David Conner turns up at the Summit

David Conner turns up at the Summit…

On 17 December 2006, I wrote an entry entitled “David Conner, OCBC and misplaced arrogance” and posted it on my blog. It appears that several “interesting” people had read it.
Then on the evening of 25 March 2007, David Conner, CEO of OCBC Bank appeared at The Asian Banker Achievements Awards Dinner to pick up the award for Singapore. Let’s just say that it was not just one person who asked me “what happened?”
I thought for a few weeks on how best to represent “what happened”, because more of what happened subsequent to that blog entry was so unsaid, unspoken that I will be really silly to impute meaning into it.

I think the best way to represent it is in the sequence of events. The blog entry was in December. By early January, the research team at The Asian Banker was back into the awards mode, firstly for the Achievement Awards, and then the IT Awards and then most recently the Excellence in Retail Financial Services Awards.

Needless to say, I think all my staff, both research and editorial, do read my blog and are familiar with my views. But because all our research is based on very independent methodologies, I train my staff to have their own independent views and to defend them against even me using the methodologies we put in place.

The Achievement Award for Leadership in the Financial Services industry, for example, is decided on four very clear criteria – the quality of the annual results of the bank of the leader being evaluated, a unique achievement in the year under review, the leader’s communicated vision, and the quality of the management team around the leader.

My staff spent much of February putting the background information together. For Singapore banks, the real assessment kicks in with the preliminary year end results announced sometime in late February. To assess the “quality” of the annual results, we use our Asian Banker 300 methodology, which looks at a combination of not just absolute performance (DBS was much higher for Singapore at 32 percent profit growth), but also y-o-y growth, the non-performing loans, provisions, ROAs and ROEs. What we try to determine all the time is if the bank is on a long term, sustainable growth trajectory, instead of rewarding it for raw once-off performances. Overall, DBS was better, but only marginally because of the cautious conditions we set.

Then for achievement in the year under review, OCBC showed what my staff cited in the evaluation report as “a sensibly ambitious strategy of acquiring lenders with complementary businesses that it can leverage off” in Vietnam and in China’s Ningbo Commercial Bank. Not bad.

I only get personally involved in the evaluation process of any awards programmes at two points. The first point is when the research team’s recommendations are about to be sent to the external judges for their ratification, and the second time, when it comes back from the external judges before it is announced. At both points, the purpose of my intervention is not to influence the process itself but to check for absurdities.

So, in late February, I am holding court with the research team going through their evaluation reports, and it dawns on me that they had narrowed the selection for Singapore to between David O’Connor and Jackson Tai of DBS.

When I ask them about the third criteria, “pursuing a stated vision”, my staff pointed out to me all the newspaper clippings and analysts reports that showed that David had been answering their questions systematically and guiding them through what could be called a stated vision.

Privately, I was at that point becoming quite concerned if my blog comments about David were inaccurate. I guess that I was half hoping that a stated vision was a grand sweep of things. But there again, Koh Boon Hwee attempted one such speech at great personal cost when he first became chairman of DBS the year before, and it was obvious to anyone who understood the industry that nothing he said was new, that he used data that he was barely familiar with himself (and had to retract in subsequent speeches) and the exhortation he gave the staff of DBS sounded funnier than Don Quixote’s charges to Sancho Panza. The oblivious local media even called him a super-chairman – I could almost cry in pain or throw up, or both at the Singapore media’s hubris sometimes! (As long as you educated yourself that time, Mr Koh, I will leave you alone!)

But David was not a big picture man. If you were fiercely fair to the man, you could piece together the strategy from everything he said. It did add up, even if it did not inspire. So, I was not wrong in my assessment of David as an accountant, but you had to string the beads together to see what he was doing with them.

Then again, since this was an assessment of two leaders in the same marketplace, I asked my staff “what about Jack(son Tai)?” “Well,” they said, “he spent most of last year keeping everybody guessing whether he was staying or leaving.” Then they showed me the press clippings and the analysts reports that proved their point.

Jack’s stated vision last year was to make DBS a pan-Asian bank with more than 50 percent revenue from outside Singapore. But again, although it is a grand vision, as of last year he was nowhere near getting there, having failed with Korea Exchange Bank. He might get there the next year, but he did not last year, and so objectively lost points on the vision thing.

When I later saw Jack at a media luncheon for Chinese New Year in late February (or was it early March), he finally answered the question – he does not have a timed contract with the bank. Even then, he was still amusing himself with all the attention he was getting on his contactual term, playfully calling Conrad Raj (the most famous Singaporean business journalist whom everyone knows) on the mobile phone to tease him for the original article where he asked that question.

When my staff put it to me that way, I did have a problem with Jack’s playful fixation with the media’s interest in whether he will stay or leave. What’s wrong with bloody answering the question and then providing certainty about the challenges you are working on?

