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The uncommon everyman banker

Samuel Tsien, group CEO of OCBC Bank, is banking on the values and qualities of Everyman Sam to guide OCBC through the wake of the global financial crisis.

"I always admire the shipowners, because they must have a very broad view of things. Anything that happens in any part of the world will have some impact on the shipping freight rates. Whether it is a war somewhere, a drought somewhere, a fight somewhere or, at that time, blockage of canal, will have major implications for shipping rates. So as a shipowner they truly have to be very global."


ON paper he is Samuel Tsien, group chief executive of OCBC Bank. But along the corridors of his company's building in the heart of Raffles Place, he is simply Sam. We know this because it would appear that every employee in the bank, from rank-and-file Joe to executive Jane, is predisposed to greet him with a casual "Hi, Sam!" as they go about their business. And it's not the obligatory, "I should greet my boss" kind of awkward salutations that are flung his way; it's more of a "How's it going, neighbour", "Let's catch up for a drink soon" kind of vibe.

Now, all of that is important, because Mr Tsien is banking on the values and qualities of Everyman Sam to guide OCBC through the ever-changing wake of the global financial crisis.

Just what is it that makes Mr Tsien seem like one of the people?

Born 59 years ago, Mr Tsien has been all over the map. He came into the world in Shanghai, moved to Hong Kong with his parents as a child, then moved again to the United States on his own to pursue an economics degree at the University of California, Los Angeles.

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"I am, in a way, truly a global citizen," he states matter-of-factly speaking to BT.

The career banker's first job out of college was as a management trainee at Bank of America in Hong Kong in 1977. Hoping to return to Hong Kong after graduation, he sent a few application letters to companies in Hong Kong and received four offers within a month. One was a securities company, one was a conglomerate looking for someone to help coordinate its various businesses, and one was Bank of America.

"Actually, I cannot remember what the fourth one was now," he laughs.

"I wrote to them from the US, and I told them that I would be returning to Hong Kong," he says. "Sometimes, that little difference... because they received a letter from the US, so they probably paid a bit more attention to it rather than receiving a local letter from a local university graduate. So I think those sort of things helped me along the way. So I'm pretty lucky in a way."

"Timing is actually very important," Mr Tsien adds. "When people talk about whether you wanted to have luck or whether you wanted to have wealth or something, actually you can attribute quite a bit to fate. Having said that, when the opportunity arrives, you should have the ability to understand that this is the opportunity and you have the confidence in yourself to grab it."

At that time, being a management trainee meant that he was moved around throughout the bank, giving him exposure across the spectrum of work done in a bank, whether it is facing clients on the floor, commercial loans or consumer products. Even after the training period was over, Mr Tsien continued to work in several different functions across the bank.

By the time he was appointed president and chief executive of Bank of America (Asia) in 1995, Mr Tsien had already accumulated a wealth of experience.

"I was trained in multiple areas of banking," Mr Tsien says. "You'd literally move from one department to the other. So it is not functional training per se, but it is a general knowledge training. So that lasted for about 18 months... After that I just moved from job to job (in the bank), I moved from industry to industry, and I moved from country to country. So I was involved in manufacturing finance, and I was involved in trade finance, I was involved in ship finance."

Many pairs of shoes

Mr Tsien's ability to appear as an Everyman is therefore not to suggest that he is an average individual - one does not typically get to run Singapore's second-largest lender by market capitalisation by being run of the mill. Rather, his empathy and affability seem to stem from the fact that he has been in so many pairs of shoes throughout his career.

Of course, Mr Tsien does have his guy-next-door qualities. For all that he has accomplished, his one unmet desire is learning how to play a musical instrument. "I've always wanted to be able to play a musical instrument. I did not have that opportunity," he says.

Perhaps it is not too late to learn?

"That's what people say, but I think it's not that easy. Because I think a musical instrument is something that you can dissolve yourself into. And it's probably very therapeutic when you're either stressed or frustrated. But I do not have that."

And despite his professional proximity to his undergraduate training in economics, Mr Tsien harbours a deep and personal affection for the subject of psychology.

"When I was in university, psychology courses were the courses that I liked most," he says. "I ended up with an economics major because I lacked one course to have psychology also classified as my double major. Psychology appeals to me because you look at behaviour and you become more accepting of human behaviour. I always say, when you look at a person who may have a little bit of weakness physically or mentally, we should accept that as normal. Because a perfect person is abnormal."

"I still from time to time read a magazine called Psychology Today, which is not available in Singapore, but you can get it from the airport when you travel into Singapore," he shares. "It's quite interesting."

Being able to connect with the man on the street and yet have a broad enough experience to manage new circumstances are especially important if you happen to think, like Mr Tsien does, that today's banks are facing two major challenges: Regaining public trust and adapting to deep changes in the industry.

