(Warning: Pretty long piece)
The first The Asian Banker Summit, our flagship annual event, was started in 2000, organized practically by two people, my colleague, Mei Chin who has since become the COO of the company and me. Our sales and management functions for that first event were completely outsourced to two sisters and their friend who told us that they knew how to run an events business which we didn’t. The first Summit was held in Singapore, attracted about 150 mostly local mid-level bankers and was a reasonable success.
Little did I realize that I started an industry that was set to grow like wild fire in every direction and create a wide range of competitors and detractors that would keep us on our toes all of the time ever since. Even the word “Summit” has become one of the most badly used phrases in the conference industry today.
To be sure, there will always be all sorts of conferences that meet very different needs in the marketplace and I respect those that provide a clear value independent of us. But I invented The Asian Banker Summit as a conference that maps the mind of leaders in the industry – CEOs, chairmans and others in positions of leadership. I wanted to create something that focuses, inspires and lead the leadership of an entire industry, and as I found out over the years, this has been one of the most excruciatingly difficult products to give life to.
How do you map the mind of a CEO of a bank? How do you transfer what’s important into a conference agenda and experience that CEOs and other leaders would find useful, inspiring? How do you then make it commercially viable such that you will get enough of a cohort of not just CEOs but a critical mass of second tiers who will pay the ticket price and find it useful to themselves? How do you then extend that proposition to sponsors who have their own agenda when you bring these people together? How do you then make the event recognizable to people across the industry, from different countries and different disciplines in banking? It is so very easy to organize a conference on risk management or technology or anything that is current today, but something that is eclectic?
There were many lonely years when we made so many mistakes at my own personal cost. Competition for money from organizers of lesser events. Being poor for a very long time. There is only one simple reason I can think about why I held out for so long to get it right: Anything worth doing is worth doing well. I can’t think of any other reason for my stupidity, doggedness and focus in the face of a hundred easier ways to make a living.
I am writing this entry in a bit of an elated tone because I am happy to say, after eight years of taking the Asian Banker Summit from its humble beginnings, and being copied and competed against by any number of competitors, we have now finally pulled away.
Just to recap some of the qualities that set us apart, The Summit 2007, held in Jakarta last week featured:
– 600 delegates, with a very high percentage of senior decision makers;
– the full support of the Indonesian government not one but two senior government ministers plus the governor of the central bank of Indonesia as speakers;
– the chairman of the largest bank in the world in attendance;
– no less than 40 other chairmen, CEOs and COOs of banks from Japan to Australia;
– 30 bank CTOs and CIOs;
– front page coverage in both the local Indonesian and English language newspapers on not one but two days in a row, plus the regional wires and TV stations, including media coverage as far away as Beijing and the regional TV stations (the family of one Indonesian intern we have, Willy, told him that they felt like the WTO was in town!);
– the major English daily in Indonesia threw in a special supplement a few days before the event where they made money as well,
– generally very satisfied sponsors (one major sponsor, unable to find too many things to complain about, decided to take it out on us about too many exhibition booths – but knew that that was not what the Summit was about),
– a world class agenda featuring 60 speakers
– no less than 40 sessions, most of them ranked (by bankers, not vendors) as being, in the words of one banker “among the best in the world”
– a great award ceremony with a great cast of Indonesian dancers and entertainers…
there has been nothing like it in the financial services industry in Asia, or according to our friends from the US, anywhere else! The photos and our own coverage are in our website on www.theasianbanker.com.
In monetary terms, the Summit has become a multi-million business for us and all our partners. So, in a real way, we have taken this business into a new realm.
Having got here
But for all our friends who know us and this industry we are in, know how very tough it has been. There is nothing sacred in the knowledge industry. Every single thing I have created has been copied and copied again by a string of imitators. I start a major conference, lesser players start conferences going after the same revenue pool. I engage the banking associations, my competitors engage the associations (not that some of them are worth anything these days). I introduce awards, some cheap players introduce their own version of cheap awards, I invite so-and-so, my competitors invite so-and-so. I go to China, they try to go to China and so on.
In China, our brand name is so strong today that we have had two incidences of local players shamelessly copying our conference agenda from a previous year (speakers and all) and pasting it on their website and cheekily put The Asian Banker logo on as supporting them – and then going after our sponsors. This happened not once but twice and that is how shameless the knowledge industry can be in Asia.
I sometimes can’t help but feel like I drag a long gravy train along with me. I look to the left and right of me and I myself have no one to copy, not that I would, given that I enjoy being original. So, in a sense, I lead the industry from the front. Even in the choice of Jakarta as a conference destination (which I will explain below), who would be so crazy to do that, unless, of course….. he could see what others could not see.
