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  • Sep 19, 2014
  • Updated: 12:11pm

Making the most of difficult times

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 14 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 14 April, 2012, 12:00am

Most people naturally fear a crisis, but not Sebastian Paredes. The DBS Hong Kong chief executive has built his career on them.

'You can never say you are lucky to confront a crisis, but I have made crisis my friends,' said Paredes, a 50-year-old father of three who now heads the Hong Kong business of Southeast Asia's largest bank.

Throughout his 26-year career as a banker, Paredes has been based in South America, the Middle East, Africa and Asia, a reason why he speaks five languages - Spanish, English, German, French and Bahasa Indonesia.

Paredes attended a German primary and secondary school in Ecuador and went to California State University, where he earned a bachelor's degree in finance. Graduating at the age of 22, his first job was assistant to the chief financial officer in one of Ecuador's largest confectionery manufacturers.

After a year in the job, the country entered an economic crisis brought on by the end of an oil boom and fuelled by massive foreign debt and natural disasters.

The CFO left as a result. The company spent months searching for a replacement - unsuccessfully - so promoted Paredes to the position.

That was his first taste of the sometimes sweet rewards of a crisis.

The new job brought him into contact with many bankers. By the age of 24, Paredes decided he wanted to be on the other side of business.

The path was not easy. He applied four times before finally being accepted by Citibank, then had to start from scratch as an executive trainee.

'I come from a very small country where Citi has the most dominant brand, ' said Paredes, recalling the glory attached to the bank.

He spent 20 years with Citibank, battling an economic crisis in Guayaquil, Ecuador's largest city, in 1990, fighting another crisis in his home country as CEO in 1998, tackling another in Turkey in 2000, and overcoming challenges to build a presence in sub-Saharan Africa.

Throughout each crisis, he was promoted to overlook business of larger scale. By 2005, however, Citibank was in a very different place to when Paredes joined, especially after a merger with Travelers group.

Before the merger, Citibank delegated a lot of important decisions to the regional offices, whereas the new Citibank became 'a huge enterprise with centralised decisions made in New York', and managed by investment bankers, he said.

'I had a different view and I decided it was time to look for something else,' Paredes said. 'I think it is very important for individuals to understand when it's time to leave rather than operating in an environment where they are unhappy.'

It happened that at the same time, Temasek, the Singaporean wealth fund that had bought a 70 per cent stake in Bank Danamon in Indonesia, approached Paredes about a senior position. He grasped the chance and became president director of the bank.

'For the first time I was going to be a true CEO,' no longer having to report to New York or London, said Paredes.

He helped the bank survive the crises of 2008 and 2010. By the time Paredes left to join DBS, Bank Danamon had grown from an operation with 8,000 employees to 45,000 and was worth more than US$5 billion.

From there, Paredes was asked by Temasek to head the Hong Kong business of DBS, which was then going through a substantial organisational change.

Today, Paredes is helping DBS steer through perhaps the largest financial crisis since the 1930s.

The many years of experience have prepped him well. The bank's Hong Kong operations saw net profit rise 7 per cent to HK$ 3.55 billion last year. This month DBS agreed to pay US$7.24 billion for Bank Danamon, making DBS the fifth-biggest lender in Indonesia.

What is your secret to successfully dealing with crisis as a banker?

Part of the success is to anticipate when a crisis is coming and reposition the bank.

I usually reconvene my team, brainstorm about the current situation and the future. What I like to do is to ask my managers to take a collective view on what could happen next, and we usually look 18 to 24 months ahead. We come to these sessions very well informed and very well read. We always look at the optimistic view and then the negatives, then we brainstorm. If the collective view is that the country is heading into a crisis, then, immediately, we act as if there will be crisis tomorrow.

We change course. I am someone that does not believe in headcount rightsizing. I think companies that go through dramatic headcount cuts are ones that have not been able to anticipate the future, do not had a clear strategy, and have failed to plan well, so they have to retract. When you see a crisis coming you enhance your middle office, strengthen your back office and strengthen your controls. The continuous effort of anticipating trends, and how our competitors will react, and what products might come out, helps you get ahead of the game.

What is the most important thing for a CEO to remember?

Of all the decisions made by a CEO, the allocation of scarce resources is most critical. We confront such questions every day. These are our most difficult decisions - how to allocate capital, people, time and expenses. Those are the limited resources. And you have to balance short-term and long-term goals. These decisions lead to rightsizing, severing businesses or closing others down.

What was your biggest disappointment as a banker?

The saddest event for me as a banker is the continuing backlash from the global financial crisis and how it has eroded the public's perception of our industry.

As an individual it's very difficult to accept that the perceptions of people, and even the media, of banks and bankers have changed because of this international crisis.

This has tainted the profession I love, a profession that I think is unique around the world.

Banks play a critical role in any society; the intermediation of banks is critical for the growth and development of all economies. Unfortunately, we are now misperceived, and that is one of the most difficult things to accept as a banker.

What was your best battle and the hardest decision you had to make?

Clearly the Bank Danamon story is a very important story, because where we were coming from and where the bank is now. That was one of the most rewarding five years of my career. But when I look back at my life and career, I have wonderful memories of becoming CEO of Ecuador. From being a young and [easily] excited relationship manager to becoming country CEO at a young age was something really meaningful for me.

But I also had to divest the consumer bank in Ecuador. I sold the business to another bank. It is exactly what HSBC is doing right now 20 years later, realising that for global banks to do consumer banking you have to have critical mass, you have to have a large number of customers to make it a reality.

It was a hard decision because it was in my own country. So many people - friends, people I worked with, the media and government - asked how an Ecuadorean could do something like this. There was a great deal of pressure. But you have to do what you have to do.

Why did you join DBS and what is the bank's overall strategy?

Temasek approached me in 2010 me saying that DBS was about to undergo a substantial organisational change.

The board was changing and the CEO was new. I thought it was a great opportunity to know China and Hong Kong, and be part of the transformation of this bank.

DBS wanted to expand its operations outside Singapore to become an Asian bank of choice, to invest in Indonesia, India and China, to turn the bank from an underperforming bank to a high-performing one, to really raise the branding and notion of what DBS is.

What is the focus of DBS in China?

We are not aggressively hiring at the moment in Hong Kong because we are fully staffed. However, we are growing in the mainland. So there we are hiring, expanding and investing.

We are allocating most of that growth in two areas. First, there is the connectivity to China and the expansion to China, making sure we work very closely with the mainland to enhance our Hong Kong operations.

A second focus is small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) business in Hong Kong. So we are hiring and expanding the SME segment in Hong Kong.

We are re-segmenting our businesses in the retail and wealth management sectors, optimising that strategy, making sure all our resources in the consumer space are only focused on affluent customers. In the past our business covered the full spectrum of retail banking.

$1.6b

The then Development Bank of Singapore paid this amount, in Singapore dollars, to fully acquire POSBank in 1998.

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