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From HR to senior banker

Via Straits Times : After 4 decades at Maybank Singapore, Lee Hong Khim now mentors its bankers

After a career spanning four decades across virtually all aspects of banking, many would agree that Mr Lee Hong Khim now deserves to put his feet up.

But far from retiring, the 62-year- old has instead taken on the role of senior banker at Maybank.

It is an unassuming title for a big job. As the only senior banker in Maybank Singapore, Mr Lee is tasked with mentoring all the other bankers there and helping them bring in business and build relationships with existing customers.

It is a fitting role for a man who worked his way up the ranks through sheer grit and hard work.

When he graduated from university in 1977 with a degree in business administration, Mr Lee applied for banking jobs because that was where the money was.

“I was called up for an interview by OCBC. I had applied for a job in banking operations but at the interview they asked me, ‘Would you mind being in HR (human resources) or other departments instead? And I said ‘Sure, sure, anywhere!'” Mr Lee recalls with a laugh.

OCBC hired him as a trainee bank officer in the HR department – a far cry from the corporate banking job he had been envisioning.

But it turned out to be a “tremendous” opportunity that taught him a lot about how to deal with people, something that has helped him greatly in his career, he says.

He stood out quickly. After just three years at OCBC, the outgoing head of HR at Maybank Singapore saw his potential and recommended him to the bank’s general manager as her replacement. He got the job, becoming Maybank’s HR head at the tender age of 27.

Nonetheless, even as his career in HR was taking off, he was at heart still keen to become a banker eventually.

“At OCBC, I started the process of studying for a banking diploma and when I came to Maybank I continued to pursue it,” he said. “I also asked the general manager if I could move into banking if an opportunity opened up.”

Fortunately, it did. As Singapore began taking steps to develop itself into a financial centre, banks here began lending US dollars, British pounds and other non-Singdollar currencies to their customers.

Maybank wanted to get in on the action and set up its own so-called Asian currency unit, and Mr Lee was named its deputy head.

“It was a big break for me,” he says. “Of course there was a risk there as I had no experience in this area, but it was not as big a risk as going into branch banking, as the Asian currency unit was something new to everybody. It wasn’t customer-facing, but I got a grasp of what higher-level banking is all about.”

Again, Mr Lee stood out quickly. After two years at the Asian currency unit, he received his banking diploma and the bank’s general manager was convinced that it was time for him to take on the world of “true blue” banking operations.

“Some of our banking branches were having problems and I was posted to the Robinson Road branch, one of the worst-performing ones,” he recalls.

“Profit was not really growing even though the branch was in the Central Business District and there were some audit issues.”

“Wow, that was a real challenge. I worked hard. When the branches closed at 4pm a lot of branch managers would usually do a bit of housekeeping and scoot off by 4.30pm, but I stayed back to read the audit reports, study what needed to be cleaned up and look for new areas where we could do business.”

These areas included share financing – providing funds to customers who wanted to apply for initial public offering (IPO) shares, during a period when Singapore’s IPO scene was heating up.

Within three years, Mr Lee helped the branch go from being one of the worst-performing among Maybank’s 22 branches to one of the three most profitable.

Having proved himself as a banker, Mr Lee was then promoted to head all the Maybank branches in Singapore’s central zone, and, in 1992, he was promoted again to lead the bank’s commercial banking division.

When Maybank restructured its operations in the 1990s, merging its corporate and commercial banking units, he was made chief of the new division.

Eventually, he rose to head Maybank Singapore’s global banking operations, the last role he held before becoming senior banker.

Along the way, he mentored many others, including Mr Alan Yet, now Maybank’s head of consumer finance.

“My values, my style of management to a certain extent was influenced by how he conducted his business,” said Mr Yet.

“He’s a strong team player and he does things with the objective of long-term benefits to the bank and the individual. He had strong ownership of the total business of the bank instead of just working in a silo, which is quite common.”

Over the years, as he progressed through a stellar career, Mr Lee received several attractive offers from other banks looking to poach him, but he was never tempted to leave Maybank, he says.

“To me, if you’re happy in a job, you shouldn’t compare salaries. And this is a piece of advice I’d like to give younger bankers. If you don’t compare salaries you won’t get unhappy,” he quips.

“I was always happy here. I have good work-life balance, I’m recognised for what I’ve done, I have made friends here. If I leave I’d have to start all over again.”

In a way, he is starting over again now, in a role that is new to Maybank Singapore and where his performance targets are intangible and tougher to measure.

Being the over-achiever that he is, though, he has come up with some personal targets of his own.

“We are focused on growing our private wealth management business. We are new to it so we are still gaining traction. What we want to do now is not to go out for new customers but build on existing relationships,” he says.

Given that Maybank’s wealth management business is just coming to two years old, its customers have had to turn to other private banks for their wealth management needs over the years.

“It’s time now for us to convince them that our private wealth division is up to their standards and ask them to allow us to manage some of their wealth.”

To this end, he has been joining his younger colleagues at client meetings to help them build a rapport with these longstanding customers. He also helps younger bankers present their ideas for new business to Maybank’s management so that they can clinch deals.

In short, he is keeping himself busy at a time when most others might be thinking of retiring from the rat race.

“The moment I feel I’m not contributing it will be time to go. Or if the bank looks at me and says, ‘Hey we kept you around and you’re not value adding,'” he says.

“So I’ll have to make myself useful. At the end of the year, if people say, ‘Boss, you are useful and we want you to stay,’ that would give me some satisfaction.”

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