I have a strong and deep admiration for people who are original and who demonstrate a value in business that I can’t demonstrate. I have no problems if they are my competitors. In fact, if I am clear as to the value they provide, I would even direct some of my clients to them, because honestly, it is not possible for any one organisation to do everything.
But this conference industry is so shameless and ruthless that there are no medals for leading from the front. At the end of the day, clients do not care if there is no Asian Banker Summit next year. They can live with less. If these exist, they are grateful and if they don’t, nobody misses them.
The same sponsors who tell us that they love what we do one minute are quite prepared to forego us and support some other imitator the next minute if they are loads cheaper and achieve their pedestrian purposes just the same. Then there is this long gravy train of cheap imitations wishing to benefit from the prestige that I am giving this industry in Asia. Well, that is the rule of this jungle that anyone in it should not complain if they don’t like it.
The only correct response for me to such so-called “competition” is to work at pulling away from the rift raft in the marketplace and to create a product that the industry cannot ignore. In this regard, I have one more step to go to yet.
I sometimes wished that I were a sportsman or the builder of a tall building (as a couple of my close friends are), so that there is a finishing line and I can say that I have made it or I have topped up a tall building to show for my effort. But on the day that I think so, the achievement evaporates and the next player comes in and we are history.
My real journey
In the process, my real journey has necessarily had to be of something else altogether. Am I defined by The Asian Banker or The Asian Banker Summit or anything I do in my profession? Unlike a doctor or a lawyer who can be defined by their profession, organising conferences should not define anybody, unless they are sick in the head.
My real journey has been one of an ideas person slowly learning how to succeed with people through this business. It is one thing to be a dreamer (which I think is what I am deep inside) who can wish the best for the world and dream up ideas that brings people and content together.
It is quite another thing to put your personality into the marketplace and then try to turn ideas into realities by engaging with the people around you. The best of intentions can turn into a nightmare if you are not clever enough with people, and that alone has been an amazing journey for me.
Smoother and more sophisticated people will always have a field day crucifying me for my strong instincts and high standards that makes me make people subject to ideals and not the other way around – with disastrous consequences which at one time resulted in a very high turnover of staff. Still the same critiques look across the shoulder to see if ED taps someone as being good, then he must be good. Between being a hypocrite and being myself, I’d rather be myself, thank you very much.
I continue to have many errors in this area, but still the people who dislike me know that the only way to counter me is to firstly meet the standards that I have set for them. So even as they are hating me, they are following me, copying me and then criticizing me. Quite sad, actually, but the people who tell me what my critics say should examine my critics instead and realise what a weak, pathetic, intellectually bankrupt lot they are.
This year’s Summit was significant because I think that I did succeed with a few people more than I have ever done before. Still, such successes are less about me than about them – how talented they are in the first place, the fact that they shared a vision with me and enjoyed putting up with me to achieve something together, for which I should be grateful.
I like to think that my detractors greatest weakness is in underestimating my ability to learn, and my guts of steel against my greatest enemy of all – myself. If others even think that I am demanding of them, I am ruthless most of all with myself. The anger and the passion to do a job and do it well is mostly driven internally, and if it is exposed even a little with others, they did not see the least of it inside me.
Men of ideas cannot be otherwise. We are not the urbane, practical men of civilized society. We see things that others cannot see. We struggle inside ourselves to articulate ideas that have not been born. Sometimes we don’t even understand them ourselves. But when we achieve something that is larger than ourselves, then it starts to make sense. But the personal nightmare before reaching that is something that I would not wish on others, unless they are some kind of character building junkies.
All of this is reflected in the format and the quality of the people and the dialogues at the Summit. I will be really hard pressed to describe to you exactly how a high quality conference comes together. Yes, it is the agenda, but it is more than just the agenda. It is the people who give life to the agenda, but these are the people who became your friends long before the agenda was ever formulated, the community that you created around yourself because of who you are, and your own knowledge of the industry, what works and what doesn’t, what is and what is not. So, you can’t ever put a finger on any one reason for the magic, but magic it is.
What was really lovely over the past few years was that even if the Summit was an extension of my own value system, it was a value system that I shared with others around me, like Bee Ong, the programme head over the past three years, who after the first year, emanated her own authority over the agenda and made it her own as well. So, wherever you find an intellectual kin, you find a fellow traveler and the ideas business does not need to be a lonely one.
Because succeeding with people means different things to different people, so once again, there is no point in saying that I have arrived at or achieved anything – because if I did, I would make the next mistake that would only disprove the point. All of which keeps me very humble inside and yet very grateful for really great friends like Bee.
