Corporate: Up close and personal with Nazir

-A +A

It has been quite a week for banker Datuk Seri Nazir Razak.

He was in Hong Kong to receive the prestigious Lifetime Achievement Award from FinanceAsia magazine on Sept 4. And last Wednesday was the launch of Menara Bumiputra-Commerce (MBC), the spanking new 39-storey head office of CIMB Bank.

The building was designed to reflect the new CIMB Group’s “forward banking” promise and corporate values. Work started in 2004, and as the building was being constructed, Nazir also transformed CIMB into a regional banking force with a series of mergers and acquisitions of assets like Bumiputra-Commerce Bank, Southern Bank, Bank Thai, Bank Niaga, Bank Lippo and GK Goh Securities.

Nazir has achieved in a short five years what others normally take decades to do, which explains why FinanceAsia presented him with the Lifetime Achievement award at the young age of 42.

As he sat down with The Edge the day after the opening of the bank’s new headquarters by the Yang di-Pertuan Agong Tuanku Mizan Zainal Abidin, Nazir was in a reflective mood and made it a point to credit the people who he said had helped him to be where he is today.

And top of the list is his wife Datin Seri Azlina Aziz.

“It may be rare for someone to (so publicly) acknowledge the role of a spouse in something like this,” he says. “But if you look back at my history, what we have is a partnership.”

He adds: “If you trace back, it is important for me to appreciate her role as a partner throughout my career. She  has been a positive influence as much as a spouse can be in one’s career. It’s about the impartial advice a spouse can give. I find it very helpful in my career. Also, at the end of the day, when I go home, there is a sounding board for me (and) to give me an impartial view.”

The high-profile group chief executive of CIMB Group has always kept his private life away from the public glare, but with his dedication of his achievements to his wife, a small gap has opened for us to take a peek into it.

“Azlina has been my humbling conscience throughout my 20-year career, particularly in the 90s, when corporate governance in Malaysia was not at its best. There are a lot of grey moments in one’s career and I find her counsel very useful, especially in terms of making sure my main decisions are decisions that I can sleep with,” he says.

“She also comes from a unique history because her father was (Tan Sri) Abdul Aziz Taha, someone who was famed for putting integrity above career,” he adds. Aziz was the governor of Bank Negara Malaysia from 1980 to 1985. It was well known in banking circles then that he retired as governor because he did not agree with certain things his political bosses wanted him to do.                 
Nazir also credits Azlina with keeping his feet firmly on the ground as he rose through the ranks in the banking group.

“When you run an organisation of this magnitude, you cannot help but be affected personally by the power, influence (and) one tends to get carried away. I found that it’s very important for career longevity to always keep my feet on the ground. And, she always ensures that,” he says.

He adds: “If you look at the history of Corporate Malaysia, a lot of people fell by the wayside. They rise very quickly and they don’t last very long. They got drunk on power [because] it is intoxicating. You believe your own BS. Everyone is telling you you’re the best since sliced bread because it’s in their best interest. A partner would be able to [make sure you] keep your feet on the ground, remind you about humility, remind you about the fundamental difference between friends and opportunists. “

Nazir and Azlina studied at the University of Bristol in the UK. He studied economics and politics while she did economics and accounting. On graduation, Nazir went on to Cambridge to do his Masters in Philosophy and after dating for three years, they tied the knot in January, 1992.

“We were at Bristol together and started seeing each other when I went to Cambridge.”

She was with me from the beginning. When I was driving a Mini Minor, she was already dating me. I think she had faith that the Mini Minor would grow,” laughs Nazir.

Like most modern couples, Nazir says both he and Azlina worked in the early years of their marriage as one income was not enough.

“Then came a time when income levels were such that we could do with just one income and we decided that she would give up her job and I would continue,” he recalls. “At that point, she was associate director of Barings and I was manager of corporate finance. [Initially] it was not so clear cut as to who should continue. But academically, she was brighter than me.”

Aside from her first degree, Azlina also obtained a first-class degree in English Literature from the University of Exeter.

The couple have a son and a daughter.

When asked if he would like his children to be bankers, Nazir replies: “No. I’d like them to be whatever they want to be. When we first started off, there wasn’t really much choice financially. The financial equation came into play for that decision. We got married early so both had to work and select jobs with decent pay.”

When it comes to striking a balance between work and family, Nazir believes discipline is key. “It’s difficult I guess, but the important thing is to maintain discipline in order to keep sufficient hours. We work from breakfast to dinner. The question is, do you sacrifice dinner? I try to minimise sacrificing dinners with the family and not overdo [working on] the weekends.”

Joining as an executive in the corporate finance department of Commerce International Merchant Bankers Berhad’s (now known as CIMB Investment Bank) in September 1989, Nazir rose up the ranks in the bank to become CEO in 1999.

Nazir notes that his mentors in his early days at CIMB included Tan Sri Datuk Mohd Nor Yusof, Datuk Robert Cheim and Steve Wong, who was his immediate superior in the early part of his career. “These were the people who gave me strong career guidance.” 

What have been his most memorable experiences so far?

“The CIMB IPO [and] I guess, the most memorable for probably the wrong reasons was the [Southern Bank] tussle,” he says. CIMB was listed on Bursa Malaysia in 2003 and the 2006 takeover of Southern Bank was protracted and hostile.

Having been through the 1997/98 Asian financial crisis, Nazir describes the much hyped “worse economic crisis since the Great Depression of the 1930s” of the past 12 months as a walk in the park.

But while he believes the worst is over, he doesn’t think the good times will come back for some time as recovery will be slow.

So what’s the next mountain to climb for someone who has already won a Lifetime Achievement award at such a young age?  Ousting Maybank Bhd as the biggest bank in Malaysia?

Nazir had quipped to reporters at the launch of Menara MCB that his room has a good view of Maybank and that every day he will be “watching Maybank”.

When asked if that was his next goal, Nazir laughed it off.  “I was just kidding. It was tongue in cheek.”
“I’m very committed to building the regional franchise. CIMB has a long way to go. Today, to be No 1  by size in Malaysia is not important. We want to be a leading regional franchise,” he says.

So, watch out, the big boys in Southeast Asia — DBS, HSBC, Standard Chartered, OCBC and UOB.

This article appeared in The Edge Malaysia, Issue 772, Sep 14-20, 2009.