Au slips a gear in the race for banking reform

When former Hang Seng Bank vice-chairman Alex Au pulled up at Oversea-Chinese Banking Corp (OCBC) in September last year, he was greeted like a Formula One racing champion.

Just 14 months later, sentiments have crashed.

'For a man with a passion for fast cars, OCBC chief Alex Au acts real slow,' The Straits Times recently wrote.

OCBC's chief executive and vice-chairman had to issue a statement this week dismissing rumours that he may head back to Hong Kong.

'I am aware there are rumours that I am leaving OCBC Bank. I want to put the record straight. I am here for the long-haul,' Mr Au said.

Mr Au's tenure began positively.

He was held up as a trophy of the Singapore Government's new drive to recruit foreign talent, along with JP Morgan veteran John Olds who was simultaneously recruited to spearhead the Development Bank of Singapore (DBS).

In January, Mr Au unveiled his three-year blueprint for revamping and modernising the bank, which he dubbed his OCBC Roadmap 3.0 vision.

This won warm applause and OCBC's share price more than doubled in just a few months, significantly outperforming the Straits Times Index.

The problem is, little has been heard from Mr Au since.

Lim Beng Eu, banking analyst at Vickers Ballas Securities, said: 'It is very much like a black hole. There has been a complete lack of details on his progress.' To make matters worse, Mr Olds has been announcing new deals, initiatives and alliances each week.

Not surprisingly, OCBC's share price has fallen back down to earth, whereas DBS' and growth-minded United Overseas Bank's have been strong.

The situation has been confounded by rumours that Mr Au's efforts to divest some of the group's diverse stable of investments has been hampered by the bank's controlling shareholders, the Lee family.

Lee Seng Wee, OCBC's chairman, has remained hands-on.

'The family are thought to be against his style,' said one stockbroker.

'We hear that the razzmatazz launch of his action plan in January didn't go down well with the owners,' the broker said.

Insiders also claim Mr Au has not done as good a job as Mr Olds in winning rank-and-file support.

Tony Raza, banking analyst at Prudential-Bache Securities, said: 'If you're a foreigner who comes in you're going to face a mindset against you. You have to change that mindset.

'Mr Olds appears to have convinced his staff on the merits of his changes by showing concrete results. Mr Au, on the other hand, hasn't come out publicly and detailed what he's been doing, adding ammunition to the debate that he's not worth it.' Analysts may have loved Mr Au's vision but they want action.

He had spoken of acquisitions and expansions in Singapore, Hong Kong and Malaysia, but nothing has been seen.

This week, Mr Au appealed for the market to be patient.

Mr Au said: 'When I first joined the bank last September my main goal was to turn OCBC into a world-class financial institution.

'That is still my goal today,' he said.

'This process must necessarily take time.' SINGAPORE