In a sense, the Summit was so far the best indication that we are finally getting our people policies right as a company – slowly but surely. When Fiona joined us as director of forums, and Charmaine grew into the role of the true sales director we were always looking for, it released Mei Chin from so much of her operational roles to focus a lot more time on just getting the hiring process right to absolutely make sure we find and retain the best possible people.
I know that for over ten years, we put in just 10 percent of management time on the hiring process – and sometimes with horrendous results – raising questions like “how can a nice guy be so bad?” and “why hire people who will destroy the business?”
We now have the management bandwidth to put in about 50 percent of total management time on the hiring process and still complete other functions satisfactorily. This has made such a huge difference. Even if we hire more slowly, we are clearer as to what we are looking for.
With such a strong team at the management layer, The Asian Banker Summit is today less about Emmanuel Daniel than it ever was. There is no need for me to visit even our largest clients. I do not write the letters to speakers even if it carries my name. My name is not on the press releases sharing our research. In fact, although the Summit is such a huge event for us, in the important week before the event, I was in Beijing interviewing staff for our Beijing operations and arrived in Jakarta only on the night before the event.
The fact that we have succeeded with the Summit in this way also makes me feel very heartened that we will succeed in the research and editorial business in the same way as well. Not quite there as yet, but the ingredients for doing it right are there.
There is one other achievement that set The Asian Banker Summit apart this year and I want to explain why bringing it to Jakarta was such a triumph for us. We brought a major banking event outside of the traditional cities – which in coference circles in this region are always about Singapore and Hong Kong, Singapore and Hong Kong, Singapore and Hong Kong, with Kuala Lumpur and Bangkok being secondary choices.
By taking this event to Jakarta, The Asian Banker Summit has reached such a stature that it is not the choice of city that makes the Asian Banker Summit, but the Summit that brings life to the city. What a glorious position to be in!
Indonesia as a destination did not lend itself to us readily. Right from early in January this year, there was a ship sinking in Surabaya, two aeroplane crashes (one of which had a guy actually going to the Summit, according to the news wires!) that would completely unnerve any foreigner, avian flu figures that were notching up promisingly to pandemic levels, continuous rain for over four months and floods in downtown Jakarta (our colleagues Jodine and Alun Watson were right in it at one stage), a great earthquake that was felt all the way to downtown Singapore. What else could you ask for as a lead-in to a great conference??? ;-))))))
My instructions to my staff at the height of any doubt was “yes, Jakarta come hell or high water!” I knew more than anyone else that if The Asian Banker had any authority in the industry at all, people would go wherever we tell them to – and that assumption paid off. Very simple.
Indonesian banks had come a long way since the 1997 crisis and I wanted to showcase these developments to bankers from other developing countries. The foreign-owned banks were as professionally managed as the better of banks in other countries and the local ones were trying very hard, almost all with indigenous talent, and this was a story I was determined to tell the world, almost at whatever the cost.
At the end of the day, my decision to stick to Indonesia as the choice with no “wet weather plan” to bring it to some lame city like Singapore should anything happen was based solely on my instinct and experience in this business no matter what was being said around me. I knew it would work, and it did. I told my staff “not for one second should you apologize for Jakarta as a venue,” and they did not. I had also worked out in my mind all the permutation of things that could possibly go wrong, and still calculated that the event will be a success.
Although I am technically in the media business, I don’t take my cues from watching CNN, BBC, CNBC or reading the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times, all of which I do. In fact, I would say that over the years, my instinct is honed from within me rather than around me, which I think is important in today’s world of very confusing media and information overload.
Instead, I set for myself this metaphorical “trophy” in my head that awaited us if we pulled through this challenge. I was thinking about the eventual freedom it would afford us to take the Summit to any other emerging market cities in the future if we pulled this through, and we damn well did! The fetters that tied us to our other worthless competitors are now broken!
(Interestingly enough, the intending delegates from emerging market countries such as Uzbekistan, India, Malaysia and Vietnam did not for one moment question the choice of venue, despite these developments prior to the event. The people who complained the most were… the Singaporeans! They winched and waned and kept asking if Jakarta was a safe destination. Really, some of the perception of neighbouring countries of Singapore as a fair weathered friend is not without basis.)
Nonetheless, we did have detractors who were so vicious that bankrupt of ideas, they put poisonous thoughts into the mind of some of our uninitiated clients. One told clients that our “speakers” were old men out of their time and repeats from previous conferences – which was a lie. From Jaime Caruana to the least amongst them, the best line-up of 60 speakers who could make the earth shake for the quality that they represent being all in the city of Jakarta at the same time could not possibly be old men.
