19 Oct 2012

People - OS Hotshot

Mr Piyush Gupta, Chief Executive Officer and Director, DBS Group

Think about where you want to be: DBS CEO, Piyush Gupta

Stanley Leong

Wouldn’t adapting to a new culture in a foreign city be in itself overwhelming, let alone simultaneously trying to change the corporate culture of an institution one has been hired to spearhead. But he wasn’t daunted, and this can-do indomitable spirit may be the essence to becoming the Chief Executive Officer and Director of South East Asia’s largest bank by assets, DBS Bank. Of the DBS Bank group, Mr Piyush Gupta says it was culturally “more bureaucratic, a little more government-department kind of culture compared to the more entrepreneurial and individualistic culture in Citi” where he had previously worked. “But in some ways, that proved to be one of the best parts of the job - trying to get a culture to change and adapt. It can be a lot of fun,” he adds.

Mr Piyush Gupta, CEO of DBS Bank

“It is never easy to make a move after that many years,” says the 52-year-old head honcho of the bank that was set up by the Singapore government. Prior to assuming his position at DBS, he spent 27 years at Citi which he said presented abundant opportunities for learning and growth. However the opportunity that DBS offered him was “very compelling”. “It gave me the opportunity to be the CEO of a bold listed company, which means that the buck stops with you - and that’s a very different position to be in. Apart from crediting DBS as a “good brand” with “a lot of financial strength”, he also cited the strong prospects in Asia.

Opportunities of the East

He walks the talk in his belief that the future, at least for about the next ten years, lies in this part of the world. His advice to Singaporeans working and studying overseas in the fields of banking and finance: “The opportunities are more likely to be better in the East than in the West”. “If you want to think about growth, if you want to think about making a difference, you want to think about working in growing economies, whether it is setting foot into funding, infrastructure developers’ needs, financing, that’s more likely to happen in the East. So think about where you want to be,” he suggests. 

Mr Gupta sharing his insights on financial opportunities in the region.

More recently in an interview with the Business Times on 18 October, Mr Gupta said the growth agenda in Asia was stable and that there were many opportunities to hire more people for the firm, forecasting an increase of up to eight percent growth to the existing pool of 18,000 employees. Definitely welcome news for overseas graduates in the near term. When asked his thoughts on the value of hiring overseas graduates, he replied: “Diversity helps. I look for people from all kinds of places because they come with different experiences and different outlooks. To me that’s the biggest advantage. When we hire, we take in people from all over the world”.

However as the banking industry evolves, Mr Gupta believes that the bankers of tomorrow will be “more of technologists than economists”, given the morphing landscape in the macro economy driven by technological changes. He elaborates: “The nature of technology is changing and it is also changing our industry. The way payments take place and people relate and do the banking, it’s changing profoundly”. Hence tomorrow’s bankers have to be able to embrace technology.

Getting The Change Engine Started

But given that it’s only been three years since Mr Gupta took over the reins of the 44-year-old bank, he’s surprised at the “substantial progress” the bank’s made in implementing changes in various areas, for instance, the culture of the bank. “There are some good things about the DBS culture that we didn’t want to change. It has got a big culture of teamwork and harmony; it is not a political organisation. So people like to work together. That’s an unusual culture in the banking and finance world. So I want to make sure that we preserve that sense of teamwork and harmony. On the other hand, I wanted to marry it with the energy and entrepreneurship…that means giving people a platform where they are willing to take risks, where they are willing to make decisions, where they are willing to be accountable for choices. So we are able to blend I think, which is a uniquely DBS culture,” he voices. Mr Gupta also expressed satisfaction that employee satisfaction is high, citing the Gallup survey on employee engagement scores for DBS Bank being in the 83rd percentile of companies globally. “Our clients are always telling us that they see a new energy, a new engagement with our people, and that must mean that the culture is changing,” he adds.

A Certain Paradise

Though the former Indian citizen swapped his loyalties for a pink IC only more recently in 2009, he first set foot in Singapore in 1991. Despite living in Hong Kong, Malaysia and Indonesia, it was never in doubt that he wanted to make Singapore his home. “I was going to put down roots and settle down here,” he says, recalling his plan in the earlier years. “I mean what’s not to like about Singapore?” 

Mr Gupta relating his zest for local hawker food, divulging his favourite haunts being the stretch of eateries along River Valley Road, near the Zion Road junction.

“First of all, from a pragmatic standpoint, it is both efficient and effective. Things work in Singapore. The infrastructure allows you to be effective in whatever things you do. You are not spending a large part of your time battling the infrastructure for it to perform. It makes a big difference to the overall quality of life. The other thing that I like about Singapore is that it is a very visionary country. So it is constantly thinking ahead - five years, 10 years, 20 years ahead, and constantly evolving to be able to keep in tune with changing conditions and changing paradigms. Very few countries have the capacity to evolve like Singapore.”

The ‘Soft’ Stuff and Soul

But Mr Gupta says it’s not just the physical, tangible “hard stuff”, but the “soft stuff”. “What I like about Singapore is that it is part of South East Asia. There is a warmth and sense of relationship, the sense of family and extended family and friends. These are still important in this part of the world. It is a great place for the soul and the heart, as well as it is for the head … You can get all kinds of good stuff – theatre, fantastic dinning, alfresco, the whole Marina Bay area is just beautiful, you get parks. People talk about security and education,” he lists.

Mr Gupta says there’s a general sense that Singaporeans take a lot of things for granted. “I tell my younger Singaporean colleagues and people who are disgruntled about the world, the government and the economy, ‘I should take you and send you to Delhi, Mumbai or Jakarta for three months. You go and live there and then you know what paradise is.’ You look and see how many city-states or even countries in the world have been able to achieve what Singapore has achieved - high growth rate, high per capita income, high social safety net, good infrastructure, good security, great connectivity, world presence.”

Here is a man who had choices as to which city to resettle in, but Singapore’s allure was irresistible, even against attractive offers to “run big jobs in London and New York. “To me, the trade offs were just never worth it. The overall quality of life you can get in Singapore in terms of living conditions and work conditions is completely superior to anything you can get in New York or in London.”

If you want to challenge Mr Gupta’s assertions and get updates on the banking sector in Singapore and the region as well as life's personal anecdotes from Mr Gupta, we invite you to meet him at the upcoming Distinguished Business Leaders series in:
- London (6 Nov 2012) and
- New York (7 Nov 2012) .
Registration now open for both these events!

By Stanley Leong