From The Straits Times archives: Tan Su Shan of DBS named world's best leader in private banking

SINGAPORE - Ms Tan Su Shan, DBS Bank's group head of consumer banking and wealth management at DBS Group, was recognised as the world's best leader in private banking at the prestigious PWM/The Banker Global Private Banking Awards on Wednesday night in Geneva.

DBS also beat out other banks in the world to be named the best private bank in use of technology and it also received the best private bank in Singapore accolade for the fifth consecutive year.

Ms Tan, 46, is the first Singaporean to be given the honour. Mr Yuri Bender, editor in chief, PWM, Financial Times Group, said she had stood out amongst a list of 30 leaders from banks in North and Latin America, Europe and Asia.

We go back into The Straits Times archives to look at Ms Tan's career at DBS.

DBS women leaders tell of challenges

First published on Sept 3, 2012

(Clockwise from left) Head of wealth management Tan Su Shan, head of human resources Lee Yan Hong, chief financial officer Chng Sok Hui, head of strategic marketing and communications Karen Ngui and head of institutional banking Jeanette Wong have had to juggle multiple roles. -- ST PHOTO: KUA CHEE SIONG

By Joyce Teo

TAKE a look at the upper reaches of many companies and you will find that things are changing as companies become more aware of gender diversity.

DBS Group Holdings is one of the stronger performers in this area. Women make up nearly 60 per cent of its 18,000-strong workforce. At the managing director level, the figure is 30 per cent.

Five in 18 senior executives who report directly to chief executive Piyush Gupta are women. For them, rising to the top has meant sacrifice and hard work.

Many of these women emphasise that a supportive spouse or family and access to flexible work arrangements were crucial to helping them start a family while climbing the corporate ladder.

Prime Minister Lee Hsien Loong referred to work-life balance in his National Day Rally speech. To encourage working women to have babies, the work culture and employer attitudes need to improve, and more has to be done to promote flexible work arrangements, he said.

Many women are still expected to juggle multiple roles: mother, wife, full-time executive.

Ms Lee Yan Hong, DBS' human resources head, whose two children are now grown-up, said the sacrifice - or rather the choice - she had to make was not to accept overseas postings or take on regional roles when the children were younger. She also had to consider her husband's career.

But things have changed significantly since then.

Ms Tan Su Shan, who heads the bank's wealth management business, worked in a London dealing room in the early 1990s when professional women were a clear minority. She noted that the challenge for women today is less about competing in a male-dominated environment and more about differentiating oneself while still juggling multiple roles.

"The competition for jobs is more intense now, whether you are male or female," said Ms Tan, who has had to give up recreational activities such as golf to focus on her career and family.

One's willingness to persevere as commitments rise is key, especially when women have options that include becoming a full-time mum, said Ms Jeanette Wong, who heads DBS' institutional banking business.

"I enjoy a lot of what I do, but sometimes, the going gets tough. This was especially true in my younger days when I had to cope with my kids' demands for my time," said the mother of two.

While DBS does not offer unusual perks for mothers - they get the usual 16 weeks of maternity leave while fathers get two days of paternity leave - it has a flexible work-hour scheme where staff can opt to start or end work early or late, as well as a scheme that provides for part-time work.

The bank also put in several nursing rooms just last year.

Chief financial officer Chng Sok Hui, a mother of four, said DBS has a culture that allows women to down-shift their careers in the critical child-rearing years, and then get back on board when they are ready.

She cited one full-time staff member who converted to a three-day work week to take care of her family and who plans to step up to a four-day week when her children are older.

"Admittedly, a large part of the work still gets done within the confines of the office. However, to function effectively, one does not need to operate out of one's workspace or observe traditional working hours," said Ms Karen Ngui, who heads strategic marketing and communications at DBS and is a mother of three.

Ms Lee said she was fortunate to have had understanding bosses. "The focus was on the output and results rather than putting in face time."

She worked half-days during her children's key exam periods. Like Ms Tan, who worked partly from home in the early mornings when her children were younger, Ms Lee said she made sure she worked even harder, to show she deserved the privilege.

Being a working woman comes with its challenges. But ultimately, it is still about having the best person for the job, regardless of race, religion or gender, says Ms Ngui.

Said Mr Gupta: "Personally, I find no difference between women and men in decision-making or execution, so we can't conclude that gender diversity leads to better decision-making by itself. However, having a talented, stable pool of leaders with diverse backgrounds does allow us to function more effectively."

Banker delivers the goods

DBS group head has faced down a host of challenges, even trading while in labour

First published on Aug 1, 2010

Ms Tan Su Shan, who joined DBS Bank as managing director and group head of wealth management in June, has had to find her feet in challenging environments like Kuwait and China, and hold her own in London, Tokyo and Hong Kong. -- PHOTO: ST FILE

By Wong Kim Hoh, Senior Writer

THE dollar-yen exchange rate was fluctuating wildly, and the contractions had begun.