Mr Tsien took over the helm of OCBC in 2012, when the global economy was still buffeted by the long wake of the global financial crisis.

The crisis had a profound impact on the financial sector, not just because it depressed markets, but also because it turned public sentiment negative towards banks, Mr Tsien believes.

He recalls starting out at Bank of America as a "pro assistant cashier", essentially a low-level loans officer. Back in those days, he recalls, bankers did not have to go out to seek business. The companies came to the banks instead.

"Since the global financial crisis, if you look at the incidents that have happened, the 'abuses' and the excesses that have happened in the financial industries, I can understand why the public trust in the financial system - not in Singapore but around the world - has been eroded," Mr Tsien says. "And I think it is our responsibility to rebuild that trust."

Banks, especially those operating in Asia, need to remember to always put their clients first, he explains.

"If you think about relationship banking and transaction banking, the Asian banks truly practise relationship banking, where other considerations will come into play when they decide on a course of action," Mr Tsien says.

"And that part I think continues to be cherished by the Asian business community. And this is exemplified in the global financial crisis where the companies understand the importance of relationship banking and the structure of the economy is very, very different."

Banks must also be prepared for a rapidly changing world.

From a regulatory perspective, rules that were introduced after the crisis are still in the process of being implemented.

From a strategic perspective, Mr Tsien and OCBC have placed a big bet on China and the internationalisation of the Chinese yuan with the recent acquisition of Wing Hang Bank.

"When we look at the origination of economic activity... China has become increasingly important," he says. "China is important not only as an exporter, not only as a manufacturing factory for the world, it is also becoming a major consumer centre for the world. So there are a lot of import and export that are happening into China. And China has accumulated a lot of wealth as a result of that. Our view is that, and it has proven to be true, China will always look for an outlet to make use of that wealth it has accumulated - I'm talking about country reserves - so our feeling is that China will become a dominant force. And we have to find a way to establish a stronger presence in China in order to ride on this trend."

Breadth of knowledge

In order to stay ahead of such trends, Mr Tsien is a firm believer in acquiring breadth - a philosophy that has been translated into practice at OCBC for certain management candidates.

"Those 12 years when I was heading Bank of America's Asia consumer and commercial banking operations gave me the breadth of knowledge that is required for you to move further on. And when I say breadth of knowledge, it is how you bring all the things that is happening in the banking operations and in the market together, to make decisions to move forward. So if you only focus on credit, that's not adequate. You have to understand where do you get the funding from. What is the proportion of funding that you should get from the customers and from the wholesale market? How does technology play a role in your business strategy as well as in your operational efficiency?"

Beyond having a broad expanse of expertise, Mr Tsien is also an advocate of maintaining a wide breadth of vision. That was a lesson he picked up while working in shipping finance in the early 1980s.

"It was the first time I realised how global an industry can be... I always admire the shipowners, because the shipowners must have a very broad view of things," he says. "Anything that happens in any part of the world will have some impact on the shipping freight rates. Whether it is a war somewhere, a drought somewhere, a fight somewhere or, at that time, blockage of canal, will have major implications for shipping rates. So as a shipowner they truly have to be very global. They cannot look at things that are happening in their domestic market and make decisions. They have to look at all of the things that are happening around the world."

When Mr Tsien has some time away from the world of banking, he likes to immerse himself in books.

A keen reader, he shares a peculiar habit of jumping between books before completing them, and of studiously avoiding management books.

"I do not read management books anymore," says Mr Tsien, twice.

He particularly enjoys reading autobiographical books by Asian entrepreneurs.

"One thing different between the successful businessmen in the US and the successful businessmen here in Asia seems to be - this may not be a very complete analysis - the US businessmen when they write books, they usually say how good they are, and how tough they are, and how much they have done to create a business that is so successful. The Asian businessmen, particularly the Taiwanese businessmen, when they write books, and they have the same title, CEO of a major corporation, they will talk about, at the end of the day, is it worth it?"


Group Chief Executive Officer, OCBC Bank

1954 Born in Shanghai

1977 Graduated with a bachelor of arts with honours in economics from the University of California, Los Angeles

1977 Management trainee, Bank of America

1992 Head of Asia Credit Risk Management, Bank of America

1993 Senior vice president, Bank of America Corp

1995 President and chief executive officer, Bank of America (Asia); and Asia consumer and commercial banking group executive, Bank of America Corp

1996 Executive vice president, Bank of America Corp

2006 President and chief executive officer, China Construction Bank (Asia) Corp, formerly called Bank of America (Asia)

2007 Senior executive vice president and global head of business banking, OCBC Bank

2008 Global head, global corporate bank, OCBC Bank

2012 Group chief executive officer, OCBC Bank