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The ultimate people person: Renato de Guzman

Renato de Guzman ends an illustrious banking career with his most audacious achievement: creating a world-class Singaporean private bank.

Whenever Renato de Guzman steps onto a golf course, he makes a small bet with the person he’s playing against. It’s not greed that drives this ritual. The veteran banker takes competition in any form seriously, whether it’s on the green or in the boardroom.

“I don’t like losing, even if it’s $10. Golf, in a way, is like work: You develop a strategy and manage your game. You spend five hours concentrating; you don’t want to lose at the end of it.

“You need the bet to keep you focused, to help you minimise your score. Without something at stake, you feel like you don’t need to be so serious in the game,” says the 64-year-old, who has been chief executive at Bank of Singapore (BOS) since 2010 until this January, when he stepped down. De Guzman – or Bing, a nickname given by his family when he was younger and how his staff and friends refer to him – currently holds the title of senior adviser at BOS, but will retire next month.

And in this banking game that de Guzman has owned for the last 38 years, what’s at stake isn’t just billions of dollars in assets under management.

It is also, and perhaps more importantly so, about safeguarding a legacy that has seen him raise the profile of Singapore’s wealth management sector and earn recognition from peers at rival financial institutions.

In a career of many highs, perhaps the loftiest is the last before his retirement: helping grow the assets under management at BOS from a modest US$23 billion (S$31 billion) to over US$50 billion in less than five years.

On his watch, BOS has received a slew of industry honours, most notably Outstanding Private Bank in Southeast Asia 2014 by leading journal for the global wealth management industry Private Banker International, as well as Best Private Bank in Singapore from regional financial publication Asian Private Banker for four consecutive years since 2011.

He himself was named Private Banker of 2014 by Asian Private Banker this January. This follows his recognition by Private Banker International as Outstanding Private Banker in the Asia-Pacific last year.

He’s the nice guy made good in a game full of aggressive players. Talk to anyone at the BOS headquarters in Market Street, and the consensus is that de Guzman’s success is as much due to his sharp business acumen as it is to his openness and friendliness to both clients and staff.

When we met for the first time during our photo shoot early last month, he came across as down-to-earth and extremely polite. When the hairstylist parted his hair differently from his norm, which is down the middle, de Guzman asked: “Can we revert to my usual? People may not recognise me like that.”

But this pleasant disposition belies a passionate drive to succeed at whatever job he has been hired to do.

When he retires next month, Renato de Guzman will be able to spend more time with his son, Franco; wife, Kathy; and daughter, Amanda.
When he retires next month, Renato de Guzman will be able to spend more time with his son, Franco; wife, Kathy; and daughter, Amanda.

Banking in his Blood
After graduating from Ateneo de Manila University with a Bachelor of Science in Management Engineering and obtaining a Masters in Business Administration from Katholieke Universiteit Leuven in Belgium, a pragmatic de Guzman chose to become a banker, simply because it offered good prospects for progression.

He rose quickly through the ranks, first at Filipino investment bank Bancom International where he started his career in the 1970s and later at Banque Nationale de Paris, where he headed business development in the corporate banking division. After 13 years, he moved to Dutch bank ING in 1990 as country manager for investment banking. In 2000, he finally moved to private banking, where he would make his biggest impression on the Asian financial sector.

Tasked to start ING Asia Private Bank (IAPB) in Singapore, he grew the business that, in hindsight, was a warm-up to his stint at BOS. Under his leadership, IAPB achieved a 40.6 per cent compounded annual growth in earning assets under management from 2002 to 2007, and 47.6 per cent compounded annual growth in revenues in the same period. The chief executive also led the integration of ING’s four different private banking units in the region into one cohesive whole. These achievements saw him receive the ING Leadership Award in 2005 for successfully turning around IAPB’s businesses in Asia.

By the end of 2007, just before the global financial sector was to be hit by one of its worst crises ever, IAPB boasted one of the highest growth rates in the global banking industry and had attained an asset base of US$26 billion.

Starting and growing a business from scratch seemed to be what he excelled at, and enjoyed the most, about the banking business. “Building a business is actually very challenging, but I enjoyed doing that. It’s about how pieces are put together,” he says.

Building a Global Brand
Between these two periods of superlative performance at IAPB and BOS, de Guzman – like many others in the financial sector – would have to endure one of the industry’s darkest periods. During that time, the Singapore PR had far more at stake than a friendly wager on a golf game.

The financial crisis that blew up with the collapse of Wall Street giant Lehman Brothers would hit the global economy like a thunderbolt, drying up liquidity for markets. Banks retreated from taking on any risk.

But, while other banks imposed stricter lending conditions on their clients, IAPB bucked the trend by sending them a lifeline because de Guzman knew that IAPB would jeopardise its hard-won relationships once the crisis ended.

