May 17, 2021

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OCBC appoints Helen Wong as new group CEO as Samuel Tsien retires, Banking & Finance

Fri, Jan 08, 2021 – 5:56 PM UPDATED Fri, Jan 08, 2021 – 11:02...

Fri, Jan 08, 2021 – 5:56 PM

UPDATED Fri, Jan 08, 2021 – 11:02 PM

O39 has appointed Helen Wong as its new group chief executive officer (CEO) from April 15.

Ms Wong takes over from Samuel Tsien, who will retire after 14 years with the bank, nine of which were as group CEO, said the lender in a statement on Friday. Having significantly built the OCBC franchise into a “much more diversified and resilient” business, Mr Tsien will retire on April 14.

Ms Wong will be the first female CEO of OCBC and also the first woman to head a Singapore bank.

In a report late on Friday, Citi said it had expected Mr Tsien to remain as CEO until April 2022 to guide OCBC through the post Covid-recovery.

“The appointment of Ms Wong to CEO likely shows OCBC’s commitment to enhancing its Greater China franchise, a strategic pivot made in 2014 when OCBC acquired Wing Hang Bank. OCBC’s management philosophy has been one of continuity and clear succession planning, and it is notable that one of Ms Wong’s key roles upon joining OCBC in 2020 was to co-lead a taskforce to review the bank’s strategy and operating model, something that would have taken on even more importance with enforced industry changes due to Covid-19,” said Citi analyst Robert Kong in the report.

“Investors likely will be curious whether the incoming CEO will have the same appetite for M&A as Mr Tsien appeared to signal back in 2019.”

Sanford C Bernstein analyst Kevin Kwek told The Business Times that Ms Wong’s appointment signals the bank’s continued focus on Greater China, given her decades of experience in the region.

Under Mr Tsien’s leadership, OCBC’s S$6.23 billion acquisition of Hong Kong’s Wing Hang Bank in 2014 was a “bold move” in line with his firm belief in the potential of Greater China and the bank’s role in it, “even if not all investors were in favour of it at the time”, said Mr Kwek.

“It would be interesting to see what (Ms Wong) can do to extract more value out of Wing Hang Bank’s franchise,” he noted.

Ms Wong joined OCBC in February last year as deputy president and head of global wholesale banking. She started her career in banking with OCBC in 1984, and was its first China desk manager.

OCBC chairman Ooi Sang Kuang said the appointment was the result of a “rigorous global search” for the best qualified candidate who embodies both the capability to “redefine” OCBC’s strategy in light of challenges and opportunities and the bank’s core values.   

“We had looked at candidates internally in OCBC and within and outside Singapore before we agreed on Helen as the best qualified person. Helen’s experiences and expertise extend beyond corporate banking, Greater China and North Asia. She also ran a large banking operation of a global bank as the chief executive of Greater China, including Hong Kong, prior to joining OCBC. We are confident that Helen will be able to lead the OCBC Group to greater heights in an increasingly complex and challenging environment,” said Mr Ooi.

Citi added that investors have been questioning for some time whether DBS CEO Piyush Gupta is considering stepping down.

“Aside from being several years younger than Mr Tsien, Mr Gupta recently took the step of adding to DBS’s currently small India franchise by amalgamating Lakshmi Vilas Bank with DBS India, perhaps suggesting a greater commitment to large, high-growth emerging markets (India, Indonesia) for a DBS Group franchise that is still largely focused on Singapore and HK-China,” said Mr Kong.

“Succession questions could also arise for UOB as Wee Ee Cheong has been CEO since April 2007 and deputy chairman since March 2000.”

Shares of OCBC closed up S$0.41 to S$10.73 on Friday.

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