Weber Lo is taking growth challenges in his stride as CEO for HK and Macau at Citi
The issues facing banks today are legion. They include finding the right balance between branch openings and online offerings, meeting ever-evolving customer expectations, helping corporations venturing and investing into China, and developing new market segments. There is the need to ensure strict compliance on all fronts, with matters linked to data security and anti-money laundering (AML) now very much on the agenda. There is the importance of sustaining and improving the pipeline of talent, so that up-and-coming executives have the skills and know-how to take the bank forward. And, all the time, there is the pressing cycle of tasks which are part and parcel of achieving profit targets, satisfying shareholders, and keeping costs under control.
However, with an astute mind, a relaxed demeanour, extensive experience and the support of a 4,500+ strong team, Lo has proved himself a master at taking such challenges in his stride.
Citi has been in Hong Kong for over 114 years. “We strongly believe we can continue to grow,” says Citi’s chief executive for Hong Kong and Macau. “Through all the repositioning undertaken by the group, Hong Kong has always been a key contributor to revenue and profit to our Asia Pacific franchise and the market still has the qualities and room for us to expand.”
In his current role, Lo is responsible for the full spectrum of businesses, including corporate and investment, commercial, consumer and private banking, as well as treasury, trade and securities services. As a result, he is never short of priorities.
Right now, the top of the list is preparing for the move to a newly owned headquarters in Kowloon East in the first half of this year. Citi has acquired this new commercial building in 2014 making it the single largest capital investment of Citi in Hong Kong to date, which is a testament of the company’s commitment to growing the franchise here as an “Invest to Grow” market. The HKSAR Government has already designated
Kowloon East as the next premier business district in Hong Kong.
Armed with a degree in economics and statistics from The University of Hong Kong, his first job in the corporate world was with consumer goods multinational Procter & Gamble. A summer internship there had given him a feel for the work and the people, and that led him to turn down a better paid offer to join Citibank in Hong Kong as a management associate.
Banking has always been the pillar industry in Hong Kong, and Lo’s parents wanted him to pursue a career in a thriving field such as this.
As it turned out, while learning the ins and outs of brand management, Lo did handle the Pampers business for a while and, in passing, picked up some practical skills which were to prove very handy after the birth of his daughter.
During that phase of his career, he also worked on toothpaste and shampoos, oversaw a major advertising campaign featuring tennis star Michael Chang, and studied the principles of customer service and marketing – which were to be more than useful down the road.
Offered a move to Guangzhou in 1996 to develop the South China business, he thought long and hard, but opted instead to relocate to Beijing as marketing manager for Coca-Cola China. The position came with a good package, but the real attraction was the chance to test himself. The role entailed oversight of 11 bottling plants in mainland China stretching from Kunming to Heilongjiang, attaining fluency in Putonghua, and acquiring a steadily expanding list of responsibilities for Greater China.
In 2000, a transfer to Shanghai was in the offing, but there was also cause to reflect. With both parents nearing retirement, Lo recognised that his filial duty meant that he needed to be back in Hong Kong. Looking for new fields to conquer, he found that the IT and
banking sectors offered the best long-term career prospects.
After a brief foray into the former, he quickly came to his senses – a listed company with almost no revenue did not add up to much of a business. Three months later, though, when Citi came calling, and was impressed by his record, everything fell into place.
They saw Lo as the ideal person to build up their Citigold wealth management services in Hong Kong, and the timing proved serendipitous.
Changes in the industry meant banks were becoming far more proactive in their dealings with both existing and potential clients. The traditional consumer banking model, which relied predominantly on mortgage lending, was due for an overhaul as new investment products became available. And people with an in-depth understanding of brand building, sales, and consumer-focused activities – even if not in banking – were therefore much in demand.
“Up until then, banks were really just waiting for customers to come to them,” says Lo, who initially gave himself two years to see how things panned out. “But with liberalisation of interest rate, the idea of wealth management started to fly. We had to look at our whole value proposition. Although it is a bit of a cliché, the basics of promoting a product and dealing with customers are similar whether you are selling credit cards or shampoo.”
At first, of course, there was still an enormous amount to learn. Most weekends were spent poring over reports and analysis on economic policy, interest rate movements, their possible impact on the bank’s P&L, market segmentation, and much else.
But Lo threw himself into the task and saw the results.
“It helped that Citi has the kind of US business culture I was used to,” Lo says. Citi has a unique corporate culture, which has the room to take risks on people with potential and aspirations, and will provide for those who prepare and perform well. “I had to make sure
I didn’t disappoint,” he says. “If people give you a big responsibility, you have to justify their faith.”
One year on came a stint as head of bankcard marketing, and a rapid ascent followed. As country business manager for Hong Kong, Lo later took charge of retail banking, credit card, and small business clients. And as chief operating officer, he drove initiatives which, over the last few years, have seen the concept of smart banking and digital banking take off. Lo led these developments, and paved the road for the bank’s innovation in these areas.
At present, circumstances dictate a particular focus on new regulations which make bank executives much more accountable for issues like AML and cyber security which, as individuals, they may have little chance of controlling.
“The landscape has changed completely since 15 years ago: the new requirements keep me awake at night,” Lo says. The new banking environment is now more complex and highly regulated. The mega trend of globalisation also means afterhours communication is no longer surprising. Like many banks, Citi has beefed up on the resources needed to comply with more and more stringent regulations. “We take on a lot of extra compliance and legal responsibilities, and they are so crucial for our business today,” Lo says.
KEEPING TRAINING TOPICAL
To keep its in-house training programmes current and comprehensive, Citi has long used the courses and workshops run by The Hong Kong Institute of Bankers (HKIB) as a standard point of reference.
“Where necessary, we ask the HKIB to help bridge gaps and build competencies,” Lo says. “I also encourage all staff to attend their lectures and conferences, not only to learn what is going on in the industry, but also to expand their range of contacts.”
This is all part of his philosophy of giving employees a vision of the future and the support needed to achieve both personal and corporate goals. The approach is centred on the “three Es” – envisioning, energising and enabling.
As an HKIB vice president, Lo is also assisting efforts to spotlight the rapid growth of fintech business and the need for the industry to take note and adjust accordingly. Citi’s efforts in this area were visible in their recent Citi Mobile Challenge in Asia-Pacific, which is part of their drive to foster digital and mobile innovation in banking.
Lo’s contribution in other ways is also much appreciated – as a not-so-reluctant performer of Cantopop ballads of yesteryear at karaoke nights and annual dinners.
This article originally appeared in the January-February 2016 issue of Banking Today, the official journal of the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers.
This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Citi building.