Finger in every pie is Citi recipe for success

Like most big banks, Citigroup was severely mauled by the 2008-09 global financial crisis. But its operations in Asia have played a key role in assisting the bank's recovery process.

Indeed, the bank has continued to grow in Asia through the past three difficult years.

Stephen Bird was appointed Citigroup's sole CEO for Asia-Pacific last month, a position which comes into effect in January next year.Since 2009, Bird has shared the role with Shirish Apte. Bird oversaw operations in northern Asia, including Japan, China, and Korea, while Apte looked after southern Asia, including Australia, India, and Singapore.

Bird and Apte have joint responsibilities for Asia-Pacific's overall performance, strategy and execution. Bird, who hails from Scotland, has been with Citigroup for 13 years, having started in Singapore as the bank's Asia-Pacific head for operations and technology.

He previously held senior management positions at British Steel and at GE Capital, where he launched its 6 Sigma programme and worked under the legendary management guru Jack Welch. Bird describes his own management style as focused on 'speed and simplicity'.

Bird sat down with The South China Morning Post to discuss how Citigroup's strategy in Asia differs from its competitors, and the lessons he learned from Welch.

There was talk after the global financial crisis that Citigroup's problems in the US were so extensive that it might have to pull back from international markets. Why didn't that happen?

We have been in Asia since 1902, so we have had a number of cycles and corrections throughout that time. Our Asian franchise throughout the global financial crisis delivered US$45 billion in revenues and US$15 billion in net income over a three-year period. So the performance in Asia was the mainstay of the earnings of the company during the crisis.

What drives the expansion in Asia?

The way we look at Asia today is that it is 30 per cent of the world's [gross domestic product], and will be half the world's GDP by 2050. So it's not just a tomorrow story. Today, it is already a third of global GDP, has half the world's population living here and is growing faster than the rest of the world.

But with growth comes risk, right?

We have no more than 13 per cent of our revenues coming from a single country in Asia, so the balance of the franchise is very good. We have scale business - significant size of business - in all of the major countries in Asia, with revenues of US$1 billion in eight countries. That creates a virtuous reinvestment cycle so that countries are not having to call on the parent to reinvest. That illuminates a little bit of the difference between Citi and HSBC and Standard Chartered Bank, which both have a much larger percentage of their revenues coming from a single market, Hong Kong.

How do you manage this risk?

We are trying to build a through-cycle annuity of profitable growth. You have to be very clear about that goal. It's not enough to say we are trying to make more money, as that just leads to a bust. This approach informs people about the way you invest, where you invest, the risk segments you invest in. Risk management recognises there is a cycle in every business and every market.

But isn't this precisely what banks find so difficult, particularly when you look at what happened ahead of the global financial crisis?

Absolutely. So in Asia we have a basket of businesses that are operating in slightly different cycles. Having a risk management team that has that perspective of understanding the whole but also the discrete parts is the key to balanced growth. Citibank is about half institutional in Asia and half retail. Asia has enjoyed better balance and less concentration to any single country than any other part of the world. We have a huge US consumer business because we are a large US bank and the US is the world's largest economy. That's why, when the US tanked, we had great difficulty in the US because we had a large mortgage and credit card business.

How do you decide where to expand?

We have a very explicit management assessment process. Typically, entry into a country starts as a corporate banking franchise. That's because we tend to follow our corporate clients. We bank 85 per cent of the Fortune 500 companies in Asia. Having established a profitable franchise with a critical mass of management functions, such as cash management, securities and banking, foreign currency hedging, interest rate hedging, brokerage, we then build out a branch network with a limited footprint of branches. The next step is to add a high-end consumer franchise, typically wealth management, then a credit card franchise. Hong Kong is a perfect example of a full footprint of Citicorp with a corporate investment bank, a retail bank, a credit card franchise and a private bank.

But you have a relatively small retail presence in Hong Kong. How do you compete with HSBC?

We are investing in growing our retail presence and have grown from 25 to 49 branches over the past two years. But effectively you have to have a better client service. In many ways, we are innovating our path to growth in Hong Kong. We were the first to launch mobile banking here.

What else are you doing?

We do things like open all branches until 7pm for consumer convenience. We have location-based services. So if you're in Causeway Bay, for example, your smartphone will show you all the restaurants where you can get a discount on your credit card. You can touch through and reserve the table.

In many ways, we have the challenger's advantage. We focus on speed and simplicity. We recently launched a programme where phone calls will be answered within 20 seconds rather than having to go through a series of answerphone stages. When you walk into one of our smart branches they have the look and feel of walking into an Apple store rather than a traditional bank.

So digitisation is very important. The customer can choose to walk in, phone in, touch through on a smartphone, but the information in that channel should be updated in real time. Banks are like tech companies - digitisation is where the revolution is happening. I constantly remind our executive team - look at what digitisation did to music -it wiped the business model out.

What did you learn from Jack Welch?

Jack Welch said something I use a lot, 'Deal with reality as it is, not how it used to be, or how you'd like it to be.' This strips away all your biases. If you are objective, people will flow information to you because they know you are not biased.

Here's another of his sayings: 'Leaders relentlessly upgrade their team using every encounter as an opportunity to evaluate, coach and build self-confidence.'

People used to say this approach of constantly upgrading created uncertainty. To this criticism he said, 'I cannot guarantee you lifetime employment, and nobody can, but I can guarantee that if you play on this team you'll have lifetime employability. Because when you leave us there will be so many other teams who will sign you up.'


The rise in Citigroup's third-quarter revenue from consumer banking outside of the US, to US$4.9 billion, from US$4.42 billion