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DBS board and its top managers hold retreat in London

They also meet key clients. Bank says it is 'dialling up' its presence in the British capital

DBS Bank's chief executive Piyush Gupta: "The window is a five-year one. If you don't get the digital transformation right in the next five years, you will be history."


DBS GROUP'S tradition of an "off-site" annual board meeting took its nine-directors and 20-strong management committee to London this year.

The meeting, which allowed the bank's top brass to bond and draw up strategies, also gave directors a chance to meet key institutional clients during the four- to five-day trip.

Last month's retreat was DBS' 6th and as with previous off-site meetings, spouses went along too, in line with the bank's pro-family culture that has contributed to a low staff turnover and high staff engagement.

"It's a way we've chosen to create a stronger DBS culture. Over the years, we have built very good working relationships, and more importantly, a strong sense of belonging, at the senior-most levels. This approach permeates the entire organisation, which we believe has helped improve our performance," said Karen Ngui, DBS spokeswoman.

According to Gallup, DBS staffers are among the top 5 per cent most engaged globally.

The directors and spouses flew first class, while the group management committee and their spouses went business class, a source said.

All stayed in Ong Beng Seng's hip Metropolitan Hotel, a one-minute walk from London's famed Hyde Park.

This was the first time the off-site meeting was held outside Asia. Last year, the board met in Hong Kong, and before that, Korea; other retreats have taken place in India, Taiwan and China.

On Singapore Airlines' website, a Singapore-London first-class return ticket is listed at S$23,000, while a business-class ticket carries a S$9,176 tag, but the source said the bank paid as much as 50 per cent less as it booked the tickets six months in advance plus getting a corporate discount. Meals and hotel also cost less than at last year's meeting in Hong Kong.

Of the decision to hold the retreat in London this year, Ms Ngui said: "It was a chance to meet with DBS' institutional clients. DBS intermediates trade and capital flows for European clients into Asia.

"We want to dial up our presence in London," she added.

DBS, South-east Asia's largest bank, has a branch in London.

During the week there, the itinerary included a corporate dinner for clients, some of whom came from continental Europe.

In an interview with FinancialTimes, the bank's chief executive Piyush Gupta ruled out buying rival UK-based Standard Chartered Bank. He said the group's focus for the next five years is to invest in digital companies, FT reported.

"The window is a five-year one. If you don't get the digital transformation right in the next five years, you will be history," he said, adding that making a significant acquisition such as StanChart would suck up too much management time.

The bank has delivered record earnings in recent years, with 2014 net profit at S$4.05 billion.

At the same time, it has kept its costs down. DBS's staff cost to revenue ratio is the lowest among peer banks. For H12015, the ratio at DBS was 24.7 per cent, the lowest when compared against local rivals OCBC Bank (25.8 per cent) and United Overseas Bank (26.1 per cent). At Standard Chartered and HSBC, it was 36.2 per cent and 25.2 per cent, respectively.

The other two local banks normally hold their annual board retreats at home, although United Overseas Bank held its board meeting in Thailand this year, BT understands, to give its directors a better grasp of the bank's South-east Asian business, an important growth driver for the bank.

OCBC Bank holds its annual strategy board meeting at its OCBC Centre.

Its spokeswoman Koh Ching Ching said: "The OCBC Bank board strategy meeting is held once a year in Singapore, the country where the board resides."

Board off-site meetings may not be the norm among local companies but is quite established for global corporates.

Swiss banking giant UBS held its board meeting in Singapore last year and also in 2011.

A 2006 Harvard Business Review article on off-site meetings said these usually provide the only opportunity the top management team has to explore strategic issues in depth for several days.

"The scope of the matters discussed at a strategy off-site is broader than at the typical management meeting. When looking at big-picture topics like what business the company should be in, as well as more-focused questions like how to build new core competencies, executives must peer beyond the immediate horizon to three to ten years into the future," the article said.

Of last year's Hong Kong offsite meeting, DBS in its 2014 annual report said strategy discussions centred on topics critical to its business. These included the impact of macro and regulatory development, reviewing the competitive landscape and assessing the threat of digital disruption.