Succeeding or failing by my people
If you have read so far down the page, I do not want you to think that I am writing all this as if I was behind everything we achieved. As an amazing indication of how far we have come, on the Thursday and Friday just before the Summit, I was in Beijing interviewing about 16 people for possible positions for our new Beijing office. I did not have to be physically present for the most parts.
Mei Chin did ask me if going to Beijing to open yet another front in the business just the week before our most important event was the right thing to do. I told her that we will succeed or fail on the strength of our people. If we failed, that is what we deserved and I would be happy doing something else with my life.
To b sure, there was one thing that we fell short of achieving at the Summit – we almost secured the President of Indonesia to grace the awards dinner. We had already received news that he was seriously considering coming. I pushed Bee and Fiona to make it happen, and was giving them ideas on how to do it, as well as working my other networks while I was in Beijing. But both Bee and Fiona were already driven to the edge to deliver on a range of other things that they did not have the energy to push just a little bit more on just this one last point.
When I finally arrived in Jakarta on the night before the Summit, one senior banker told me why the president said no at the very last minute. If I had arrived just a few days before, I would have discovered it myself. But I wanted Fiona to learn this because at the end of the day, it is going to be her business as director of forums. But she was not ready for this small hill yet, because she had climbed a huge mountain of her own on this journey. In a sense, if we got the President by me pushing it, we would have got the President, but I would have missed something about how to bring Fiona to the next level in her own journey.
Down the line, there are other more junior people who are also on a learning curve and so I have to spend time coaching them, pacing them, seeing how they run to see if they are made of the stuff that enables them to be in the business of making things happen.
I have it now in my DNA that I will not grow this business any faster than I am able to grow the people in it. What that means is that I have to spend time with them. Instead of being a dreamer who charges ahead with no sense of the human cost, I will focus on creating an environment where my generals can share in the sense of purpose, and they can in turn pass that down the greater organisation.
So, where are we going to take this?
If you look at all the other conferences trying to compete with us in the industry today, they are all like unseaworthy ships tempest tossed in the dark, bewildering ocean. It’s a pretty competitive and yet meaningless industry. Why do people organize conferences? What professional input can a mere conference organizer who is not from an organization like The Asian Banker put into a discussion that makes it worth the time of the practitioners who always know more than them?
We are the only ones who can say that we have established a profitable beach-head of some kind. But we still have one hill to assault before we can claim the island for ourselves.
Let’s just say that I will be moving to institutionalize the Summit next year. No need to say more here for then more will be said than done. Once it is institutionalized, the Summit will take a life of its own and I can focus my own energies on other things.
A boat adrift
Those who think that the Summit as a conference defines me, or that The Asian Banker defines me, I think are pretty shallow people themselves. How can they?
If I were a surgeon, and was spending a lifetime perfecting a technique to save lives, I think that would a worthwhile, all consuming career. Or a criminal lawyer perfecting the art of defending clients using legal technicalities perfected trial after trial, I would say that that is a worthwhile all-consuming career. Organising conferences? Come on! Unless you are as involved in an industry as a protagonists, who are you? How can it define you? Are you mad?
The research and intelligence business, whether in banking, property, technology, government, law or whatever the industry, is always one step removed from the protagonists themselves. But in a sense, I like to think that what makes The Asian Banker so very successful is precisely because I grill my people to be in there together with the protagonists.
We see what they see, and the best of my people could very easily work for a bank if they wanted to. You will know when people from within the industry respect you as an equal. The guiding principle should be that if there is something worth doing, it is worth doing well.
My own first calling is that of a writer. In a sense, writing this blog is partially a healing activity for me. I am a writer who is like a boat that is untied and drifted far away from its moorings out in the open sea. It’s sometimes a lousy, lost feeling when you spend 10 years trying to master skills in relation to people and organisations that is not natural to you.
I drifted into setting up The Asian Banker, running a business now with more than 50 people, building The Asian Banker Summit. I drifted into making all those mistakes I have made and discovered all those horrible things about myself that I would otherwise not have known.
When I get back into my writing, I become the craftsman again. I find my moorings again. Just like a surgeon or a lawyer, ecxcept that my craft is in bringing life to ideas that can feed the other ideas of the men and women around me. A lot of honing through practice. It’s a lonely craft. But strangely, this business part of my life gives me a lot to draw from all that I have seen and done and known around me.
To think that in today’s easy Singapore, I could have so easily drifted to become instead an executive inside a bank or some non-descript large business with a salary of, say, $40,000 per month or whatever it is these days. I could have been an absolute prick and still have learnt absolutely nothing about myself and developed nothing about my craft. Gosh, what a nightmare life it would have been, if I drifted that way and know what I know now about what I have learnt.
Anything worth doing is worth doing well. This is all a man should ever be able to say, and that is what I want to say now.