Cover Story: Agent of change

This article first appeared in Options, The Edge Malaysia Weekly, on May 1, 2017 - May 07, 2017.
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AMBANK group CEO Datuk ­Sulaiman Mohd Tahir is running a little late for our meeting, so I get to wander around the two sun-drenched executive floors of the bank’s headquarters in Jalan Raja Chulan, Kuala Lumpur, while I wait.

Time passes quickly. The vintage-framed comic strips and corporate seasonal greetings drawn by local cartoonist Datuk Lat that I remember from my childhood are delightfully absorbing. More mind-boggling is the collection of art hanging on the walls, which include unusual Ibrahim Hussein works from the 1980s. A statement curved staircase that connects the two levels as well as a distinctly 1980s-style orchid display sitting on the right side of kitsch, and accompanied by great views of Kuala Lumpur’s skyline, is a nice way to spend 10 quiet minutes smack in the middle of a work day.

Still waters run deep, as the adage goes — the quiet calm of this space belies the challenges and uncertainties that AmBank has gone through in the last few years. But many good things are happening today, now that a new steward is on board to steer this ship to calmer waters. Boasting a long career in banking, Sulaiman is tasked with the unenviable job of implementing a transformation plan that would set the bank on a positive course for the future, making the AmBank brand relevant and top-of-mind again.

Established in 1975,  AmBank Group is one of the largest banking groups in the country with services that cater for a broad group of customer segments — personal, business and investment banking, stockbroking, fund management, life and general insurance, and family takaful. The bank’s 12,000 employees serve more than six million customers nationwide through an extensive network of 1,775 branches. AmBank is also acknowledged as having the most number of branches open for weekend banking services, and with the largest ATM network at 7-Eleven stores nationwide.

When Sulaiman joined AmBank in 2015, he arrived at the doors of a good bank in a tough place. The role of CEO had been ­vacant for some months and the strain of not having someone in this crucial position had made itself felt — strong leadership was wanting, and there was a great deal of doubt surrounding the future of the bank and what the subsequent years would bring.

“When I came in, there were some plans, but not as clear as they are now. To me, the plans were not structured in a way that ­involved people,” he begins, diving right into things. “There was a general direction of where the bank needed to go, but I heard mixed signals and people had different views of what we wanted to become. So, we spent seven weeks getting feedback to come up with the plan, and we took the opportunity to review ourselves — what do we want to become?”

Passionate, articulate and enthusiastic, Sulaiman was just the kind of CEO that the company needed — knowledgeable and persuasive, he was able to sell the idea of the transformation to all the bank’s stakeholders successfully. It helps that he also looks the part, with an impressive sweep of salt-and-pepper hair to complement his easy-going smile and exuberant nature.

Sulaiman has now clocked up slightly less than two years as CEO, making his position at the bank relatively new in the context of an industry where people often hold leadership positions for several years. Indeed, Sulaiman headed CIMB’s consumer banking division for several years before changing gears. CIMB was where he thought he would retire, and had not anticipated moving at such a late point in his career.

“It was a tough decision to make,” he ­recalls, adjusting his red necktie. “I had been with CIMB for 28 years. And I decided that I had to try this group CEO thing — the question was, do I just be comfortable and stay where I am or do I take on new challenges where I can harness the knowledge that I have and apply it? So, when the opportunity came along, I was open to it. I like challenges; they force you to do things that are difficult and learn things which you will never learn otherwise. I knew it was not going to be easy and I had a long conversation with my wife and family about it. I took the tough route, but it feels good!”

His early months at AmBank were as difficult as expected — one of the first fires he had to put out was a RM53.7 million fine imposed by Bank Negara Malaysia for non-compliance with certain regulations. It was, by Sulaiman’s own admission, one of the weakest moments in the bank’s history. Late nights at the office became de rigueur as he strove to properly understand the situation the bank was in, which would subsequently dictate what its transformation plan would look like.

Fortunately, he is not the kind of CEO to spend too much time pontificating on the past — mistakes made must be corrected, and new opportunities continuously explored while employees are consistently kept inspired and committed to the cause.

“There were definitely some days that made me wonder what I was doing, why I asked for all this — there is a lot to do here, it’s a huge company with a presence all over the country and there were areas that I wasn’t completely familiar with as I was essentially from a commercial banking background,” he says. “It was tough, but it was good because I had time on my side. I joined in November 2015, and by March 22 the following year, I was able to submit a plan, which, I think, is good.”

The eventual plan that was decided upon — which Sulaiman first outlined to the corporate section of The Edge in August 2016 — hinges on AmBank being among the top four banks, focusing on four aspects: the bank’s growth segments (the mass-affluent market, for example, and small and medium enterprises), key products (credit cards, markets and wealth management), its current engines of growth (corporate loans and asset management) and to be among the top four employers in the region.

