People are among a bank's assets
Alex Cheung can draw on extensive corporate and commercial experience in his role as managing director of the institutional banking business at DBS Bank in Hong Kong. Before this, he held senior management positions with other leading financial institutions, including Citibank, OCBC and Rabobank. Cheung's main responsibility at present is to expand business with mid-cap companies, and small and medium-sized enterprises in Hong Kong and on the mainland, with the aim of making the bank a top-three player in these sectors. To do that, his focus is on building a team capable of meeting the challenge. He talks to Jan Chan.
At what point did you feel your career had really taken off?
Fortunately, I've always been on the fast track in my career. I think the breakthrough came when I joined Citibank in 1988. I ended up staying with them for eight years, working my way up from senior relationship manager to business head, with involvement in people and strategy. The different roles certainly expanded my capacity and my geographical exposure.
So far, which periods have been the most challenging?
Each job has its own challenges and those change as you take on more responsibility. For example, I remember that when I joined OCBC four years ago, it had a relatively small presence in Hong Kong of about 60 people. But over the next three years, I helped it expand to more than 180 people by widening market coverage and moving into new areas of business. Achieving that growth from a small scale to a reasonable size was a very good experience and it took me to another level in my career.
Of course, my current position comes with its own set of challenges. DBS has a strong market position and customer franchise, but we need to think constantly about what we can improve and what we may need to do differently. In particular, I have to think about how to generate more from the present platform, while considering ways to expand that franchise. This requires a combination of strategic thinking and implementation skills.
How did you train yourself to be a better leader?
I'm not an academic person but, of course, I understand the need to study the basic principles of leadership. Overall, I prefer learning from real-life experience and from talking to senior and junior people around me, rather than reading up on management skills. Listening and sharing ideas helps me see how I can do better.
What does it take to find the right balance between profits and people? Both are very important for any bank. We are expected to achieve each year's goals and targets, but we can only do that by remembering that people are one of our most valuable assets. Our aim is for employees to enjoy what they do and receive suitable rewards. We don't want them to feel they are just struggling to meet quotas or deadlines.
What is the secret to building a successful team?
You should understand that individuals have different strengths and skills, and you must be able to match those with appropriate tasks. Achieving this is a matter of taking time to understand each person thoroughly and recognising that they all have a role to play. DBS has been through a series of acquisitions in recent years and has hired staff from other international banks. For that reason, we have team members with diverse backgrounds, each of whom has specific talents.
What advice do you have for young people interested in the field? A job in banking is a very good starting point for fresh graduates. It gives you a broad perspective and the training is good. Generally, I advise young people to keep an open mind and take every opportunity to gain more exposure.
As an approachable leader, Cheung is always willing to have a happy hour drink with subordinates