In this Q&A interview with 44 year-old married man and father of two, Christopher Loh, CEO & MD, of uab, the graduate of Nanyang Technological University in Singapore, discusses his years working abroad in London and Malaysia, where he took his first senior job in FS as a deputy CRO, and his plans to make uab the best bank in Myanmar & the touchpoint for everyday life via ecosystem development
Question: Q1. Please briefly describe your career trajectory, motto, and company?
Answer: A1. I was a partner and managing director with the Accenture consultancy working with financial services (FS) firms around the world across Asia-Pacific, US and the UK in order to transform their business and risk capabilities. I had a stint in London with a leading UK banking group before returning to Asia to build and lead a successful risk management practice and set up a technology and media start-up in Singapore. I also spent several years with a leading insurer in Singapore where I got the jogging bug in my spare time.
Prior to joining uab bank, I was the deputy chief risk officer (CRO) at RHB Banking Group based in Malaysia, and subsequently their group chief strategy officer, an Indochinese board member, and head of their international business unit.
I was appointed managing director (MD) and chief executive officer (CEO) of uab bank in September 2017. This my first CEO role. I am determined to live by my mottos of “walking the talk” and “being brave enough to lead and change”. I want to focus on key improvement areas, such as:
You can see from our 2019 annual report – coincidentally, the first time a Myanmar bank has fully adhered to the international reporting, accounting, governance, risk and public disclosure standards found in such a document – that we are progressing well as a relative newcomer versus our top three domestic rivals.
The bank saw a 277% rise in profit after tax over the last three years based on the compound annual growth rate (CAGR) metric from 2017-2019, as laid out in the report, which has also given us major kudos for governance and transparency amongst Myanmar banks.
This is the biggest profit growth evident among peers and, in addition, our Cost to Income (CIR) Ratio has fallen to 51.5% v other peers, who typically have an 80% ratio. This has been achieved by strong topline growth and well-managed costs and productivity. For example, our return on equity (ROE) at 18.5% is the highest among all banks in Myanmar. Return on assets (ROA) at 1.2% is also above the less than 1% that is common amongst other Myanmar peers.
Offering an ecosystem of services is the future
Q2. Where can your company grow?
A2. Customer base and market share are our top priorities. Relatively speaking, we are the younger bank in Myanmar’s leaders, but through the relentless effort of everyone over my three years in charge, I am confident that we can grow our market share exponentially, especially among the rising middle-class of Myanmar. Targeting them successfully will be crucial in our own success.
Q3. How has the FS sector changed during your career?
A3. The biggest difference compared to when I started out is the importance of technology these days and most especially the rise of financial technology (fintech) firms that either want to compete in niche areas or get scale via partnering with established banks that already have a customer base via their branch, online and mobile offerings. This is particularly the case with apps and services on the modern smartphone. It is where the ecosystem of the future resides and where the battle for business will eventually rage.
I love the move towards fintech because it enables and empowers people, bringing innovation to internal IT departments via partnerships, fresh thinking and new services – not to mention reducing running costs, improving compliance, on-boarding and, most importantly, customer convenience.
I love the fintech change, in all its forms, is bringing to the industry. Indeed, you could say it aligns with our priorities of the last couple of years which were to rebuild and restructure, and to rebrand, refresh and grow revenue. It can help all of these aims.
Fintech isn’t a magic wand. But it can be an important part of a bank’s over-arching strategy if you effectively align the technology with people and processes to achieve good outcomes.
Q4. How do you view technology: is it a threat or opportunity? Also, what tech excites you?
A4. It is both. I like to stress the opportunity side of tech. We value what it brings to us and have been gearing ourselves up to be one of the leaders in this area.
In terms of exciting technology and trends, everything excites me. There is the blockchain, fintech start-up partnerships, artificial intelligence (AI), open application programming interface (API) usage to share data aggregation and drive competition and co-creation, and so on.
But for now, for Myanmar in particular, I’d focus most on building a good basic financial ecosystem, using fintech. This will also help financial inclusion, which is a key issue for us as 70% of the people here in this beautiful country are unbanked. This is among the highest rate in Asia and it needs addressing. I am greedy to see good changes and evolutions.
Q5. How has Covid-19 impacted you?
A5. We have not cut a single dollar of our staff’s salary, or laid anyone off at the bank. In fact, uab might be the only organisation in Myanmar that is still actively hiring and creating new job opportunities.
However, I’m not complacent. This pandemic has brought unprecedented impacts to all of our lives and livelihoods and there will no doubt be difficulties.
But I do see opportunities alongside any black clouds, in whatever situation. This period of time may advance the need for and speed of broadband and mobile / internet connectivity, encourage homeworking (adding to this demand), and ultimately see an upsurge in digital banking among the middle class.
Covid-19 economic and societal impacts give us a chance to reset and reshape, and to set off towards previously unchartered territory. It could accelerate the adoption of electronic e-platforms by years. At uab, we are ready, agile and will pivot to meet all these challenges, turning them into opportunities where we can, to charge ahead faster and stronger than ever before.
I am proud of my supportive Board, resilient management team, and staff who have shown relentless commitment to serve customers, whatever the demands. I want to thank every ‘uabian’.
Q6. What other challenges does your company face?
A6. Aside from the ones we’ve discussed, I’d say lack of skills in the workforce is an issue. That is why the ‘Capacity Building’ that I referred to earlier is so important. It is a priority at uab. It’s important to help our staff and ensure knowledge advances – indeed this aim helps our industry overall.
That is why I’m so looking forward to the strategic partnership between the uab banking school and Frankfurt Business School. The collaboration will ensure the development of a complete line of learning & development tools. It will be launched after Covid-19 now, due to circumstances, but we have a memorandum of understanding and are very keen to get going.
Q7. Anything you would like to add or stress?
A7. I wish to leave a good legacy and hope to see uab remain as the Best Bank of Myanmar for the next 50 years [it won the country’s best retail bank trophy at the RBI Asia Trailblazer Awards -Ed].
I want to see ‘uabians’ evolve and become future leaders for the bank, industry and country. I want to see us live up to our company motto of “Leading Change and Humanising Banking”, steering every person here towards a better Myanmar.
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