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An outsider to run UOB? 'Why not'? says Wee Ee Cheong

CEO, whose family owns more than 20% of UOB, says he will always take in people with the right values

With only one of his three children in banking, Mr Wee says he won't force any of them to enter the industry. That differs from his own career, which was more like an "arranged marriage".


UNITED Overseas Bank's chief executive officer said he is comfortable going outside his family for a successor to run the lender his grandfather founded more than eight decades ago.

"I will always, as I said, take in people with the right values," Wee Ee Cheong, 66, who took the reins from his father in 2007, said in an interview.

"If they can do the job, why not?" UOB is the only Singapore bank that's still run by a family after OCBC Bank and others chose outsiders as their CEO or merged.

Under Mr Wee's billionaire father, UOB emerged from the Asian financial crisis of the late 1990s strong enough to benefit from later consolidation that left the country with three major banks.

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With only one of his three children in banking, Mr Wee said he wouldn't force any of them to enter the industry. That differs from his career path, which started at the bank in 1979 and was more like an "arranged marriage," he said. "Maybe those days, about 40 years ago, you have limited choices," he said. "You just go in and your father says try, you just try and make it happen."

Despite his openness to outside succession, he doesn't rule out keeping it in the family. His son Teng Chuen, 35, is a first vice-president at UOB and is learning the ropes from other managers, Mr Wee said. Teng Wen, the oldest child, runs a local hospitality empire, while Grace, the youngest, is in consulting.

Wee Kheng Chiang founded the bank in 1935 before passing it on to his son Wee Cho Yaw in 1960.

Now 90, Mr Wee Cho Yaw embarked on a series of takeovers that included 10 banks. The family owns more than 20 per cent of UOB, according to the CEO.

Outward looking

UOB has delivered a net 66 per cent total return to investors since the current chief took the baton, according to Bloomberg calculations.

That trails OCBC's 74 per cent, and DBS Group Holdings' 87 per cent during the same period.

Asked if there's room for more bank consolidation in Singapore, Mr Wee said it wouldn't necessarily make sense because the three banks are more focused on their own expansions abroad and compete with foreign firms at home.

"We are actually fairly outward looking," he said. "It's not like we are all in Singapore."

He said he will continue running the bank as long as he's healthy to ensure a strong team that values stewardship is in place for the next phase of UOB.

"To me it's the responsibility. I have to make sure that there's a proper succession."

According to a 2014 biography, Mr Wee's father was proud that his children worked for family-related businesses.

But Mr Wee Cho Yaw also lamented that his grandchildren weren't as involved in the financial group, and expressed hope that might change in the future - something his son described in the interview as "wishful thinking".

"The wealth you have inherited, at the end of the day, if you have good judgment you trust it to the individual," Mr Wee said. "You get the right people in to manage it for you." BLOOMBERG

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