Final question for my staff. What about management team around these men? Well, two approaches. Most of Jack’s team at DBS are imported high flyers, very talented individually, but also very mobile individuals. David’s team: home-grown but appearing to demonstrate the ability to take charge and meet numbers.

If anything, Jack does have a problem – he can’t be too forward in stating a strategic direction because if any one of his highly paid, but highly worked and highly strung senior managers leaves suddenly, it can mean more coal on his head. The better thing to do is to keep the ship on an even keel, deliver the numbers (which he certainly is), keep your nose clean and laugh at irrelevant things (and might I add, leave when the going is good).

So, on a purely rational basis, the choice between one and the other were both justifiable. But point by point, David came out higher and although I asked all the questions to make sure my staff were not making a monkey out of me, I had to leave the process alone and let their recommendations go through to the advisory board.

I am discussing this here to describe how two very objective perspectives of one person can be so different, depending on the discipline you are putting into the inquiry. As I lead what is purportedly the most respected intelligence company of its kind in the region, it is not for me to defend my views, strong as they may be, but to make it very clear where I am coming from, and to espouse other views as well, if they are valid. This is my training, my persuasion and my personality. This is my role that I play out even as I write down to discuss my thoughts – even I am not exempt from scrutiny.

As that evaluation process was underway, a very strange development was taking place in my social life. My very good friend, Vasu Menon, who is the chief analyst at OCBC Bank is someone I predictably run into at Bar None, a night spot under the Marriott Hotel, if I am still there past 12 midnight. The past few times we ran into each other were when we were the last few guests keeping the band company, after all the girls had left the bar and we had only each other for company, and maybe one or two others.

One day, I receive this phone call in broad daylight from a very sober and chirpy Vasu, asking to go out for a drink together with Ching Ching, OCBC’s head of corporate communication. “Oh boy, must be something to do with that blog,” I thought, otherwise why would the erudite Vasu Menon actually make so formal an appointment and so early in the daytime for what should be two gentlemen finding each other late in the night via the sms.

So, I braced myself for some heavy conversation. We originally planned to meet at Bar None at 7pm, which I thought was a ridiculous hour to be in a dark bar all by ourselves. So I suggested Q-Bar, the beautiful outdoor drinking place by the Singapore River, which I like also because it is owned by my very good friend Simon Lim. It looks across the river at OCBC and all the other banks, and I hang out here more than anywhere else when I am in Singapore these days. It’s a good and refreshing place to end any working day.

We had a great evening together. I gently dropped the question if “ is there something you guys would like to discuss with me?” to which they both probably lied through their teeth and said “noooo”. Hokay! We did not discuss blogs of any kind, but it was such a nice, funny, strange, interesting evening that I will leave at face value. Ching Ching obviously drank more than she wanted to, which was one drink, and left early, leaving two pathetic sods who have no problems sharing their most sordid women tales with each other openly, except that this evening we said absolutely nothing to each other about blogs of any kind.

A few days or weeks later, Andrew Lee, OCBC’s head of retail calls me up for our normal once-a-year lunch, where we discuss how the bank has been doing on this front. I use these lunches to update myself with some of the ways that senior people like Andrew have been developing their strategies, so that if there is anything wrong in our own evaluation process, I can catch it as it goes through the process. Nothing unusual about this working lunch.

For two years running Andrew and I have lunched at Saint Julien, that French restaurant at the edge of the river, obviously one of Andrew’s favourite restaurants, run by that German chef Julien Bompard and his Hong Kong wife, Edith. I used to like entertaining at St Julien myself, but after a while, I think I became very tired of Edith, very plastic and pretentious, making it very clear to me who her preferred guests were. Just a note to say what a small world this is, I was having dinner at Shangri-la in Beijing one day and someone there gave me the full run down on how Edith (who was then working at the Peninsula in Hong Kong) met Julien through a mutual and very wealthy Thai friend whose name I forget but will come to me if I reconstructed the story. I digress.

Then I remembered that when the results for the Achievement Awards were finally ready, the letters had to go out in my name. The CEOs of banks in general are such egoistical characters that whenever results of this nature are announced, their first reaction is to say “okay, please just send the trophy to me, thank you very much.” I will have none of this, and so instituted a rule that CEOs must turn up to receive their trophies. If you can’t be bothered to make the time, then don’t be presumptuous that you are worth the honours.

Some CEOs genuinely can’t and do several things to try and wrangle the trophy. Others, very apologetically actually send in a video clipping saying thanks, although they are aware that they will not receive the trophy unless they are there. For these, we are truly grateful.

When the letters went out, I genuinely calculated out David O Connor. I did not think he was going to come. The process is firstly for our researchers to make known the results to the banks, and then the marketing people call the PR people at the bank to see if they will take tables at the dinner and so on.