There is a Chinese superstition attached to the number four (it sounds like the word “die” in Cantonese), and most Malaysians are generally wary of it. But Sulaiman has a strong argument for this particular number, and one that holds far more water than an unfounded belief. “You know why top four? Right now, there are eight banking groups and we believe that in 2020 that number will be smaller — so unless we are in the top four, we will not be around. Right now, we are No 6. If we are serious about being around, we need to be in the top four,” he says.

Sulaiman does not divulge too many intricate details of the transformation plan — much of which has been tailored for consumption by investors and fellow bankers — but explains its essence: it is anchored in part on capitalising on AmBank’s strengths, giving existing customers added opportunities to grow their money and, of course, getting more people to trust the bank with their funds.

There are quite a few examples of this. For example, fixed deposit customers — of which AmBank had a huge base — can be converted into high-net-worth investors when paired with relationship managers from the bank’s investment banking portfolio. He also recognised that foreign exchange trading is an untapped opportunity, and that banks generally traded a lot of currency on a daily basis. “AmBank didn’t have such an offering. However, from the banks I’d come from, forex trading at the branches was worth about RM10 million in profit a month. Okay, here’s another business I can grow, and make it more convenient for my customers.”

And then, of course, is the credit card division. Sulaiman moved to pair this with AmBank’s existing partnership with Bonuslink, offering customers a branded credit card that merged both services. The credit card business is a very visible one for any bank, and Sulaiman has done well to train the spotlight on it. Apart from a wider suite of credit card products, the actual cards have also undergone an aesthetic transformation. They are admittedly quite nice-looking, as far as credit cards go. “So, would you like the black or the platinum one? We can set you right up,” he quips, sliding over a leaflet for me to peruse later on.

A second anchor is forging improvements with technological initiatives, with a new mobile app scheduled to be launched in June. “People want to do banking, but they don’t always need bankers,” he observes. “Mobile banking has traditionally been adapted from desktop versions; because we are behind, we are going straight to mobile. A new version of our mobile banking will be easy to use, fast, bandwidth-friendly and in a format that fits into mobile phones. It’s being tested among staff now, and we are planning to go live in June.”

Ultimately, it is about looking at the big picture and matching various needs and wants across the board. It is not an easy job by any means, and requires a nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the finance industry to piece together. It also requires every member of staff to be 100% committed, and getting everyone’s passionate buy-in is as difficult as coming up with the transformation plan, to start with.

“One year into our plan, we have met our key numbers,” he says. “But more importantly, we have set the ship on course. And a major part of any plan is getting people to reorganise themselves, believe in it and do what is supposed to be done. That part was tough in the beginning, but we changed processes, changed key performance indicators and restructured the organisation — and all this has produced results. And when processes are improved, it is the start of believing in a plan, and that it can be done. There is a feeling that change is a good thing, and it makes people want to do more.”

This has had a positive impact on Sulaiman’s efforts to attract the right kind of people to drive the company forward, both from within the company and from outside it. “Now that people see good results, I am also attracting the kind of talent that we need — there’s a big change here and, in the first quarter of the year, I had new people drive investment banking, wealth management business, credit card business, and the mid-corporate and SME business. If we used to be operating on second gear, we can now move into third and fourth gear,” he adds. “In three months, you will see the same bank but when you walk into the branch and do your banking, it will be a completely new experience.”

He gestures to the plate of kuih keria between us, and over a quick snack break we alter the direction of our conversation a little bit. The Perak boy talks animatedly about growing up in Teluk Intan — yearning to move to KL one day — and his subsequent start in what was once called Commerce Bank, witnessing the company grow from what it was to the successful behemoth it became at the point of his leaving. Apparently, he had been head-hunted for other roles before, but it was the specific challenge that the group CEO role at AmBank offered that convinced him to make the switch.

“I am definitely a different person from who I was when I first joined,” he says, thoughtfully. The intense first few months at work undoubtedly had a role to play in the change in his personality, although he enjoyed it immensely, especially when ­positive feedback from his initiatives started to pour in.

Sulaiman and his wife, whom he met while at university in Australia, have two sons and recently stepped in to raise another two — his nephews, who looked to him for support when their mother passed on after battling cancer. He speaks of them and their arduous journey with deep affection, and describes his duty to his late sister as “setting the boys on the right path for their future”. Much like what he has done for AmBank — clearly, this is something he is good at.

Which leads to my last question: What does he think is the Sulaiman stamp, the mark he has left on the company?

“This bank can be successful,” he states. “To me, I think it’s about charting a path in terms of where it can go, and having focus. I think that is something I have done, am still doing. Talking to people is important; to me, everyone in the company matters, otherwise I need not pay your salary. Tea lady or driver, investment banker or branch manager — everybody has a role and everybody has the ability to help each other. This power collaboration is what I want to push for. I hated not having clarity and not being involved in the plan for the future, so providing each person with that clarity is important to me. And that is what, eventually, will make this bank successful.”