For Guo Shuqing, chairman of China Construction Bank, the biggest challenge in steering the behemoth forward is not full-throttle foreign competition or problematic loans as many have feared, but the bank itself. To be exact, Mr Guo - who studied Marxism in Beijing and capitalism at Oxford - will have to wrestle with something which cannot be quantified. His quandary is how to transform the mentality of the bank's 320,000 employees, to make them truly accept the need to put the customer first and to provide the best services available. 'If we can achieve that, we will become a truly world-class commercial bank, and will have nothing to fear. If we fail on that score we will be punished by the market forces,' Mr Guo said, while admitting that it probably would take many years to change the culture of the workforce. He said the bank had launched a campaign to instil the 'customer first' concept and to beef up its front-line operations by retraining many from the bloated middle-management to be front-line staff. He said restructuring the CCB for market flotation and selling minority stakes to overseas investors, including the Bank of America (BOA), also helped speed up the shift in the bank's management philosophy. China Construction Bank made a milestone by raising about US$9 billion in one of the world's largest initial public offerings last October, but there has been a strong backlash at home. Some mainland bankers and economists have accused the bank of selling the shares cheap, triggering intense public debate over the merits of allowing foreign investors to buy into the state banks. Mr Guo has dismissed the concerns as overplayed, adding that some stemmed from misunderstandings. He said CCB shares were priced at HK$2.35 per share after a highly transparent process. 'The share price remained unchanged on the first trading day and remained steady in the first few days, prompting some overseas papers to question whether the issue price was set too high, not too low as many people have said,' he said. 'But our share price began to rise in mid-November and now it trades around HK$3, which could prompt people to question whether the issue price was too low. 'Strictly speaking, I don't think there is such a valid question on whether the issue price was high or low. As long as transactions are open, transparent and fair, the market price is its actual price.' Criticism of CCB selling stakes to Bank of America and Singapore investment company Temasek instead of mainland financial institutions were also unfair, he added. 'When CCB was restructured into a shareholding bank in September 2004, we already had five major state shareholders, including China SAFE Investments and the State Grid,' Mr Guo said. 'Actually, there were not many state-owned enterprises which had much interest in CCB then because of their limited capital and also because no one was sure if CCB could go anywhere with its history of bad loans. In addition, our regulators did not encourage us to have too many investors prior to the IPO.' Having one of the largest US commercial banks as CCB's strategic investor already had begun to show results, he said. 'BOA is a nice fit for CCB, as consumer banking is CCB's weakest area but BOA's strongest.' He was impressed by the American bank's commitment to not compete with CCB in China, and closing all branches and offices it had. The two banks had already started substantial co-operation as BOA had sent about 50 staff to work with CCB in China, he said. 'For instance, BOA has provided many useful documents regarding corporate management, retailing banking, service procedures, quality control, e-banking and personnel training,' Mr Guo said. He was keen to have BOA staff join CCB's senior management just as the bank had conducted global searches to fill in the positions of chief financial officer, chief information officer, and chief risk officer, but the US bank appeared reluctant. BOA has a board seat, but no other executives hold senior positions in CCB. 'As far as we know, BOA is more concerned about legal and regulatory issues in the United States as it does not want to have any actual control over CCB, giving rise to worries over monopoly issues due to its giant size,' Mr Guo said. BOA has remained very low key since its investment in CCB and its executives were not available for comment. Meanwhile, widespread concerns that the overseas banks could trample mainland banks next year, when China is obliged to open the sector to full competition, were premature and overplayed, he said. The foreign banks were unlikely to pose a serious threat over the next five to 10 years, he said, while warning that they could threaten development of mainland banks in the high-margin and high-end businesses of private banking and credit-card services, where China's banking sector was very weak.