Richard Stanley, Francis Rozario, Mike Denoma … et al… The two most inalienable, non-negotiable qualities that the new CEO of DBS must have.
I caught Richard Stanley’s name in the Business Times newspaper that was handed over to me by the stewardess on last Thursday’s midnight flight back to Singapore. I had spent a relatively quiet one week in Beijing, after an enormously hectic first week of the year in Singapore. We now have close to 60 people on the payroll at The Asian Banker, a number of whom are pretty well qualified to lead but still settling into the organisation after being hired in the past four months. But these first few months of getting these new heavy weights up to speed and mobilising the organisation to execute seamlessly has been a humongous exercise.
The end of the year, from November to about Chinese New Year are always quiet months, and so the cost of the business also weighs very heavily in my mind. The week in Beijing was a good respite to do some product development work away from my main managers. Also, I enjoy catching up with a growing number of new friends and business contacts in this new city I increasingly call home. The most endearing thing during this trip was that it snowed on the last day I was there! It was -8C for most of the week, but no snow, because that is how dry Beijing is. Then on the day I was leaving for the airport, it snowed and I kicked snow, went swimming in the heated pool in the hotel nearby and basically enjoyed the little time I had.
Inside the plane, I asked for “all the English papers” as I always do, and one of the first I opened was The Business Times. The article in page two said that Richard Stanley of Citibank is the other possible candidate for the post of DBS CEO. Of course, I have run into Richard several times in China since about 2002-3, usually at public forums by Chinese banks where we were both speakers. We promised to catch up sometime but never did.
The first thing I noticed about the article was that it was written by Ven Sreenivasan. As a reporter in recent years, Ven’s beat has been aviation, aviation and aviation. There are a number of young writers who have covered the banking beat at The Business Times, and if I am not mistaken, the scoop scene is still the stronghold of the irresistible Conrad Raj.
So the first question in my head was “what was Ven doing writing this banking piece? Did he get a scoop that nobody else in his newspaper could?” I have watched pod casts of media briefings by Chew Choon Seng the CEO of Singapore Airlines, where he was obviously familiar with Ven. By extrapolation, the other Singapore Airline connection that works down to Ven writing the DBS scoop is its previous chairman, Mr Koh Boon Hwee, who as we all know is now the inevitable chairman of DBS.
My Singapore Airline flight (selected for efficacy rather than loyalty!) was uneventful, except for one point when the stewardess stood up on the empty seat next to me to reach the overhead compartment. She joked that next time she should bring a ladder, to which my reply was “I prefer a full length stewardess to a ladder anytime!”, which appeared to go down well with her and I slept well the rest of the flight.
My day in Singapore on Friday was choke-a-block with meetings. At two of them I asked two people in the loop how credible was the Rickard Stanley rumour. One said that the name has been floating around for two months. If DBS was using Ven to test the market about sentiments regarding Richard Stanley, then in all likelihood the tap came from Mr Koh Boon Hwee or from his circles.
The other thing I noticed about the BT article was that the DBS “spokeswoman” used exactly the same phrases that Jack(son Tai) used when I met with him in late November last year. This told me that Mr Koh Boon Hwee probably has not spent much time with poor Karen Ngui and her team since Jack left. Otherwise, her words would have been his.
Delays are not a good thing. It sullies the good name of the members of the board of directors, many of whom are amongst the best in the industries where they come from, where decisions like these are made much more decisively. It demotivates a number of senior managers whose names and carefully cultivated careers are strung around in public to no good effect. It exposes the management for not having a succession plan in place at all. It calls into question why the previous CEO left in a hurry in the first place.
Even the hint that they will announce a CEO in February raises questions. Will it be after the annual results (15 February) and if so, should we expect surprises at the annual results that the next CEO should not be responsible for? Some readers of my blog have also suggested conspiracy theories, involving even the MAS. Which in turn begs the question: is DBS submitting one name or several to the MAS, in which case, the regulator becomes an accomplice in the decision making process, which should not be the case.
In other words, all these unanswered questions are damaging DBS at the moment. The first task of the new CEO will be to put to rest these concerns.
The entry of all these many names into the hat made me ask one very important question: Of all the qualities that the new CEO should have, what are the most inalienable, non-negotiable qualities that the board should take into consideration?
