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OCBC chief favours internal candidates for bank's next CEO

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Samuel Tsien, in his eighth year as chief executive officer at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp (OCBC), signaled he favours internal candidates over external ones to succeed him when the time comes.

[SINGAPORE] Samuel Tsien, in his eighth year as chief executive officer at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp (OCBC), signaled he favours internal candidates over external ones to succeed him when the time comes.

"We have internal candidates who are strong candidates, who have moved around in different functions, who are able to take over the bank in the event of a need," Mr Tsien said in an interview, without giving names.

Shanghai-born Mr Tsien, 65, is known for pursuing acquisitions that led to the OCBC'S expansion in Hong Kong and made it a top-10 private bank in Asia. OCBC's local rivals are taking various tacks on management succession, with United Overseas Bank's boss recently expressing an openness to outsiders while DBS Group Holdings is grooming leaders from within.

There are no immediate plans for him to step down, Mr Tsien said. OCBC won't rule out an outsider taking the reins but it's "not actively looking" externally and the focus now is on its own people, he said. "We are looking at internal candidates, but we do not want to exclude external candidates."

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The bank's executive suite includes chief operating officer Ching Wei Hong, 60, and chief financial officer Darren Tan, 49, both of whom were promoted around the same time Mr Tsien was elevated to CEO. Mr Tsien's predecessor, David Conner, spent 10 years in the post after previously working at Citigroup.

ACQUISITIONS

Under Mr Tsien's leadership, OCBC spent US$5 billion in 2014 to take over Wing Hang Bank in Hong Kong. Two years later, it bought the Singapore and Hong Kong wealth operations of Britain's Barclays, helping OCBC's Bank of Singapore become the sixth-largest private bank by assets in Asia excluding China.

More recently, OCBC was considering a bid for Jakarta-based PT Bank Permata, a move that would have made it Indonesia's fifth-largest lender by assets. However, the bank walked away after considering Permata not a good fit, people with knowledge of the matter said earlier this month.

While declining to comment on any specific transactions, Mr Tsien said Indonesia remains a "very attractive market" for the bank. "We do look at opportunities beyond organic growth, as long as those opportunities are complementary to our strategy," he said.

The potential for further acquisitions is among factors that have weighed on OCBC's shares, which have trailed those of its rivals during Mr Tsien's reign. The stock has fallen more than 2 per cent this year, versus gains at DBS and UOB.

Mr Tsien also has ambitions to further expand in insurance, which OCBC counts as its third pillar alongside banking and wealth management. While its Great Eastern Holdings insurance arm is well established in Singapore and Malaysia, Mr Tsien said he sees more room for growth in Indonesia and Greater China.

Last year, Great Eastern bought PT QBE General Insurance for US$28 million in Indonesia, and Tsien said he would look at other opportunities to grow, including acquisitions. In Hong Kong, the bank has a 33 per cent stake in Hong Kong Life Insurance, which it decided against selling last year.

"That operation is quite small," he said. "So we are still investing into this corporate but not significantly, as we look for opportunities in this market."

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