“We were more tolerant. We want to have these clients for life and if you are going to impose all these conditions, you will have no more clients.”

The strategy worked. IAPB came out in the end with its relationships intact.

Its parent ING, however, was forced to take a government bailout, which curbed the private bank’s appetite to take any necessary risks to expand the franchise. It was then that opportunity knocked. OCBC Bank wanted to beef up its private banking capabilities, in the aftermath of crisis.

“I welcomed it because I knew it would be difficult to continue, with ING having gone through the bailout. OCBC’s management left it to us to continue what we were doing, as they wanted to preserve the business model. They did not interfere,” he says.

OCBC acquired IAPB in October 2009 for US$1.5 billion, thus more than tripling the former’s private banking assets to US$23 billion. De Guzman was named CEO of the newly created Bank of Singapore, so named to leverage on the city state’s reputation for financial prudence and growing expertise in wealth management.

“After the crisis, you’d want an Asian bank that is safe, well capitalised and located in a well regulated environment. From that point of view, the choices were very few so we stood out.”

As new players from Europe flooded Asia in search of wealth in this prosperous region, de Guzman recognised the need to grow the bank’s assets in double quick time, or risk losing out to its rivals. “The industry was changing and costs were increasing, so you needed to have a certain scale to grow,” he says.

He was proven right, as smaller players without the necessary scale either exited Asia or were swallowed up by bigger rivals in recent years, such as DBS Bank’s acquisition of Societe Generale Private Banking Asia and Julius Baer’s purchase of the Bank of America Merrill Lynch’s private banking business outside of the US.

Meanwhile, BOS’ AUM crossed the US$50 billion mark at the end of last year, and staff strength has expanded by 60 per cent since 2010 to over 1,000 around the world.

“I don’t like losing, even if it’s $10. You need the bet to keep you focused.”

Human Relations
Many also credit the bank’s success to de Guzman’s open leadership style, willingness to mentor subordinates and knack for identifying and grooming talent. So renowned are his people management skills that his rivals are unabashed about his ability to lead.

“All I can say about Bing is that he’s got a loyal following of people in Singapore. It’s very hard for us to recruit from his team,” said Ravi Raju, Deutsche Bank’s head of asset and wealth management, the Asia-Pacific, during the Asian Private Banker Awards where de Guzman was named Private Banker of the Year 2014.

“My style is quite open,” de Guzman says. “I like to listen and I’m approachable. I like being in the trenches and helping others succeed. I’m able to do that because I appreciate the kind of work they go through, I can empathise with them.”

He adds: “But you also have to be tough. Someone who is not performing can drag others down, so you need to know when to cut him off.”

He believes that being able to deliver on promises is key to being a successful private banker, coupled with an ability to attract and lead people. Being proficient in various banking disciplines, from investments and treasury to credit and account management, is also key to servicing the UHNW set.

“What I find most rewarding is being able to protect the interests of clients. If you earn their trust, they will be happy to stay with you.”

“I like being in the trenches and helping others succeed.”

Looking Back, and Ahead
What de Guzman won’t miss about the job when he retires next month is the 150 to 200 e-mail messages he receives daily, many of them requiring him to deal with problems.

He also admits that the business has become a lot tougher in recent years, due to rising costs, more onerous regulations and a fast-changing competitive environment as new technologies emerge.

Maintaining humility is one thing he holds dear. “Those that I really admire are those who built their businesses from scratch, selling their wares on a bicycle. I have heard a lot of amazing stories. They are now very successful but they don’t forget where they come from.”

He will return to the Philippines in July and will help out with his family’s health-care and education businesses, which are currently run by his two older siblings who, he quips, still take him as their little brother.

“To them, I’m always the youngest, so I shouldn’t be able to tell them what to do,” he says with a chuckle. Now armed with years of experience in building businesses and helping other entrepreneurs in growing theirs – not to mention a slew of awards – perhaps they will see him in a different light.

There will also be time for family and leisure, something that wasn’t so readily available as a full-time banker. His daughter is reading law in Melbourne, while his son is interning at, where else, BOS.

And of course, he will also get to carry on in his 20-year love affair with the game of golf.

Asked what his biggest achievement is, and he says he believes that it is his role in elevating the perception of a Singaporean bank to a world-class player in the global financial sector.

He offers an anecdote of a Singaporean who turned down an offer from a local bank to join a foreign one. Years later, the foreign entity was acquired by the same local bank she had rejected.

He says: “Many people wouldn’t have believed that a local bank could be on a par with big international banks, but we managed to changed that perception at BOS.

“Just look at the number of relationship managers that have joined us. It is very hard to take talent away from us.”