The entry of Richard Stanley’s name into the hat made it possible for me to answer that question in a more substantive manner. In thinking about any issues of the day, there is the element of “dimension”. If I had only one candidate to think about, my thinking would be one dimensional. If I have two candidates to think about, my thinking would be two dimensional, which is essentially flat. If I had three or more, it becomes multi-dimensional and then you get to understand if someone is of leadership, not just managerial, quality.
This point is amply evident in the current run-up circus to the US elections. Notice how each of the candidates show up different dimensions about themselves as they go along, based on the issues they face, the support they get and the competition. If at the beginning of the race, we start with one view of the possible candidate, we discover other elements about them which sets us thinking. For example, defeat at an earlier primary was not defeat for Hillary Clinton. It was only in that defeat that she finally found her own voice after so many years in preparation and became real after years of projecting a plastic image I certainly thought was an act. I am not suggesting at all that she will win the Democratic ticket, but she did unleash a whole load of support after that crying incident that will be good for a few more primaries at least.
Generally, the Singaporean managers who know Richard Stanley from their Citibank days seem to like him and think that he can do the job of CEO of DBS. But that is because they are his peers, and I did not see the rigour of thinking in their assessment.
At the leadership level, I had previously listed several qualities that a CEO should have. But of all these, the most inalienable, non-negotiable qualities that the board should take into account for the post of CEO of DBS in today’s turbulent marketplace are just two:
1. Attractiveness to the global investment community.
In my two dimensional analysis of John Olds and then Jack, in comments that I have made over the past two years, I have been scathing about the fact that investment bankers make very poor franchise builders. This thinking has now caught on. Investment bankers make bad franchise builders.
But this is not the same as saying that franchise builders must still be attractive to investment bankers. For all his faults, the investment community took Jack seriously. When he made presentations, and I have sat through some of them, the equities analysts went back and wrote positive reports and came back pouring funds into DBS stocks. Institutional investor support is so very important to any large business, and the people who are making this decision know this.
Yet, this is not a natural skill for everybody. Dhanabalan as chairman of DBS could do nothing to counter the view that he was at the end of the day the “government man”. He spoke as seriously as Jack at some of these briefings. He had his facts. You knew you could trust him, but he was not the man you would use to sell your shares in a very competitive global marketplace. His pedigree was the Economic Development Board (EDB). Ironically, he could sell billion dollar investments into Singapore’s infrastructure to a multinational corporation, but strangely, strangely, strangely, that skill is not transferable as of right to selling to equities analysts and investment bankers, as many ex-EDB officials have found out to their own detriment in their middle age.
I see this all the time in chairmans and CEOs. Even one who eventually became a very dear personal friend was at one time chairman of a huge credit origination business in the US and all they did was write huge loans and sell them off to investors. When this former CEO was with his peers in retail banking, he was superman, the person whom everybody looked up to, admired and enjoyed being with. But put an investment banker next to him, he looked like superman with kryptonite. He just could not function and I say this from observing him at analyst presentations in his time.
Jack and Olds had this ability to make investors climb mountains and sink to valleys with them. Whether they were screwing up big time with the price paid for the Dao Heng Bank or the several false starts they had, the investors were with them. Of course, Jeanette Wong would back that up by visiting with the investors regularly. I have come to know OCBC better and better over the years, and although I think they are doing many things right operationally under the leadership of David Connor, the one community he can’t excite are the institutional investors. Of course, having such an un-exciting board does not help either. We forget it is still a family business. Hence the moribund share performance for years.
This quality is make or break in the coming year as institutional investors look for safety. Many will not even bother with emerging market stocks. You need CEOs with the passion and stature to keep them interested. The skill is actually an easy one for those who have it. Across the region, we see K V Kamath standing out in India. Even if the investors did not understand India, they will still have time for ICICI. In Thailand today, Khun Vichit, chairman of Siam Commercial Bank has it. Even if all you hear is bad news from Thailand, the one bank investors will give the time of the day is SCB. His new CEO Khun Kannikar, who does not come from banking draws a lot from him on this front. It is not a natural skill to all.
The problem that a Mr Koh Boon Hwee would face is that when someone comes across as so obviously smart as he does but who does not have the pedigree that investors can recognise, they really would not know what to make of him. In other words, investment analysts, like anybody else, are not interested in smart people as they are about people they recognise as standing for something.
The pedigree that institutional investors recognise are either you are “one of them” (Jack), or come across as really “know what you are doing” (Kamath, Vichit). There is a third pedigree, called “personality”. When you think that Mr Koh Boon Hwee’s identity is part-chairman, part-businessman, part-statesman, his best hope for traction with the investor community is to grow to become a “personality”, like the ever lovable Sir David Li of Bank of East Asia who is part politician, part bank chairman, part statesman, part China-man.