Alas, it was a slow labour. So Ms Tan Su Shan, 42, did what many women would never conceive of doing: The banker asked for a Bloomberg trading screen in her hospital ward.

She kept track of the screen's movements and occasionally telephoned clients even as she hyperventilated between contractions on her labour bed.

"My husband was there, and said, 'You must be mad'," recalls Ms Tan, adding that she was in labour for 20 hours before delivering her first child, a girl, about 11 years ago.

The screen followed her home after she was discharged so that she could still trade during her confinement period.

"I'd be breast-feeding and talking to my clients and hoping they would not hear the 'glurg glurg glurg' noises," she lets on, merrily imitating the sounds of a baby nursing. "You can be a mother but you can still look after your clients," says Ms Tan who has another son, aged 10.

"Talisa and Kai, bless them, have fallen in," jokes the high-profile banker who joined DBS Bank as managing director and group head of wealth management in June. Before that, she was Morgan Stanley's head of private wealth management for South-east Asia.

"They know when to turn on CNBC," she says, referring to the American satellite and cable business news channel. "During the financial crisis in 2008, Kai would look at the screen in the morning and go 'yay' if the markets were green. And if they were red, he would say, 'Uh-oh, Mummy's going to be worried today.'"

Married to a former banker turned social entrepreneur, she says she has taught her children about stocks. "The thing is to bring them into your work life as opposed to taking it out. It's telling your kids - this is what Mummy does, this is why Mummy sometimes has to travel around the world," says the Promsho - or Pre-University Overseas Merit Scholarship for the Study of Humanities at Oxbridge - scholar who majored in philosophy, politics and economics at Oxford.

The younger of two daughters, Ms Tan - whose late father was the secretary of the Public Service Commission and mother, a pharmacist - fell in love with the markets when she was an intern with Barings Securities in London in the late 1980s.

"The moment I walked into the dealing room of Barings and saw all the traders yelling, I thought to myself, 'Oh my god, I'm in heaven,'" she says.

Not surprisingly, her first job in 1989 saw her ending up in that very same dealing room.

Asked to explain why markets give her a frisson down the spine, she says: "It's a battlefield and every day is different. You expect the unexpected. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose."

"It's making quick judgment calls, and it requires quick thinking and quick decision-making," adds the banker who cut her teeth doing equity and derivatives sales to financial institutions.

Ms Tan, who is fluent in English, Mandarin and Japanese, has now spent 21 years in the business working for Barings, Morgan Stanley and Citigroup, and is, in her own words, "very battle-tested". She has had to find her feet in challenging environments like Kuwait and China, and hold her own in London, Tokyo and Hong Kong. She has set up offices and opened new markets, but she has also lost her job before, when Barings went under in the 1990s, as well as survived a couple of financial crises. Her years in the business, she says, have not only honed her professional skills but also shaped her perspectives and outlook on life.

She remembers being packed off to Kuwait immediately after the Gulf War to look for investors, a challenging task probably made even more daunting by the fact that she's Asian and female.

"It doesn't matter how you look, what your gender is; it matters what you know, what you say and how you say it," she says.

"You can't go into a meeting thinking you're going to command respect because you're carrying a big-time name card."

She has come up against clients who started off intending to give her short shrift. "But they'd ask me a few questions: 'How do you calculate the parity on this, what do you think of the convertible bond market, can I do an arbitrage here or there?'" she says.

"When they know they're talking to a professional, the meeting changes. It's no longer 'who is she?' It becomes 'it's OK; she knows her stuff'. I'm no different from other market makers or counterparts from London or New York," says Ms Tan who was held up as an example of Singaporean banking talent earlier this year by DBS chairman Peter Seah.

Being relevant is something she cannot emphasise enough.

"Say very little, listen and ask. And after you've figured out what you need to figure out, process the knowledge and come up with the solution.

"The best bankers I've met are those who do their homework and know everything there is to know about the client or the prospect."

Poised, personable and articulate, Ms Tan says she has absorbed much from several mentors who not only imparted skills and knowledge but also groomed her by giving her opportunities.

Not surprisingly, she's a big believer in giving people a shot even though they may be young and not quite ready for the job. "I was given a shot early in my career. Citi, for instance, gave me a lot of responsibilities. It was very tough at first but once you've formed good relationships with people, they will want to help you."

It also explains why she's keen on paying it forward. She's had scores of mentees, from subordinates to children of clients.

After all, disciples often outshine masters.

