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Nine ways to make it to MD at a Singapore bank

Made it to MD

Finance professionals in Singapore are increasingly trying to join the city state’s local banks, DBS, OCBC and UOB. The three firms have been expanding their headcount over the past year and have typically been less willing to cut jobs than their global rivals.

But what does it take to make the upper ranks at these banks?

We trawled through public profiles of managing directors at Singapore banks and come up with a few trends that could set you on the right path for reaching MD yourself.

1. Don’t work for rival Singapore bank

Either build your career at one Singaporean firm – group head of research and Asian insights office Timothy Wong is a 23-year veteran of DBS, for example – or work for international banks before going local. A surprisingly low number of MDs have done stints at rival Singaporean firms, according to a search of their public profiles. Only 3% of DBS MDs have worked for OCBC or UOB, for example.

2. Do work for Citi, Stan Chart or HSBC 

These three banks, which all have a strong Asian businesses, are the top former employers for Singapore bank MDs. 16% of MDs from DBS, OCBC and UOB collectively have previously worked for Citi, while 11% and 6% have had jobs at Standard Chartered and HSBC respectively. Singapore banks have stepped up their hiring from global competitors this year, say recruiters. Just last week Shee Tse Koon joined DBS from Stan Chart as group head of strategy and planning.

3. Attend a US business school or the National University of Singapore

The profiles of Singaporean bank MDs are littered with MBAs and most are from US rather than Asian or European schools. Arjay Gavankar, head of analytics and innovation at DBS Digital Bank, has an MBA from Harvard Business School, for example. When it comes to undergraduate degrees, however, the National University of Singapore is by far the most popular choice – a full 20% of the MDs have NUS degrees.

4. Don’t work in investment banking

Want to leave a bulge bracket for an IBD job at a Singaporean bank? This would appear a difficult move – a mere 2% of Singapore bank MDs class themselves as working within an investment banking division. None of the three firms appears in the top-10 firms for Southeast Asia M&A revenues for the first half of 2016, according to Dealogic. And only DBS features in the league tables for ECM and DCM (in 6th and 2nd places respectively).

5. Do work in fintech or digital banking

Global banks may be offshoring some IT functions into lower-cost locations, but Singaporean banks are more firmly rooted in the city state – their IT staff and the MDs they reported into are mainly based in Singapore. Not all their fintech MDs are poached from other banks, however – DBS internet banking MD Sandeep Lal, for example, was formerly the head of PayPal in Asia.

6. Try to get a job offer in private banking

Singapore firms are becoming larger players in Asian private banking – OCBC subsidiary Bank of Singapore has the 5th largest regional headcount in the sector, while DBS ranks 7th – and now have the resources to recruit and retain MDs from European private banks.  Yeng Fang Ong, head of private banking at UOB, was poached from Julius Baer, while Marc Lansonneur, head of investment products DBS, decided to stay on board when the Singaporean firm took over the Asian wealth arm of his then employer, Societe Generale, in 2014.

7. It’s ok if you’re an expat, especially at DBS

The Singapore government is encouraging employers to hire more locals and many MDs are indeed Singaporeans, but there’s also a good sprinkling of foreign talent among the upper legions, especially at DBS – widely seen as the most ‘international’ of the three home-grown banks. Michael Power has been a operations MD at DBS for five years, while Sandra Stonham, MD of technology and operations, has been with the firm since 2008. Meanwhile, in June UOB hired Deutsche Bank’s Graeme Greenaway, an Australian, as MD for service management, group technology and operations.

8. But be based in Asia already

MD-level relocations from the West are now rare – when Singaporean banks hire foreigners they prefer those already based in the city state or elsewhere in the region. And Asian experience isn’t only needed for client-facing roles. Neil Tottman, for example, an MD and COO of risk management at DBS, is an archetypal long-term expat, having held senior Asian roles at Deutsche Bank and HSBC since 2005 before choosing the Singaporean firm in 2011.

9. India is a better place to begin your career than China

China may be the key overseas growth market for Singaporean banks, but in Singapore itself the three firms employ very few mainland MDs. By contrast (and even excluding roles directly servicing Indian clients), several MDs have graduated in India and/or begun their banking careers there. Yazad Cooper, group head of management accounting and analytics, started out at KPMG India in 1994, while his colleague Vivek Batra, head of sales, global transaction services, studied at the Indian Institute of Management in Calcutta. Most MDs are, of course, Singaporeans.

Image credit: Toltek, Getty

AUTHORSimon Mortlock Content Manager

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