Globetrotter bridges the gaps

ABN Amro Hong Kong chief executive Maaike Steinebach has it all figured out when balancing a fast-moving career with family life

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Saturday, 29 December, 2012, 4:58am

For many women determined to power through the glass ceiling on the way to the top of the corporate world, juggling a family can be a dealbreaker.

Maaike Steinebach, a 41-year-old mother of three who is chief executive of Dutch lender ABN Amro Hong Kong, is one woman who appears to have it figured out.

Born in the Netherlands, she grew up in Saudi Arabia, where her father worked for a Dutch dredging company. Steinebach and her two younger brothers spent their childhoods in the arid country, and learned to appreciate Middle Eastern fare such as whole roast goat replete with eyeballs.

She went back to the Netherlands to finish school, and then read business economics at university. Eventually, she became a banker. Her first job was as a trainee at MeesPierson bank, which later became ABN Amro, where she worked in a commodities finance team nicknamed the cappuccino desk because the team handled loans to commodity producers and traders of cocoa, coffee, milk and sugar.

Next, she took up postings in London, Singapore, Shanghai and now heads the Dutch bank's Hong Kong country office as well as serving as managing director of energy, commodities and transport in Asia.

Steinebach sat down with the Post in the bank's new premises at the International Commerce Centre in Kowloon and shared her views on managing a peripatetic career with a husband and three young children in tow.

Why did you become a banker -was that your girlhood dream?

No. My dream is to open a restaurant. As a high school project, I designed a restaurant business plan. Maybe one day I will make the plan a reality.

I did not pursue it as my parents advised me to study economics to have a wider scope and more career choices. I fell in love with banking when I worked as a trainee on the "cappuccino" desk. I found that this was not just a job facing the computer all day long, but a job where I needed to travel around the globe to meet clients and contacts.

I like interaction with people so I love this job because it is a people business. It also provides concrete and tangible solutions for commodities traders, giving you instant gratification as you see the results of the financing you provide. I have now also moved into financing of ships as well as oil and gas assets. This is equally tangible and very much in touch with the real economy.

What are the keys to success in managing the energy, commodities and transport business?

We provide bridging loans to traders who act as middlemen between producers and end users or consumers along the commodity supply chain for agricultural commodities, energy and metals and steel products. My staff and I fly to the plantations to visit the farmers and to look at the harvests, to the mines and smelters, warehouses and ports to make assessments for the loan approvals. We also have to maintain close relationships with our clients, many of whom have been in the business for a long time, so we have built a very close and long-term relationship with them.

What does your family think about having a working mum with such heavy corporate management responsibilities?

I need to thank my husband who agreed to go with me around the world when the bank relocated me. I married my husband, who is in the IT field, in 2001 when I worked with the metal and steel finance team in London.

When I was expecting my first baby, big belly and all, the bank requested me to set up the commodities finance business in Asia from Singapore in 2003. In 2005, I relocated to the Shanghai office and had two more children. I came to Hong Kong in 2009 with my family and have been living here since.

It has been great to have such strong support from my family for my career.

How do you balance your job and your family life?

I have a Filipina helper, Marivic, who joined my family in Singapore after we moved there with our son in 2003. She has been with us ever since and is really part of the family. This also creates a lot of stability for the kids. Whilst I can multitask pretty well, my life would not be the same without her, she is our backbone!

I try to have breakfast with the kids and send them off to school in the morning. I also leave the office on time when I am in Hong Kong to put the kids to bed and read them a bedtime story. As far as any spare time beyond that, I go to the gym twice a week at 6am as I want to be healthy when I turn 50.

As a female country head of a bank, is it difficult to manage your team members?

When I first headed the Singapore and later the Shanghai offices, I was only in my 30s. Many people probably found me young for the job as the expected staff hierarchy then was for male CEOs in their 50s with grey hair leading the team. But after I worked together with the teams for a while, I found they respected my leadership and input.

The most important [thing] is whether you show vision, commitment and respect and can lead your team in developing your business. As long as you can demonstrate and prove your leadership skills, there should be no problem for a female to be a top banker.

My management target was to develop staff in such a way that they could take over when I left for other locations. To date, that has worked very well.

Asian cultures are different from your home country's. How do you cope?

I found that my childhood experience growing up as an expatriate in the Middle East was very valuable to me whilst living in a different culture later on. As a child, I went with my parents to visit local families where the women would sit separate from the men and they would offer you local food like a whole roast goat, and offer the guests the eyeballs! It came in handy when working in China and eating exotic foods like snakes and turtles. Such childhood experiences opened my mind, and I was able to live in countries and enjoy learning from these new cultures.

When I was in Shanghai and now in Hong Kong, I tried to immerse myself in the local culture and tried to understand what drives the people and a country. I studied Mandarin for a while and got educated on feng shui. This really helped me to build good communications and a rapport with my staff.

I also learned to sing one song in Chinese for karaoke! That really helped me in bridging the cultural gap - with clients as well as my staff.