But Sir David Li has been at it for so long that the analysts don’t mind him anymore. When he was caught with his lover in Paris, the HK paparazzi published a photo of their male and female shoes side by side, left in front of his luxury bedroom by the butler who had just polished them. The big giveaway was that his luxury shoes, of course, had his name engraved inside it. That’s what I call a personality! What a huge ego, but then you think, what a lovable guy!
Living in Hong Kong helps as well, because so many of the investment banks are there. David still gets invited to analyst meetings and is a respected member of Hong Kong’s Legislative Council, but most important of all, he runs a damn good mid-sized bank.
Leaders like Nazir in Malaysia’s CIMB have a bit of an uphill task because the country’s standing in the investment community does not help him enough globally. I think that if he could shed the very shameful “bumiputra” label that is derided outside of Malaysia, he could be recognised for merit and really fly. But that is another story. Having said that, he has made the most of the constraints.
Upon this analysis, my assessment is that of all the names being thrown about:
Francis Rozario, definitely has that standing. I have been in two meetings with him so far. He goes to investor presentations prepared. He asks himself the most introspective questions before a meeting and then goes on to make the most brilliant presentations. If he goes to New York to raise money even in a bear market, investors will listen.
Mike Denoma, potentially has this standing. He is a good story teller. A salesman and an American. You can work with that.
Richard Stanley. Are you kidding? Citibank is a failed institution. Citibank China is a dysfunctional institution. Citibank China is now going back to China to ask for money. That is like the nail in the coffin for reputation and respect from the Chinese leaders. You could not send this man back to Beijing and command respect saying “remember me, I was from Citibank”. You immediately bring DBS down to the bottom of the list in Beijing and why would you do that? According to all sources, he is the nicest guy in the world, but in the past few years he has been Mr Public Relations for Citibank China, travelling to Beijing to take the rap for mistakes. Being moved to Thailand and then to China and then to Singapore and then back to China means that he has not had the chance to build a business he could truly call his own, from which his character is shaped. The investor community will see right through all the platitudes in Ven’s article, and he will not be able to call on any of the identities that the investment bankers will recognise.
2. Strong financial instincts
This is an instinct more than a technical skill. Over the years, I have come to believe that for all the sins of the different banks I look at, the one story they don’t tell is how their financials saved or screwed them. A bank might be promoting its latest Internet banking initiative or proud that it secured a huge loan mandate, but if the CEO is not looking at the intermediation costs the whole thing can blow up in his face. Intermediation costs are managed at two levels: at the business level and at the treasury level. I have seen several banks in the region who screwed up their businesses badly but were still able to report good results because they had very strong and stable treasury operations, just scrambling to make the most of their proprietary trading positions.
But this defining character of running the cost-of-funds game is so serious that a bank in Singapore can lose it just by blinking. DBS is either the strongest or the most vulnerable franchise in its home market. 50% of the its domestic is retail, margins driven business. OCBC lost it a few years ago when they were so elated to grow their HDB mortgage business so profoundly, but at such costs that it affected their ROAs for years. The bank did not ever rise from that experience, because somewhere in the analyst mind, that defined OCBC’s skill no matter what they say today.
Being an accountant or a finance person is not by any measure an indication of suitability for the job. OCBC’s Connor is an accountant. Jack might have been a finance man, but he was shall we say, quite “creative” about what numbers meant. For example, in presenting DBS total exposure to CDOs, he says that the total $2.4 billion was one percent of the total assets of the bank. Well, it is also 100 percent of operating income. A matter of perspective, I guess. He knew how to tell a story to the analysts and rating agencies even when the books were not great, and then go on to make them great later. Not in a wrong way.
But the real battle was one level down. Connor had YY Chin and Jack had Edmund Koh. The fight was fought at that street level. YY was the showman, spending more time on the form rather than the substance of his business. Edmund was the street fighter protecting the substance even as he was talking to the form. The interesting note here is that Edmund is not even a financial man. People outside thought of him as the marketing man, because that is where he came from. But he had this huge chip on his shoulder about wanting to be perceived as a real financial man instead of a marketing man that he worked very hard at it, spending a lot of time looking at the cost and the return of any initiative, and it is this that shows up in strong ROAs in DBS’s performance year after year. You have to pin a medal on this guy! He really worked for it.
