Rajeev Kannan thumbed through the well-worn book and searched for the next bank on his list. The sun had already taken its bow, but the then 25-year-old was still bent over his desk writing introduction letters.

The year was 1997 and Rajeev had been a deputy manager at ICICI Bank for three years. It was a stable job but he wanted more. A friend recommended the city-state and gave him a book published by the Monetary Authority of Singapore (MAS) that had a list of banks that had set up shop here. So, every evening after work, with help from his then fiancee and now wife, he would pen a letter, fold it in half and gingerly place it in a fresh envelope. “E-mail was not prevalent then,” Rajeev laughs. He mailed 60 letters.

A month later, in February 1997, Rajeev made his way to Singapore. It was his maiden overseas trip. “I called about 30 of the banks I had sent letters to. Many said they didn’t receive my letter. Fortunately, some did and I secured interviews with eight,” the 49-year-old recalls.

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The most memorable was with Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) Singapore. While most interviews usually take place in stuffy boardrooms with an imposing oak table separating the candidate and the interviewer, Rajeev’s first encounter with SMBC Singapore was at Lau Pa Sat with the head of the Asia project finance team at the time. “He asked me to get my dish and he would get his.” Rajeev bought nasi lemak. He thought it intriguing.

He returned to Mumbai after a month in Singapore and expectantly waited for offers to come in. Three banks got in touch: two large European ones and SMBC Singapore. Most would have opted for one of the former, but Rajeev was a calculated risk-taker. SMBC Singapore was a tiny, emerging bank and the team Rajeev was joining comprised only three people.

“They were nobodies at the time. But I asked myself: which is better? Should I join a big team or take the risk with a small one where there is an opportunity to grow? I always want to put myself out there and see what I can achieve instead of being part of the flow in a big organisation.”

The Cream Rises To The Top

This has been a constant theme in his career with SMBC. Rajeev has been with the bank for over 20 years now, rising through the ranks to his current position as its managing executive officer handling 10 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. At each stage, he would always ask himself: what would challenge him the most?

Two years after Rajeev joined in 1999, he told his superiors that he wanted to grow the advisory business in his infrastructure and project finance department. The three-people team rapidly grew. In 2006, SMBC was Global Advisor of the Year in global trade publication Project Finance International’s annual awards. It also won multiple awards for its financing deals. By 2012, the team’s bottom line had grown over 200 times.

His talent did not go unnoticed. In 2011, Singapore’s sovereign wealth fund approached Rajeev and his team to work on a feasibility study for a long-term financing entity that would help companies here to have access to global funding. That eventually became one of the nation’s leading specialist capital firm. Rajeev still sits on the board.

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Rajeev is wearing a wool checkered jacket, from Etro and a cotton shirt from Brunello Cucinelli.
Rajeev is wearing a wool checkered jacket, from Etro and a cotton shirt from Brunello Cucinelli.

“Every few years, I’ve had the chance to do something beyond my core role and that has kept me going,” he says. So, when the opportunity to relocate to Tokyo to be a part of the senior executive team came up, Rajeev readily accepted. It was a groundbreaking move, not just for SMBC but for the entire Japanese banking industry as well.

Before Rajeev arrived in 2012, there were zero non-Japanese senior executives at the headquarters. “I was the first non-Japanese general manager among the three Japanese megabanks. I was a guinea pig!” What made the initial few months even more challenging was his inability to understand the language. The software, systems and documents were all in Japanese and so were the meetings, but Rajeev persevered. “I’m a fairly adaptable person, so it wasn’t a problem. Succeeding, however, was a tremendous challenge.”

Humility In Leadership

It’s safe to say that Rajeev more than made his mark during his tenure in Tokyo; after all, he stayed for four years. So, he was unfazed when the Covid-19 pandemic struck last year and rose to the occasion.

The first task was straightforward. The bank had to bolster its cybersecurity protocols as staff would be working outside a controlled environment. Plus, it had to issue digital and mobile devices to those who didn’t have the requisite equipment to function remotely. What’s more, Rajeev wasn’t only handling Singapore. He had nine other countries under his care and each had its own set of issues.

