DBS chief 'hates status quo', strives to change for better

Mr Piyush Gupta's philosophy in life is simple: Innovation is crucial to progress.

The urbane chief executive officer of DBS Group Holdings, who is passionate about making his life count, wants to "make a difference and play a meaningful role".

This philosophy is reflected in how DBS, South-east Asia's largest bank, is building a culture of change since Mr Gupta took over its reins in 2009.

"I hate status quo," says the 55-year-old who values the importance of having a sense of purpose. "You've got to have a sense of true worth - how or why you are doing something, and what is the impact on others," says Mr Gupta who believes in constantly striving to change for the better.


"The difference between managing and leading is how to take things to a better place," says Mr Gupta, who has come a long way from his early days in Delhi, where he began a career in Citibank to holding various senior positions in that bank, before joining DBS in 2009.

He's been working very hard over the last few years at creating "a differentiated culture, a culture around customer journeys and rapidly embracing innovation".

This ethos is finally beginning to seep through the bank, giving DBS some of the flexibility that Internet companies have. "I think this is going to be a big game-changer for us going forward," he adds.

DBS has also maintained a consistent strategy over the last few years, one that is "architected around the appreciation of mega trends in Asia", such as the region's rapidly growing middle class and increasing wealth creation.

And greater integration among Asian countries means the establishment of deeper capital markets, particularly the bond markets, which is a focus area for the bank.


An alumnus of the prestigious Indian Institute of Management, Mr Gupta first graduated in economics and has a reputation of being "scary-smart".

So when he is not enjoying his free time solving crossword puzzles, he is looking for new opportunities, the latest being the rise of the region's small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs).

"We want to build a large regional platform to bank SMEs on an industrial scale. Most people bank SMEs like cottage industries. We're trying to commercialise the scale of that," says Mr Gupta .

Other targets include creating wealth management and debt capital market platforms, which play into current trends in the region.

DBS is focusing on Greater China, South-east Asia and India, unlike other South-east Asian banks, which are intent on building an Asean footprint. "Our belief is that the big game is between China, South-east Asia and India. So we try to play across these three sub-segments instead of just one," says Mr Gupta, who is a "big believer" in relationships. He and his wife never break their annual journey back home to visit his octogenarian parents and family in Delhi.


The bank's biggest challenge in the short and medium term is managing the new Internet world.

The advent of new providers like Alibaba, WeChat, Apple, Tencent and Google in every part of the business, whether it's lending, payments or risk management, is the "clear and present danger" facing the banking industry, he says.

"If we don't respond suitably by digitising our own offerings, by re-imagining the customer's journey, and leveraging new technology to give them a differentiated experience, we are going to die."

Cyber security is another challenge which is at the top of DBS' agenda. "We are guardians of people's money. We need to be very careful about cyber security as hackers are a big, big issue."


Regulation is another complex issue and Mr Gupta says it has been difficult to navigate within the plethora of rules which were put in place on the back of the financial crisis.

"Some of these rules are also creating a bias towards ring-fencing and protectionism. That creates its own set of problems for running a bank," he says, but adds that in many respects, DBS has what it takes to come out on top.

"We are very, very strong financially. Our pedigree is very good, and we have a lot of liquidity."

Another plus for the bank is its "Goldilocks" size. "Not too hot, not too cold," Mr Gupta quips, displaying one of his flashes of dry wit.


DBS is also operating in a sweet spot where its net interest margins (NIMs) are concerned, Mr Gupta adds. "The largest driver of our NIM is Singdollar interest rates.

"So are we getting NIM improvement in the Singdollar book? The reality is that we are."

And despite headwinds in Asia, DBS is based in the right place. Even with slower growth, the region is still expanding three times faster than any other economy in the world, Mr Gupta says. "We can still build a good business with that kind of growth."

What is important is the ability to look or think through cycles.

"If you change your strategy every time the region has a slowdown, you would not have the consistency and continuity you need to build a long-term franchise."

Overall, his outlook remains bright. It must come from his love for nature and a passion for bird-watching.

At every opportunity, you will find him heading to the rooftop to pursue different breeds with binoculars in tow.

•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 piece can be found on SGX's My Gateway website.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on September 21, 2015, with the headline 'DBS chief 'hates status quo', strives to change for better'. Print Edition | Subscribe