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Drinks with… CIMB Singapore CEO Victor Lee

The banking veteran shares his thoughts on servant leadership, the impact of Covid-19 on CIMB Singapore, and the virtual banking competitors.

In this new series, The Peak shares a meal or a drink with the CEO at his or her favourite eating or drinking place. CIMB Singapore CEO Victor Lee chose Maduro, a private bar at Harding Road.

“In today’s world, it’s not about making money. It’s about people. They are our most important asset, our only asset. Take care of yourself and your people, and everything else follows,” Victor Lee, the CEO of CIMB Singapore, says. We’re lounging at Maduro, a hidden cocktail bar at Harding Road, and Lee is contemplating my question about leadership while nursing a measure of the Lagavulin 16.

For the financial veteran, the Covid-19 pandemic provided one of the biggest stress tests of his leadership skills. The 51-year-old certainly rose to the occasion. The bank implemented split team arrangements and pushed for its back-end staff to work from home. It also promised its employees that it would sanitise their homes should they contract the virus.

Did it happen? “Yes, it did. I remember talking to the husband of a Filipino employee who got Covid-19. We sanitised their home. He was tearing because he was so touched,” Lee recalls.

At the start of the year, the bank also gave all of its employees a $1,000 stipend as a token of appreciation for the sacrifices that they had to make in the previous year. It may have cost the bank a few million, but it truly represented Lee’s views on leadership.

“Leadership is about servitude and stewardship. Beyond serving the bank’s shareholders and our board of directors and their priorities, I serve the colleagues I lead in Singapore. I remind myself that my position title is temporal, and unless our teams work as one well-oiled team, we cannot be successful. I serve the frontline and the frontline serves the customers. I remind myself that I am responsible for my people’s livelihoods,” he says.

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CIMB Singapore CEO Victor Lee nursing a glass of the Lagavulin 16 whisky.

CIMB Singapore CEO Victor Lee nursing a glass of the Lagavulin 16 whisky.

Wartime/Peacetime CEO

Beyond people, Lee had to grapple with a plunging bottom-line. For many organisations, the pandemic was sobering and destroyed years of hard work in a six-month period. In 2019, CIMB Singapore had put the finishing touches on a five-year plan it called Forward 2023. Six months later, in June 2020, Lee and his team had to throw the plan out of the window, and doubled down on the segments they were strong in. That meant putting more resources into sectors such as wealth management and treasury operations. But that also resulted in retrenchments, unfortunate casualties of the restructuring exercise.

Billionaire entrepreneur Mark Cuban famously said that everyone is a genius in a bull market. It’s when your back is against the wall do you find out what you’re truly made of. Lee already knew who he was over 20 years ago when he almost failed his A-Levels. Instead of buckling under the pressure, he put in the hours in his bunk while serving the nation.

Similarly, in his banking career, Lee forged a reputation of being the fixer. He repositioned divisions, corrected courses, and always delivered results.

Ben Horowitz once wrote in his book The Hard Thing About Hard Things that there were two kinds of business leaders: wartime and peacetime CEOs. “Wartime CEOs know that sometimes, you have to roll a hard six,” Horowitz wrote. Listening to Lee document the challenges of leading the bank in the past year made me realise he was the quintessential wartime CEO. He had to roll sixes so many times in the past year, and he loved it. “I enjoyed the challenge of leading the bank during Covid-19,” Lee professed.

The proof of the pudding is in the eating. CIMB Singapore’s December 2020 results were just as good as December 2019, a stunning resurgence. In Malaysia, where Lee is the CEO, Group Commercial Banking, the bank won the Best SME Bank at the 2020 Global Business Outlook Awards. Lee also won the Banking Executive of the Year at the SBR Management Excellence Awards 2020.

(Related: Wee Teng Wen of The Lo & Behold Group on leadership during a crisis)

One of Victor Lee's favourite drinks is the Lagavulin 16.

One of Victor Lee’s favourite drinks is the Lagavulin 16.

What Lee Thinks About Virtual

There is another threat emerging in the distance. Last year, the Monetary Authority of Singapore awarded four digital banking licenses. Lee shared the CIMB group considered throwing their hat into the ring too, but decided against it after much consideration. “We thought putting up paid-up capital of $1.5 billion for a small market worth about $5 billion was risky,” Lee shares. While he is wary of them, he believes that the four digital banks, once fully operational, won’t be eating into CIMB Singapore profits. The reason is simple: “We are still in the growth stage. We’re not trying to protect our turf.”

One turf Lee is expanding is home. When he once used to travel extensively around the region for work, Lee now spent a lot more time with his family, a silver lining in an otherwise disastrous year. He jokes, however, that his children keep bugging him for more Robux, the primary virtual currency used in Roblox, a popular online game platform.

The Lagavulin 16 only comes out when the kids are in bed. Then Lee hops back to work. He’s still in the trenches, fighting to save his other family, the ones at the bank. He’s enjoying every minute though.

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