"Qing chu yu lan er sheng yu lan," she says, spouting a Chinese proverb meaning "the blue extracted from the indigo plant is darker than the indigo plant".

It also explains why she decided to set up the Financial Women's Association (FWA) - which she calls her third baby after Talisa and Kai - in 2001.

She kick-started it with more than 10 other female professionals to offer other women colleagues in the financial world opportunities to network and grow socially and professionally.

"We started out having brown bag lunches. Members brought their own lunch, and we provided the resources, whether it was a talk on how to ace an interview, a course on derivatives trading or tips on getting a job," says the banker, adding that many of its members have gone on to distinguished careers as well as leadership positions in organisations like Unifem and the Singapore Council of Women's Organisations.

"Setting up FWA was our way of telling young women to go for it but if they're in the wrong job, to rethink and retool," she says.

She gives the same advice to her mentees and staff. "My first questions to them are 'What motivates you? What do you want to do?'

"If you can meld what they want to do and what they are good at, they'll figure it out. But if you're going to force them and they don't have any interest, it won't work out."

Ms Tan describes herself as a big believer in diversity. "I'm totally gender blind," she says.

But she recognises there is a flip side to diversity.

"When you have a team with different personalities, not everyone is going to get along," she says. But it can, she believes, oftentimes be turned into a strength.

"In as much as I can, I try to unite. I always tell my teams that the enemy is not within. If we unite and recognise the diversity and that we are completely different, it only makes us stronger whether we're out pitching for business or looking after our client."

She adds: "Frankly, if everyone is alike, I'd be scared. We can have disagreements but they can never be personal. My philosophy is 'take your work seriously, not yourself too seriously'."

Her new role in DBS will see her leading a team of more than 400 asset management staff spread across Singapore, Hong Kong and China. "It's a very diverse group, across different age groups and skill sets," she says.

She's now "painstakingly" consolidating her resources and building talent.

"When leaders move, they tend to move their whole team with them. I don't believe in that. You will hollow out the talent in your bank which is not good because when you leave, you should leave professionally.

"You will also not understand the talent of the organisation you are going to."

The first thing she has done, she says, is to hire a trainer "so that everyone understands how every financial product works, how it's stress tested, how it's priced, how it can work for or against you".

Being "safe, solid and secure", she says, is paramount, especially in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis which has resulted not just in collapsed institutions but also a damaged reputation for private banking.

"The crisis has washed out many loose players. Markets go up and go down and, in all honesty, you cannot be blamed if you can't foresee a market meltdown." But, she adds, "neither can you not be responsible if you haven't taken care of your clients through that process. That's why people who have survived, with clients intact, clean of lawsuits and debt issues are those who are battle-tested".

Ms Tan lets out a peal of laughter when asked if she's planning any more "babies".

"No more literal babies," she jokes, although she says having her two children was the best thing that's happened to her.

But the banker, who sits on the board of KK Women's and Children's Hospital's Health Endowment Fund, says: "I'd like to really help the KK's outreach programme which helps children from poorer countries.

"My next project would be to bring in at least 12 children from overseas for life-saving operations here."


What is the most important lesson you've learnt in your career?

When you are in a bad situation, and you don't learn to get detached, you get coloured by what's going on around you.

I learnt that when Barings was just about to go under. I thought my world was crumbling. I was going to lose my job which meant everything to me; my landlady wouldn't renew my lease because I was losing my job; I had just broken off a long-term relationship.

Then I realised I was just 26; I had my health, my friends and a life ahead of me. So I've learnt to take a detached view of things, and meditation and yoga have helped.

Life moves in cycles. I always quote my good friend Mr Ron Sim, the founder of Osim, who has seen his company's stock price go from $2 to a few cents and now back to over $1.

He once said: "When things are good, don't lose your head. And when things are bad, don't lose your heart."

What is your leadership style?

I believe in regular communication.

I believe in building on a vision based on a shared vision. If all people understand and buy into that vision, they will join your execution team. They will join a team where they can do their best, they will make an impact and you will have results. It takes time but that's what I believe.

How do you juggle motherhood with career?

I don't think I would have been able to juggle family and career in London or Hong Kong or China. Here in Singapore, I can do that because I surround myself with help: my mother, my husband and my helper.

There are certain things which are sacred - getting (the kids) out of bed, taking them to school and putting them to bed and tucking them in.

It's also learning that you can't control everything in both the house and the office. When I'm home, I'm 100 per cent there but when I'm at work, I can't worry too much about the kids.

For example, today my two kids have 40 deg C temperatures but I'm here and I'm not worried because I know they're well looked after. My mum is on top of things, the helper's there, the kids have gone to the doctor's and I've got regular SMS updates so I know they're fine.

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