Another problem that reared its ugly head as the pandemic dragged on was motivation. “Everyone was stuck at home and I had to think of how to motivate the team, especially since I was new and had only taken on the role in April last year. I had to imbue in them the comfort of knowing that the organisation was there for them, so they could feel safe while serving our clients.”

“We lose a small bit of the profits, but our clients benefit. Ultimately, we believe that if we can help them to reduce their carbon footprint, the world benefits. That’s the key to banking, right?”

Rajeev Kannan on SMBC’s vision for a sustainable future

It’s a trait he adopted from his father, who owned a chemical business. As a young boy, Rajeev remembers how his dad would take the time to speak to everyone in the company. “What stood out to me was that humility, empathy and the ability to connect with people is critical.”

And while a sense of normalcy has returned to the world, the pandemic has irrevocably changed the office. Companies are now considering the value of the physical workplace and rethinking the traditional five-day workweek. Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella said that “digital technology should not be a substitute for human connection, but it should help when there are constraints of space and time”.

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Rajeev strongly agrees: “The traditional mindset will never work now. So, we are preparing for a future where our employees can continue to work from home and also on a flexible basis. This will help working mothers or those who want to spend more time with their families.”

It’s a dramatic shift from the Japanese working culture, where face-time is often the most valued quality. Rajeev professes that the pandemic also made him realise how little time he spent with his wife and two teenage children. The circuit breaker brought all of them closer. They spent evenings playing board games while the weekends saw the family engaging in a communal activity. Rajeev is an avid cook, and makes everyone pitch in to make meals. “But my son always wants to do the least, so he always opts to set the table,” Rajeev shares, chortling. Of course, I had to ask him what his signature item was: “Chicken tagine. It’s a Moroccan dish.”

The Environmental Challenge

Another aspect of the future that Rajeev is excited about is sustainable or green financing. SMBC is way ahead of its time. In December 2005, it publicly announced its adoption of the Equator Principles, a set of common standards financial institutions apply to determine, assess and manage environmental and social risks in project financing. Even today, every project SMBC finances must pass these standards. It will also no longer finance projects that create pollution or destroy the environment. These include coal-fired power plants and deforestation initiatives.

Recently, the bank also openly committed to sustainability. It launched a 10-year SMBC Group GREEN×GLOBE 2030 plan – a sprawling vision covering everything from sustainability initiatives to social issues. The three Rajeev is most excited about are the bank’s promise to reduce its carbon footprint by 30 per cent, to invest 10 trillion Yen (S$123 billion) in green finance, and to educate 1.5 million people about sustainability.

Rajeev is wearing a poplin shirt, cotton linen checkered jacket and cotton chino pants from Brunello Cucinelli.
Rajeev is wearing a poplin shirt, cotton linen checkered jacket and cotton chino pants from Brunello Cucinelli.

In Singapore, SMBC, alongside eight other banks and MAS, supported the creation of the Singapore Green Finance Centre. Announced in October last year, it’s a research institute dedicated to green finance research and talent development.

SMBC is also launching a series of new green products for its Asian customers. One that’s particularly unique is its green loans. The idea is simple. If clients meet predetermined sustainability metrics, they enjoy certain financial benefits on their loans. “We lose a small bit of the profits, but our clients benefit. Ultimately, we believe that if we can help them to reduce their carbon footprint, the world benefits. That’s the key to banking, right? It should not be a transactional relationship, but a mutually beneficial one. We believe in a long-term approach where everyone wins.”

With so much on his plate, Rajeev would be forgiven for occasionally taking his foot off the gas pedal. But the man is no quitter. I asked what his secret to spinning so many plates like a circus performer and ensuring none dropped was. He ponders for a while before replying: “You have to think big, but always start small. Although success can sometimes be binary, you have to take incremental steps towards your goal.” Just as Rajeev did over 20 years ago as a young man in Mumbai with big dreams of working in a bank overseas. Start small. Write a letter. You never know what that could lead to.