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OCBC appoints Helen Wong as new group CEO as Samuel Tsien retires

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Ms Wong will be the first female CEO of OCBC and also the first woman to head a Singapore bank

SINGAPORE'S second-largest bank has picked a seasoned hand in Greater China to lead the charge for the lender's next phase of growth, and with that, its first female CEO.

OCBC on Friday said Helen Wong, former chief executive of HSBC in Greater China, will be its new group chief executive officer from April 15. The 59-year-old will also be the first woman to head a Singapore bank.

Ms Wong takes over from Samuel Tsien, who will retire after 14 years with the bank, nine of which were as group CEO. Having significantly built the OCBC franchise into a "much more diversified and resilient" business, Mr Tsien, 66, will retire on April 14, said the lender.

Sanford C Bernstein analyst Kevin Kwek told The Business Times that Ms Wong's appointment signals the bank's continued focus on Greater China, given her decades of experience in the region.

Under Mr Tsien's leadership, OCBC's S$6.23 billion acquisition of Hong Kong's Wing Hang Bank in 2014 was a "bold move" in line with his firm belief in the potential of Greater China and the bank's role in it, "even if not all investors were in favour of it at the time", said Mr Kwek.

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"It would be interesting to see what (Ms Wong) can do to extract more value out of Wing Hang Bank's franchise," he noted.

While DBS and OCBC both have presence in China, OCBC's focus via Wing Hang Bank is more concentrated in Guangzhou and Shenzhen.

"If that area develops, OCBC is in a good position to tap on opportunities. Clearly Helen is among the few senior bankers with the experience to do this, connecting businesses with South-east Asia," said Mr Kwek.

As the bank's first female CEO, Ms Wong's title also bodes well for management representation and for investors who care about diversity, he added.

In a report late on Friday, Citi said it had expected Mr Tsien to remain as CEO until April 2022 to guide OCBC through the post Covid-recovery.

"The appointment of Ms Wong to CEO likely shows OCBC’s commitment to enhancing its Greater China franchise, a strategic pivot made in 2014 when OCBC acquired Wing Hang Bank. OCBC’s management philosophy has been one of continuity and clear succession planning, and it is notable that one of Ms Wong’s key roles upon joining OCBC in 2020 was to co-lead a taskforce to review the bank’s strategy and operating model, something that would have taken on even more importance with enforced industry changes due to Covid-19," said Citi analyst Robert Kong in the report.

"Investors likely will be curious whether the incoming CEO will have the same appetite for M&A as Mr Tsien appeared to signal back in 2019."

The banking veteran joined OCBC in February last year as deputy president and head of global wholesale banking. Ms Wong's experience in investment and corporate banking includes that of heading the debt capital markets business in Greater China.

She also started her career in banking with OCBC in 1984, and was its first China desk manager. After returning in 2020, she led a new sustainability taskforce said to be in line with her keen interest in sustainability.

OCBC chairman Ooi Sang Kuang said the bank had looked at candidates internally and within and outside Singapore before reaching the agreement that Ms Wong is the "best qualified person" for the role.

"Helen's experiences and expertise extend beyond corporate banking, Greater China and North Asia. She also ran a large banking operation of a global bank as the chief executive of Greater China, including Hong Kong, prior to joining OCBC. We are confident that Helen will be able to lead the OCBC Group to greater heights in an increasingly complex and challenging environment," said Mr Ooi.

OCBC has been steadily expanding its regional presence under Mr Tsien's leadership, with successful acquisitions over the years. He joined OCBC in July 2007 as global head of global corporate bank and became group CEO in 2012.

OCBC's Wing Hang Bank acquisition in 2014 was the largest takeover it its history. In the five years post-acquisition, the bank saw a tripling of its Greater China earnings contribution.

Greater China will remain the second-largest market for OCBC after Singapore, with its pre-tax profit contribution in 2018 at 19 per cent, up from 6 per cent in 2013. By 2023, the Greater China contribution should range between 20 per cent and 25 per cent, Mr Tsien had said in 2019.

In 2016, OCBC's private banking arm, Bank of Singapore, also acquired the wealth and investment management business of Barclays in Singapore and Hong Kong.

The following year, the bank bought the retail and wealth business in Singapore and Hong Kong of Australia's largest business bank, National Australia Bank.

OCBC's profitability has grown over the years, achieving a record net profit of S$4.87 billion in 2019, more than doubling 2011's net profit of S$2.31 billion.

"The team and I will now continue to build on OCBC's strong foundations to further entrench it as a leading and progressive regional financial institution," said Ms Wong.

With OCBC's succession in place, eyes may now be on its peer DBS, though the timing will be hard to predict, said Mr Kwek.

While appointments at DBS over the last two years seemed aimed at grooming potential candidates for succession, DBS chief Piyush Gupta is younger than Mr Tsien - "young enough to consider one more big challenge before retirement", he added.

Mr Kwek reckoned that DBS will be ready to see a change in the next couple of years, though some investors may be concerned given the strong role that Mr Gupta played in the bank's development over the last decade.

Citi said that investors have been questioning for some time whether DBS CEO Piyush Gupta is considering stepping down.

"Aside from being several years younger than Mr Tsien, Mr Gupta recently took the step of adding to DBS’s currently small India franchise by amalgamating Lakshmi Vilas Bank with DBS India, perhaps suggesting a greater commitment to large, high-growth emerging markets (India, Indonesia) for a DBS Group franchise that is still largely focused on Singapore and HK-China," said Mr Kong.

"Succession questions could also arise for UOB as Wee Ee Cheong has been CEO since April 2007 and deputy chairman since March 2000."

Shares of OCBC closed up S$0.41 to S$10.73 on Friday.

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