This time of confirming the attendance of the winning CEOs is actually a very telling moment. It is one thing to say that The Asian Banker has achieved some stature in the psyche of decision makers in the industry. It is another thing to watch how many actually believe this to be so to make the time in their diaries and all come to one place to confirm the proposition that The Asian Banker is truly deserving of its brand name.

One by one, one by one, they said yes. From China to Indonesia, from the Philippines to India. The Japanese and Koreans have always had a problem attending. The Australian CEO David Morgan sent in a video to express his sincere appreciation, and he said some nice things in the video that surprised even me.

The glittering ceremony was a night to remember. When David entered the room, I went out to greet him. We exchanged a few pleasentaries. I thanked him for coming. I put him on the main table with the other most important winners for the evening. There were, not one, but two Indonesian ministers in attendance. There was the glittering Indonesian dancers and performers, providing stunning entertainment for the evening.

Then the awards. I stood at one lectern on the left side of the stage to read the citations, and the winners received their trophies from the minister in the center of the stage, and after the minister stepped down, one by one, the winners gave their acceptance speeches.

David, as did the other winners, stood on the other lectern on the extreme right of the stage when they spoke. I listened very carefully to what he had to say.

Of all the winners, his speech was the most memorable in my mind because he was the only winner to thank his wife. Exact words, “.. and although she is not here tonight, I want to thank my wife, without whom, I would have never got to anywhere near where I am today.” Emphasis on the words “never got to” is his. Standing at the other lectern, I believed that in this whole unspoken episode – the blog, the meetings, the evaluation, the ceremonies – those were the most important words uttered that evening, and whatever David felt that evening were deeply personal to him and his wife.

David stayed for the morning of the next day and attended the opening session of The Asian Banker Summit. He stayed to listen to Paul Keating’s opening speech, and sat there right in the front row. He even asked a question during Q&A time.

Maybe through this narration, it becomes clearer how the ambivalence of the episode defines it. Do I now, having seen this other side to the man and the evaluation of him as a leader, think differently of him? More importantly, would I have written that blog entry differently if I knew then, what I know now?

I am a writer during a time in the history of the financial services industry when we are demystifying our leaders. Not just in the financial services industry, but in all industries. We are demystifying not just our business leaders, but also our kings and our rulers. We are walking into previously sacred ground and asking questions about them that we previously never had the right to ask. This is my role, to ask, to prod and to be rude, if kings think that they are beyond scrutiny, then I am the fool to tell them that they are not. This is the risk of my trade.

I think the issues I raised in that blog are all still valid today as they were then. David Conner did have problems selling that GE story to his investors. He does manage like an accountant. The growth figures of his organic businesses are encouraging during these boom times, but still challenged.

But having asked the questions and made the assertions that I did, I went on a journey of discovering other things about this one leader in a manner that I would not otherwise have. Out of necessity, he has been reinventing the balance sheet composition of his business. He has been consistent in what he said he wanted to achieve. He has been prudent. He has made the most of a motley group of local managers and given them something to work towards.

At the end of the day, neither my scathing assessment nor his quiet assertiveness will bear out the truth of him as a leader. A leader is borne out by his response to the circumstances around him. His response to me, in this instance, has been an immensely elegant one, for which I will respect him deeply. The one big difference is that if in the past, I would stand by the sidelines and be judgmental, today, I will cheer him on. For his own sake, I genuinely wish that he will succeed as a leader. Because quote obviously, he wants to.


Comments

  1. ED, thanks for the interesting insights and observations on the top guys at OCBC and DBS – certainly not something that one could ever hope to find in the Straits Times!. Would love to have your take on UOB management as well.

  2. Gosh, I really don't want to give the idea that I “take on” anyone. There are no conclusive ideas in my blog, it's a journal of thoughts as I encounter them. If I am wrong, I want to be able to say, yeah, that was a stupid idea. Having said that, it never struck me that UOB had a collective “UOB management” team that acts purposefully in concert to achieve a shared business goal. I have never heard any of the people I know say something that would come across as a shared idea, except in reference to “the old man” – literally their reference, not mine. The comparison for UOB is not DBS or OCBC in Sigapore but Public/Hong Leong in Malaysia, Bangkok/Kasikorn in Thailand, RCBC/Metro/Banco de Oro in the Philippines – all entrepreneurial old Chinese families in different stages of passing on the baton, and building shared ideas, some more successfully than UOB, notwithstanding younger Wee's recent appointment. But let's not talk abt little Singapore so much.

  3. With the recent announcement of Jackson Tai's impending departure, do you have any thoughts on the right type of person to succeed, or on Jack's legacy at DBS?

  4. Yes, I do. Will write it down sometime this week – on a flight to the US right now.

  5. Hell have no fury like a journalist scorned. I am not a journalist, nor a banker but I do appreciate people with good manners. Come to think of it, I have
    had good and bad service from certain staff at DBS, Stanchart, Maybank etc. After all, they are only human.

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