Again, looking at the candidates:
Francis Rozario: Yes, he understands this. He has run a margins warfare in Indonesia when he was running Danamon. He may not have got it right then, but his focus was on the right place. If he can work with an Edmund Koh, they will have a strong team going.
Mike Denoma: Mike is great for large architectural vision, and he gets that right very well for a large organisation like StanChart. I was just in StanChart on Friday getting a briefing on their wealth management business. It has a really simple but powerful architecture for a regional wealth management franchise, and the person who gave me the briefing attributed the idea and the mobilisation to Mike. Will Mike know how to give the correct instructions at the street level? Well, opinion inside StanChart is divided. That is why he can be a hit and miss on this front. He is very dependent on who he has on the ground. Some StanChart countries are doing really well, and others like Singapore, that was once doing well under Wilson Chia, is now languishing without the right skills in place and they are still wasting their time finding the right man.
Richard Stanley: Richard Stanley is nothing in China if not for Lee Ah Boon. Incidentally, Ah Boon was Edmund Koh and Eddie Khoo’s (who now runs retail for UOB) boss when they were all at Citibank. The grand old daddy of retail operations in Singapore! (No, I won’t suggest Ah Boon as potential CEO, because there are too many names floating already. Also, I suspect that Ah Boon will be more comfortable with a COO position, rather than a CEO. But his standing is really very high in the community, and he is someone, by virtue of personality, whom a Koh Boon Hwee will listen to). In fact, in all likelihood, if Richard gets to become DBS CEO, he will almost without blinking ask Ah Boon to join him. But that still does not answer the question.
All the other factors, I would say, are incidental to the two above. The two are so critical that if the bank’s board get them wrong, they will put the bank in grave danger. I have now, in previous blog entries stated the other considerations for a good CEO for DBS. These are, briefly:
I think on this front Mike Denoma has the best track record. At least in setting up the structures for managing complexity. Unfortunately, some of the feedback I received about him after I made my original post were not so complimentary. One friend who knows him well said “Mike is not growing old gracefully” when she was referring to his obsession with marathons and causes all the time. But who is perfect?
Feel of the ground:
Understanding the business in Singapore as well as across the region. Francis comes up tops on this one. Mike does feel the ground but he has got to have his feet firmly on it. Strangely enough, Mike was so scathing of his predecessor when the later left StanChart, saying “he was never around”, meaning always flying around. Strangely, strangely, only last week someone else said the exact same thing about Mike to me.
Both Francis and Mike are about equal on this. I think they will command the respect from their peers. They are heavy weights enough. Also, they do demonstrate the vision thing very well. As for Richard, he is not their equal in stature. If DBS is considering Richard, the options become wider. They may as well consider Edmund Koh or whoever else operates at that level
Francis and Mike have their own brand names. As for Richard’s brand name, I have discussed it clearly above. With brand name comes stature. For all the mistakes made with John Olds and Jackson Tai, the bank paid a very high price, but did gain some new stature from the process. The composition of the board is a story in itself. It is made up of a very formidable list. Now, why would a bank step down from this very painfully gained stature? Surely they can be a bit more ambitious than Richard Stanley.
This is Richard Stanley’s one big advantage. Actually, he would make a good deputy CEO for DBS and he can grow into the role of CEO later. That will take care of succession, which was so lacking previously when all the politicians were in the way, afraid of who to name as the next CEO.
The “I want it” feature:
The final point I want to make is that whoever is appointed the job must want it! Not just “can do it”. A John Olds would say “I can do it” and we saw what that meant. By writing so liberally about so many factors, I may have even put a lot obstacles in front of the best candidate, without realising it. It is not an obstacle that even a Richard Stanley cannot overcome if he really wants this job. Everything written in my blog and floating around the industry are personal observations and opinions. The leader they choose must rise above these and show that he can handle it.
All things considered, in reading my own assessment, it is obvious that the best candidate is Francis Rozario. Even if they finally choose him as they originally intended, the process helped all of us know what we were dealing with. There is then the issue of who is going to be Temasek’s point man for Financial Institutions acquisitions. They recently hired Matthew Welch, who was the “A” team leader at ABN Amro in the late 1990s when the bank was on a buying spree across Asia. I knew the astute work that Matthew did for ABN Amro on the acquisition front at that time. The stupid bank then went on to screw up big time in Europe. But the Asian franchise that Matthew acquired for the banking group was a very credible one. I think Matthew would be a good leader to take over Francis current franchise building and acquisitions position, and both make a good Singapore Inc team on the acquisitions front.
