Sunday, August 12th 2001
Life section

A few good men

At what might have been OUB's last shareholders' meeting last Wednesday, both chairman Lee Hee Seng and vice-chairman and CEO Peter Seah cried openly. They did so because they had given their lives to the institution and made it - Asean's fourth-largest bank.

LIKE all members of his 3,000- strong staff, Overseas Union Bank chairman Lee Hee Seng got one free copy of the book, Building A Singapore Bank: The OUB Story, which the group published in February 1999 to mark its 50th anniversary.

Copies of the book, which records the bank's five decades of challenges and achievements, were also presented as commemorative gifts to its corporate clients, loyal customers and associates.

Mr Lee, 74, who commissioned the book and personally saw it through from its conception to its publication, wanted extra copies to give to his family members and friends.

He paid for them.

He is that kind of a man.

The other board directors of the group took his cue and paid for the extra copies that they needed.

When Mr Lee first joined the bank as chief general manager in 1974, after being courted patiently but tenaciously for three years by founder Lien Ying Chow, one of the first policies he laid down was that the bank would cease the practice of recruiting relatives of its board members, management and staff.

For every three new job vacancies, Mr Lee would fill two with the most suitable candidates. The third would go to the best candidate from within the bank, if there was one.

Until Mr Lee came on board, Overseas Union Bank was managed very much like a family business, the way most of the small Chinese banks and businesses at the time were run. But trust Mr Lien to recognise in the early 1970s that the banking industry would grow more sophisticated and competitive.

The Government was forcing the pace. It revitalised the colonial Post Office Savings Bank and set up the Development Bank of Singapore. The latter was up and running as a public-listed company and a full-fledged commercial bank almost immediately.

Singapore was going to be a regional, if not international, financial centre, the country's leaders had decided. They wooed the world's major banks and finance houses to set up shop here, and also launched the Asian Dollar Market.

Suddenly, the playing field for the small local banks was no longer cosy, and those which did not see the change coming and could not rise up to the new challenges perished.

But not OUB.

Mr Lien was a visionary and resilient player. After all, this was a poor Chinese immigrant who had built up a successful business, Wah Hin & Co, before he turned 30. He founded Overseas Union Bank in the tumult of World War II, in the then nationalist Chinese capital, Chongqing, in Sichuan province.

When the war was over, he moved the bank to Singapore, opening its doors on Feb 5, 1949, in Raffles Place, up till then the centre of colonial business, where only Western banks and business houses had their offices. He was then just 42 years old.


TWENTY-FIVE years down the road, Mr Lien had found in Mr Lee a manager who would help him remake the bank into a professional outfit, even if it meant that some of his own family members, who were entrenched in it, would have to be let go.

Mr Lee, then 47 years old, brought to the bank institutional practices which he had picked up the hard way in the 20 years that he had slogged at the Malaysia Building Society Berhad in Kuala Lumpur, rising through the ranks from an accountant to become its director and general manager.

He returned to Singapore as chairman of the Housing Board in 1971, at a time when demand for public housing was such that it needed a tough and effective leader who could deliver cheap homes swiftly to hundreds of thousands of Singaporeans.

In OUB, despite the initial period of staff resistance and work disruptions, Mr Lee went about laying down the foundation of a professional institution, and prepared it for the introduction of computer technology. In the second year that he was there, he took the bank public.

I the late 1970s and early 1980s, he recruited top talents who had worked in international banks. It was largely from this group of recruits that today's core management team emerged, led by the charging, take-no-prisoners vice-chairman and CEO Peter Seah.

In 1995, Mr Lee became chairman of the OUB Group after Mr Lien retired at the age of 89.

I HAVE known Peter Seah since the days when he lived in a cramped Prince Philip Avenue flat with his parents, grandmother, five brothers and a sister. He was the third eldest brother. I was a classmate and close friend of the fifth brother, Victor.

I visited their home often.

Victor and I would go to nearby Jervois Road in the evenings to catch toads in the monsoon drains, to give out to our classmates for dissection work in our biology classes.

Peter was in the first batch of business administration undergraduates at the then University of Singapore, and if memory serves me right, by the time he was in his final year, he already had a job waiting for him at Harper Gilfillan.

Theirs was a warm, noisy household, with everyone talking in his loudest voice at the same time, and till today, I wonder how the siblings could study, let alone concentrate, in that environment. My friend Victor is a GP, much loved by his patients.

Peter, who will be 55 by the end of this month, joined OUB after cutting his teeth at Citibank, where, at the age of 28, he was made the general manager in charge of all the bank's branches and subsidiaries in Brunei. When he left the American bank, he was assistant vice-president in charge of the World Corporation Division in Singapore.

At OUB, he rose up the ranks quickly, moving from one division or subsidiary to another, troubleshooting, re-engineering work processes, and launching new products and businesses.

He was made the bank's president and CEO in 1991, after Mr Fock Siew Wah, who had held the post for three years, quit when his contract expired. Mr Fock, incidentally, is a director at DBS Bank, and is said in the market to have played a key role in the latter's planned takeover bid of OUB.

If it was Mr Lee who made OUB a professional institution, then it was Peter and his team who drove it hard in the 1990s to make it the fastest growing bank in terms of profit growth among the Big Four Local Banks.

In 1991, shareholders' funds of OUB Group were $926 million, and after-tax profit was $90.7 million. Last year, the group's shareholders' funds were $5.2 billion, and after-tax profit, $561.1 million.

When Peter first took over the helm, market pundits were pronouncing that the bank was an easy takeover target and would not last long.


WELL, it is still around, and Peter has seen to it that if it is to be taken over, it will be a very expensive buy indeed.

He was driven since 1991 by the challenge ""to prove to our critics, our competitors and the market at large that OUB was no pushover''.

As he told the press last Wednesday: ""The latest survey of the top 1,000 banks in the world has ranked OUB at 119th. We are only a few notches smaller than the other three banks... We are the fourth-largest bank in Asean.''

In 1997, the Hongkong based, international, Chinese language, business weekly, Yazhou Zhoukan, gave him the Business Achiever Award for Singapore.

SINCE I was given the privilege of writing the bank's commemorative book in 1998, I got to see Mr Lee and Peter up close and in action, and to have a measure of the two men. They are one generation apart, and if they do not exactly love each other, they certainly make for an effective, complementary pair, and are always united when it comes to the bank.

They have given their lives to the bank, so I can understand why they both broke down at what might have been OUB's last shareholders' meeting on Wednesday.

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