bank of Singapore.ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

SINGAPORE (BLOOMBERG) - OCBC Bank is boosting its wealth management and corporate banking staff for Greater China to capture regional business flow from the world's second-largest economy.

South-east Asia's second-largest lender plans to double the number of relationship managers for wealthy Chinese clients to 500 by 2023, chief executive Helen Wong said in her first in-person interview since taking the job in April. The planned hires will be at OCBC's main operations and its private banking unit Bank of Singapore.

"Asean has become China's biggest trade partner and intra-Asian trade is going up substantially," Ms Wong, 60, said in an interview at the bank's Singapore headquarters. "We know that this is our opportunity." Greater China accounts for about a quarter of OCBC's pre-tax profit.

The lender also plans to increase the number of corporate and commercial bankers by 30 per cent to about 400 by 2024, Ms Wong said. Among the planned hires will be for what OCBC calls China Business Office, which are currently in Myanmar, Thailand and Malaysia. More of such offices will soon open in Indonesia and Vietnam to target corporate clients. Such hiring is essential to help Chinese clients in businesses from e-commerce to construction who are expanding into South-east Asia, she said.

"There are indeed many more Chinese customers coming to South-east Asia using Singapore as a base to expand into, for example Indonesia, it's a big market for them," said Ms Wong.

OCBC joins bigger global rivals such as HSBC Holdings and Standard Chartered and regional competitor DBS Group Holdings in beefing up their presence in one of the world's largest banking markets.

Asean is China's biggest trading partner, with trade between the two reaching 3.12 trillion yuan (S$648.5 billion) in the first seven months of the year, China customs data shows.


For Ms Wong, a Hong Kong native who rejoined OCBC after 27 years with HSBC - eventually leaving as CEO for Greater China - it is a familiar region. Ms Wong returned to OCBC last year as global wholesale banking head in what she describes as a "homecoming" to where she started her banking career as a management trainee.

Ms Wong has already made a number of key management changes in Hong Kong, including Ms Ivy Au-Yeung as CEO of OCBC Wing Hang and Mr Jason Au as head of the Greater China investment banking team. She is also reshuffling management at Bank of Singapore in Hong Kong.

When asked about acquisitions, Ms Wong said OCBC would consider something to help boost its capabilities in South-east Asia and Greater China in one of its key three businesses of banking, wealth and insurance, although she is not actively looking at anything.

"What I am doing, is to look across the whole group and map out where the opportunities are, including external opportunities as well, and then to make sure that we have a good capital plan doing that," she said. "But it's still too early."

Ms Wong's predecessor Samuel Tsien grew OCBC partly through mergers and acquisitions such as the US$5 billion (S$6.7 billion) purchase of Hong Kong's Wing Hang Bank in 2014 and the acquisition of Barclays' Asian private bank assets two years later.

OCBC had about $7 billion in excess capital at the end of June, according to estimates from Sanford C. Bernstein analyst Kevin Kwek, based on the bank's common equity tier 1 ratio, which stood at a record high 16 per cent. Part of that increase came from an accounting change in Hong Kong, Ms Wong said.