I had thrown in Mike Denoma’s name because he would qualify as a candidate because of his stature. But he too must want the position. But once they go down to Richard Stanley’s level, it becomes unfair to several other people within the bank who are really at the same level as he is. I equate Richard Stanley to a future David Connor. So, if the board wants to see what DBS will be like in three years under a Richard Stanley, look at OCBC today.
Looking at the composition of the nomination committee, I am fully confident of the decision making skills of everyone in the committee, except one. Mr Koh Boon Hwee. He is the wild card that I don’t understand in this whole equation. All the others in the nomination committee are highly independent professionals. But Mr Koh Boon Hwee is the non-executive chairman who jumped into the opportunity to run the bank, even without the work experience. How does the board allow that? Also, does that not make him an “executive” chairman instead? That is why he really should not be in the nomination committee, he should be at the receiving end of the nomination committee’s selection. I get this nagging impression that Mr Koh Boon Hwee sees himself in the game.
I want to end this blog here. I have too much pending on my own plate and have been writing on this topic a lot lately. Please do forgive the spelling and grammar mistakes where you find them. I will come back to edit pieces like these several times when I have the time.
But I will leave below some notes I drafted about Citibank China that was contributing to my assessment of Richard Stanley and the debate as a whole. Poor guy, he is really a good person, but just as I mentioned about Rajan Raju, people who aspire to senior positions must really manage their own brand name well, because they will be discussed in public.
—-unedited extra notes———-
Unfortunately for Citibank, if there is one country where this institution got it seriously wrong and at great expense to itself, it is China. I remember when we had our first conference in Shanghai in 2002 and I asked the audience which bank globally they respected the most. The unanimous answer then was Citibank. Every Chinese bank wanted to be a Citibank. But as any foreigner doing business in China can figure out, that phase of euphoric adoration is always a short one.
That is what happened in Citibank’s first joint venture with Shanghai Pudong Development Bank (SPDB). To Citibank, it was a winning platform to create and dominate the credit card business together with a local bank. To SPDB, it was an opportunity to learn and replicate and eventually run it themselves. I was in the front seat of watching this relationship unravel. At that time, my friends at SPDB were showing me organisational charts of the bank’s own credit card business which replicated the joint-venture unit they shared with Citibank, almost person for person. Eventually, the bank forged ahead with its own credit card business.
On the ownership front, Citi was such a poor chess-player, taking the initial nine percent stake to improve SPDB before going for a larger stake. When the share price went up, the 160 or so corporate owners obviously wanted more to get out, and then all the language about strategic partnership went out of the window. The fact that Citi did not protect its own long term equity interests was unbelievable.
As if that was not enough, Citi then desperately moves to Plan B, which was to seek to purchase the worst possible bank in all of China, Guangdong Development Bank (GDB). I continue to hear horror stories about banks in Guangdong from staff to management. Newbridge had problems with Shenzen Development Bank and several other banks, including DBS and Deutsche, had problems with GDB. This is China’s irrepressible south.
The Chinese government was so keen to get someone to underwrite the losses at GDB that it was willing to make an absolute exception and allow majority control for this bank. Citi put together a motley group of local companies to wrestle 85 percent ownership of this bank. As if the experience with corporate shareholders at SPDB did not teach Citi anything, it got itself into deeper trouble by getting into a compromised position with a new set of local corporates and an IT vendor, IBM, to hammer out the GDB deal. No other international bank would go anywhere near GDB and certainly not in the messy way that Citi did in this instance.
Of course, Citi’s real tragedy was that in the most crucial period when foreign investors moved in to take stakes in Chinese banks pursuant to their hugely successful listings, the Feds and the FDIC in the US were so fed-up with all the internal problems at Citi that they were not going to approve any major acquisitions by Citi in the period around 2005. So, Citi sat on the sidelines and watched Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), Bank of America, HSBC and others move in and take stakes in the more promising Chinese institutions. The IPOs as we all know, were hugely successful. This phase will go down in Citi’s history as the darkest period in its long history in Asia.
So then you ask, where was Richard Stanley in all of this? He was China country manager for a while and then moved to Singapore, and then back to China. Not enough time to build anything substantive. But let’s answer that question in the context of a broader consideration of what DBS actually needs.