Standard Chartered’s Hong Kong CEO May Tan is a driving force in the banking industry and beyond |
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Standard Chartered’s Hong Kong CEO May Tan is a driving force in the banking industry and beyond

Published on Saturday, 06 Jun 2015
May Tan, CEO of Standard Chartered Bank (Hong Kong)

In negotiating any new role, aiming to secure the best possible terms is par for the course. But when May Tan moved to Standard Chartered Bank in 2008, there was an added twist.

At the time, she was playing a crucial role in engineering the deal to sell her then employer, leading equities house Cazenove Asia. The prospective buyer was Standard Chartered, which was looking to extend its range of financial products and services. And as a key part of the transaction, Tan and her team were being asked to move across to the bank and bring with them the full benefitYou of their experience and expertise.

This gave Tan much to consider on a personal level, besides the nuts and bolts of the deal. But, as discussions progressed, what became increasingly clear was that a switch into the banking sector to join a fast-developing institution, with a strong customer base in Asia and an interest in supporting community causes, would present new avenues to explore and the chance to make a mark in areas ranging beyond the confines of the industry.

Subsequently, Tan has done just that. Promoted to chief executive officer of Standard Chartered Bank (Hong Kong) last July and now also vice-president of the Hong Kong Institute of Bankers (HKIB), she is in a position to lead change and influence wider policy. Intent not just on building the business, she is also lending her weight to diverse initiatives including helping more women achieve senior roles in the corporate world, promoting exercise and healthier lifestyles, and interesting children in the arts.

“For the first three years, I helped embed the equities business on to the bank’s platform,” Tan says. “But after that, I felt the need for personal development, to know what was happening across the bank and not to be ‘siloed’ in just one area.”

The first step was as vice chair – corporate finance, focusing on senior coverage of corporate and institutional customers. This also entailed close contact with product teams to help develop total solutions for clients. So, when the call came to take up the top job, Tan felt ready. Having worked on the bank’s 2002 Hong Kong IPO in her previous capacity provided a perhaps fitting sense of coincidence.

As chief executive, her priorities are clear. On one level, the job is to manage and motivate people to get the most out of them. This requires a focus on staff engagement, continuing to build a collaborative culture, and getting good people at a time when the whole industry is facing attrition and difficulties in attracting the best recruits.

On another, it is to “grow the franchise”, making it bigger and more scalable. Besides hitting targets and meeting shareholder expectations – which is not always easy – current challenges include championing the push for renminbi internationalisation, which is vital to Hong Kong’s future as a global financial centre; enhancing value-added products and cross-border collaboration; and adapting to a changed regulatory environment.

“In the CEO role, I find the real difference compared to previous positions is the regulatory component,” Tan says. “A very big part of my job now is to ensure the bank is compliant with any new measures. Of course, I had to know the rules when doing client coverage, but now I have an accountable, executive role for governance and dealing directly with the regulators.”

And on a third level, there is the chance to advance specific causes which have a positive impact on the business, but can also have much wider ramifications for the benefit of society.

For instance, Tan is now the global sponsor for the women’s network for the bank, is a committed advocate of greater diversity, is a regular at the annual Standard Chartered marathon, and is a vice chairman of Oxfam, among other community appointments.

“Personally, I have been very lucky in being able to rise to the top, so I want to set the trajectory for other women to do that too,” she says. “To start with, it is important to have a workplace where women feel comfortable and to consider the needs of 50 per cent of the talent pool. Generally, a lot of women drop out of the workforce for family reasons, so employers should be doing more to introduce job sharing, retraining and other options.” Standard Chartered has a leadership training programme for women and gives career guidance if they want to take time off work.

Originally from Johor in Malaysia, Tan studied economics in Britain before qualifying in London as a chartered accountant with the forerunner of today’s PwC. A decision to “try her hand” in equities led to a job with Cazenove as a research analyst and, in 1984, a surprise offer to help build a team in Hong Kong on an initial two-year secondment.

The move, accompanied by her husband who worked for JP Morgan, proved an eye-opening experience. Arrival coincided with the after-effects of a near disastrous property slump and, not surprisingly, prompted early doubts about the wisdom of accepting the post.

“I thought my boss must hate me, sending me to a place like this,” Tan recalls. “It seemed that all the companies were practically bust – the Hang Seng Index was under 1,000, and I thought the whole place was falling apart. But it was exciting and, in hindsight, the most transformational move I have ever made. Later on, it was wonderful with the recovery, China opening up, the extension beyond 1997, and all the new opportunities that came along.”

She notes that the experience of running a major equities firm made the transition to Standard Chartered relatively straightforward.  Inevitably, though, there were distinct challenges.

“The difference here is that the breadth of the organisation is so much wider,” she says. “Therefore, you learn to ‘swoop and soar’ – checking the details or seeing the big picture – depending on the issue. You can’t be an expert on everything. For example, I don’t know all about managing the branches, so I have to delegate, but I tell colleagues to escalate to me if there are any concerns. If a big client calls, I obviously have to get involved, while being cognisant not to step on managers’ toes too much.”

Overall, Tan portrays her style of management as being to pat people on the back when they deserve it and to take individuals to one side immediately if something is amiss. She will not tolerate “bad behaviour” – for instance anything that runs counter to the culture of the organisation – and emphasises the importance of respect for oneself and others.

“I don’t like to see people being callous or having ‘big elbows’ at work,” she says. “It may not be deliberate, just that people are not thinking. But as a bank, the bar has to be set very high, and once we set it, we all have to buy into what that means. I’m not going to pretend it is easy. It is about striking a balance and making judgment calls. But in the long run, we believe that if you are doing the right thing, the business will make money.” 

This article appeared in the Classified Post print edition as Force of change.

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