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KL banker Nazir Razak loosens grip at CIMB

He steps down as CEO, becomes chairman of Malaysia's second largest bank on Sept 1

[SINGAPORE] In a surprise yet not completely unexpected move, Malaysia's top banking maestro, Nazir Razak, is stepping down as chief executive of the country's second largest lender, CIMB Group.

Mr Nazir, the youngest brother of Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, will however cap a 25-year career, the last 15 years spent at the executive perch of South-east Asia's fifth largest lender, by taking over as chairman of the group on Sept 1. The 48-year-old super-competitive banker, who is well known at home as he is over here in Singapore and the rest of the region, will succeed CIMB chairman Mohd Nor Yusof, who has been holding the position since 2006.

Mr Mohd Nor, 62, who is also chairman of beleaguered Malaysia Airlines, is understood to have earlier indicated his intention to retire, hence opening up a window for this "leadership transition", as CIMB described it in a statement yesterday.

Mr Nazir, a respected and outspoken banker - his frank views and criticism of Malaysia's pro-Malay policies have earned him admiration as well as rebuke - was also appointed a director of state-owned Khazanah Nasional, CIMB's majority shareholder.

"I have served as group CEO for 15 years, and it's time for someone with fresh thinking and energy to lead the management team of this firm," he said in the statement.

Mr Nazir, who is fondly known as "Jay" in close circles, will also chair a yet-to-be-established executive committee of the board at CIMB that will focus on key strategic matters and enhance the board's oversight functions.

"It's a healthy thing," said a key executive. "Nobody should stay in the job for too long. He is one of the longest serving CEOs in Malaysia."

In a personable memo sent via e-mail to the bank's staff yesterday and obtained by BT, the CIMB veteran explained the reasons behind what is quite possibly the biggest changing of the guard in Malaysia's banking history.

"I have long aspired to become chairman of CIMB Group as my next career move. I will continue to helm the organisation albeit in a different role. No one should be unduly concerned. I am not going anywhere else."

The move by Mr Nazir to relinquish his executive role in the bank, which turned in record profits of RM4.54 billion (S$2.1 billion) for 2013 and backed by total assets of RM380 billion, stunned Malaysia's corporate circles yesterday.

Even so, executives close to him say that it's a decision he had deliberated long and hard. "Nazir is a very strong-willed, systematic individual. This didn't happen suddenly. So in every aspect, this is an orderly transition," said one who has worked closely with him over many years.

In fact, in recent years and not too long after the banker surprised corporate circles and set the rumour mill on overdrive in 2010 when he took time out as a Chevening fellow at the Oxford Centre for Islamic Studies, he is said to have gradually "loosened" his day-to-day responsibilities at the bank.

This, he managed to do almost seamlessly after having meticulously tapped able lieutenants, some from other organisations, to head the bank's key units while top talents were handpicked to head the overseas operations in Singapore, Indonesia and Thailand.

In fact, it can be said that his study sojourn at the prestigious Oxford was a "test" to assess how well the "ship could run without a captain" although Mr Nazir continued to make key decisions and travelled back home frequently.

Mr Nazir has also been spending more time in London, where his family - wife and two children - have been living in recent years.

The big change has now skewed the attention on what will become of CIMB, a bank that has become synonymous with Mr Nazir who has, through a series of well thought-out yet rigorous buyouts, led to its reshaping into one of Asean's top universal banks with over 1,000 retail branches.

CIMB said that it would announce a CEO successor once it gets the nod from the regulators. Sources say that that could happen within a month or so.

A leading candidate and Mr Nazir's top pick, insiders say, is Tengku Zafrul Aziz who joined only in January as CEO of CIMB's investment bank.

Mr Nazir and Mr Zafrul are great chums and in some ways, it's a relationship more akin to a mentor-mentee bond based on professional respect formed over many years.

But not too long ago - before Mr Zafrul joined CIMB, he was chief of Maybank's investment bank - both men were rivals although it's hard to match Mr Nazir's business acumen and formidable networks.

Last year, Mr Zafrul was one of three individuals at Maybank tipped to become Maybank CEO when the post was left vacant. That didn't happen for Mr Zafrul and it didn't take long for Mr Nazir, with succession planning not far from his mind, to lob a career-shifting offer on his lap to head CIMB Investment Bank.

Based on the current line-up at the top frontline, Mr Zafrul stands a good chance. "There's a nice balance of familiarity and change with Zafrul as CIMB CEO," said an observer.

If the 41-year-old whose prowess so far has largely been in deal-making, is handed the job, it will indeed be a daunting task to lead a giant banking entity with 40,000 people and operations in 17 countries.

But that's pretty much how Mr Nazir started out at CIMB - as chief of the investment banking unit and much later, CEO of the group - and transformed what was once a colourless and lumbering commercial bank into a dynamic enterprise.

In the staff memo, Mr Nazir remarked that that there would probably be much speculation on his potential successor. "We will keep the suspense as short as possible."