BUSINESS LIFE: ON ASIA PACIFIC GROWTH & INVESTING IN RP

[PHOTO AT LEFT - Citi chief executive officer of Asia Pacific Shirish Apte: “As one of our key markets in the region, we have periodically increased our capital investment here. Our commitment continues to be very strong.” ]

MANILA, SEPTEMBER 9, 2010 (STAR) CRAZY QUILT By Tanya T. Lara (photo below)  - Citi chief executive officer of Asia Pacific Shirish Apte was in Manila recently and shared his insights into the future of the banking industry in Asia and why the Pilippines is an important market for the global bank.

As CEO of Citi Asia Pacific, Apte has direct responsibility for South Asia, including Singapore, Australia, and the ASEAN countries. Prior to his appointment, Apte was in charge of Citi’s Central and Eastern European region as CEO. His six-year posting in Poland was his “most interesting” experience in his 28-year career with Citi, describing it as a “fascinating experience when the central European economies were just opening and a lot of banks were being privatized.” He learned to speak the language, to quickly understand the Polish culture and its “very different banking system” and how to integrate Citi into the country.

Apte oversaw Citi’s growth in Central Europe during a time when emerging markets were growing fast. He was instrumental in Citigroup acquiring Bank Handlowy, Poland, in 2000 and led the merger. Today, he says, “We are the only US bank that has a strong presence in Central Europe.”

His appointment in 2009 to Asia Pacific comes at the right time as growth is moving towards Asia. And that, he says, is the biggest challenge for the bank.

“We have a very good position within this region,” says Shirish Apte. “One of the challenges for us is competition, everybody’s discovering Asia. They’ve figured out that this is a growth market. There are a lot of new entrants coming in. The challenge is to stay ahead of the competition. One of the big issues for us is talent. As these new banks come in, they want to recruit talent from companies that are already established. The challenge is to retain our people and to create a pipeline of good people as they come in. A lot of us grew up with this company, starting as management associates.”

A chartered accountant from the Institute of Chartered Accountants in England and an MBA holder from the London Business School, Apte himself started as a relationship manager in Citi India. He has worn many hats since, including senior risk manager in London, corporate finance head for CEEMA, including India, and is currently a member of Citi’s senior executive and senior leadership committees.

It’s not uncommon for local Citi executives to joke that other banks are using Citi as a training ground for the best people. Apte says it’s not only in the Philippines. “We do have the reputation for being the most prestigious bank young graduates can work at. This is the virtual circle. You build a very good business, you have a great brand. The talented people that you have, helped you do that. Once you have done that, you attract more talented people because they always want to work with the best. A lot of people that work for us don’t just see us as Citibank Philippines, but as Citibank Global. They know that they may start in the Philippines today, but tomorrow they could be anywhere in the world.

“There are a lot of us who are living examples of this — there are no ceilings at Citibank. You can go anywhere. It’s a true meritocracy. If you deliver, if you perform, there are no restrictions on how far you can reach. I think that’s truly remarkable about the company and that attracts people. They want to be measured on their abilities and Citi does exactly that.”

Excerpts from our exclusive interview:

As CEO for Asia Pacific, how involved are you in the local markets?

I travel a lot across the region and spend a lot of time with the people on the ground. I attend staff meetings, business reviews. I am based in Hong Kong, but spend a lot of my time in Singapore as well. These are the two big regional centers for us.

Our Asian footprint is second to none. China and India are markets that are always highlighted for expansion or growth plans. They are important to us but we also have very large and successful businesses in the Philippines, Singapore, Malaysia, Indonesia, Hong Kong, South Korea, Taiwan, for example.

We are present in 18 markets in Asia Pacific, and offer the full spectrum of financial services through close to millions of consumers. We also serve the region’s top local and multi-national corporations, other financial institutions, governments and their entities, and investors around the world.

How important is the Philippine market to Citi?

Very important and for several reasons. One is we have a long history in the Philippines. We opened in six countries back in 1902 — China, Hong Kong, India, Japan, Singapore and here in the Philippines. We’re one of the few foreign banks that have stayed continuously all this time.

We are proud of our legacy here in helping build the financial infrastructure of the country, which has included leading the development and growth of the ATM in the Philippines; the issuance of the first corporate dollar check; the development and implementation of the Philippine Domestic Dollar Transfer System, which Citi remains the sole settlement bank since inception in 1994.

As one of our key markets in the region, we have periodically increased our capital investment here. Our commitment continues to be very strong.

What is Citi’s outlook for the banking industry in the Asia Pacific region?

When you look at the banking sector, you can almost categorize the banks: there are the local banks, small as well as big players. Very localized, serving a domestic market. And then you’ve got the international banks.

We’ve got the advantage of being a very large global bank. I think Asian banks are going to become very big. They were the ones who came out best from the financial crisis. They didn’t have the same problems as other banks. Their economies came back much faster.

Which countries in Asia came out of the crisis faster?

Some of the economies that did go into recession, such as Singapore, Thailand, Malaysia, but they were down for just one or two quarters and then they bounced back.

What about the recovery for Citi globally? How do you account for that success? (Citi has repaid $20 billion in bailout money.)

All banks have had recoveries, no doubt. In our case, we did all the right things. It was a difficult two years. We raised capital, cut expenses, managed the balance sheet better, took out risks, reorganized the company, made it much more flexible, faster decision making. We did a lot of the right things over the last two to three years.

What’s your outlook for the rest of the year for Asia Pacific? And the Philippine market?

We published the revenues, about $7.3 billion.

The market here does take its cue from what’s happening globally. The equities have been extremely volatile. Sometimes, as you can understand, people do not do an equity issue in a volatile market. Otherwise, it’s a strong market.

You’ve been with Citi for 28 years. Tell us about your career in Citi.

Citi is one of those organizations where, without moving companies, you can do different jobs over the same time frame. I can’t even imagine the number of different jobs I’ve held here. It’s a fascinating experience. At different points in time, I managed consumer business and ran corporate banking. I used to come here three or four times a year, our training center is headquartered in the Philippines.

Citi seems to attract other banks to hire its people.

Because we have a reputation for hiring the best, for training them, for career development. That’s a big challenge, we keep showing our people that their future is here.

How far ahead are you of the global competition in terms of technology?

I tell you, the gap keeps narrowing because it’s the same technology. It’s not proprietary. It’s not like we invented Internet banking. If we come out with something today, either the competitors are already there or they will come out in two weeks or a month. I think the advantage is that we don’t have a very big, expensive network. Demographics are changing. People who used to live in a part of town are now in another part of town. The more flexible you become in terms of distribution, the better it is. We have to become more relevant to our customers. That’s the fundamental message. We are a service industry.

Banking executives are almost like ambassadors, you get posted at different countries around the world. Isn’t it hard on the family.

My wife is an art historian who specializes in contemporary Indian art. She has found her vocation. She’s good at it and she’s recognized for it. It doesn’t matter whether we live in Hong Kong or London or Poland — she is able to do this on the Internet. We have a 28-year old daughter who’s a lawyer. I think she looked at her dad and decided not to become a banker (laughs).


TANYA LARA IS ASSISTANT EDITOR OF
THE PHILIPPINE STAR LIFESTYLE SECTION.


Chief News Editor: Sol Jose Vanzi

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