How to make DBS – the world’s best bank – even better

Head of Strategy, Transformation, Analytics & Research at DBS Bank, Lim Him Chuan his 22 years with DBS, the turbulent times, and the bright future of finance in the region
Lim Him Chuan, Head of Strategy, Transformation, Analytics & Research at DBS Bank shares his regional experience and vision for a ‘different kind of bank’

Few banks globally can match the recent credentials of Singapore’s DBS Bank. Since 2018, the financial institution has been named Best Bank in the World 2022 (Global Finance), World’s Best Bank 2021 (Euromoney), and Global bank of the Year 2018 (The Banker).

DBS was not just the first in Singapore but the first bank in Asia to receive such global recognition.

Founded in 1968, DBS now has more than 36,000 employees, and has just enjoyed its most profitable quarter, with net profits rising 43% year on year to SG$2.57 billion (US$1.9 billion).

An early adopter of technology, DBS has also picked up numerous digital banking awards and now considers itself as a tech company offering financial services.  As they say, “ a different kind of world calls for a different kind of bank”.

Driving that change and digital transformation is Lim Him Chuan, Head of Group Strategy, Transformation, Analytics and Research, where he works closely with the Group CEO Piyush Gupta and the Group Management Committee.

Prior to his new role, which he took up in April, Him Chuan was General Manager and Chief Executive Officer of DBS Bank Taiwan, overseeing a successful period where it was named Best International Foreign Bank in Taiwan by Asiamoney. 

Him Chuan speaks exclusively to Business Chief about his 22 years with DBS, the turbulent times, and the bright future of finance in the region.

You have more than 20 years of banking experience in Asia. How has the landscape changed in that time?

My first decade in banking offered a window into the Asian wave of growth, and Asia-focused banks such as DBS were able to capture the business opportunities coming out of that. 

In my second decade, I witnessed the digitalisation wave driven in part by the rise of fintechs. Banks that were more progressive sought to drive digital transformation to stay ahead of the competition but also to reinvent themselves and reimagine banking. For DBS, our brand promise of “Live more, Bank less” spoke to our commitment to making banking joyful for customers, enabled by digitalisation to make banking intuitive and invisible.  

In recent years, sustainability has become a key theme for banks, and it has become increasingly important for the industry to work with clients to transition to net zero. DBS recently published our ‘Our Path to Net Zero – Supporting Asia’s Transition to a Low Carbon Economy’ report charting a roadmap to partner our clients on their transition journeys.

Asia remains one of most promising regions for economic growth, and there remain rich opportunities for financial services. In particular, Singapore and Hong Kong, as financial centres in Asia, offer great platforms and ecosystems for both banks and non-bank fintechs to capture growth opportunities.

You have weathered many financial storms in that time – how do you cope with these Black Swan events? 

We are in the business of trust, and managing risk is a cornerstone of our business. Our risk management framework entails scenario analysis and stress testing to prepare ourselves against extreme events. 

That said, no amount of risk management discipline could have predicted events like the Covid-19 pandemic. It really boils down to the robustness and agility of the crisis response by each bank, underpinned by a sound business continuity management programme. 

At DBS, we learn from each episode and build the lessons learnt into the programme. We conduct regular drills and exercises, simulating various severe crisis scenarios to prepare ourselves for such events.

You just spent 5 years in Taiwan. What did the international exposure teach you?

I am really happy to be back home after five years in Taiwan. But that does not take away from the fact that my experience in Taiwan was insightful and meaningful. I am pleased to have had the opportunity to grow our franchise in Taiwan, but importantly, my time there helped me better appreciate the opportunities and challenges for DBS operating beyond our home market in Singapore. 

I also learnt that we may not always be able to apply wholesale what HQ does – it is important to consider the local context. I believe my time in Taiwan has sharpened my leadership style with greater empathy along what I like to call the five Ls:

  1. Listen better with intent and an open mind
  2. Learn and unlearn, with humility
  3. Link the dots together to create purpose and a sense of urgency
  4. Leverage resources with influence and moral authority
  5. Laugh, as a sense of humour is always important when the going gets tough

I believe that one cannot be a leader unless you have willing followers. So, my leadership style is anchored around how to create a sense of ‘HOPE’ for my people: a higher sense of purpose (H); ownership of people and business, from end-to-end (O); people-oriented with empathy (P); and everything fun (E).

DBS recently published its ‘Our Path to Net Zero report charting a roadmap to partner our clients on their transition journeys

Tell us about your role now, what does it entail?

On top of driving strategy and planning for DBS, my team also has a mandate around transformation, data science and ecosystem partnerships. While the team comprises professionals from diverse backgrounds and disciplines, we have a common goal of making DBS the ‘Best Bank for a Better World’, and we are collectively responsible for ‘ACE’:

  • Accountability end-to-end
  • Championing change and transformation
  • Enabling excellence to achieve sustainable outcomes

Part of your new role is about transformation – what needs to transform at DBS?

We have been on this transformation journey for more than a decade. We have achieved much, and it is an honour to be recognised as the World’s Best Bank seven times in the past five years by eminent publications such as UK-based Euromoney, US-based Global Finance, and Financial Times-owned The Banker. 

Moving forward, we want to focus on embedding horizontal management and agile at scale to drive outcomes; take employee experience and customer experience to the next level; and accelerate new business levers through Ai and ecosystems.

Our journey to redefine the future of banking and to deliver differentiated customer experiences continues, and our work is never done. We will remain focused on delivering strong earnings while being unwavering in our support for customers, employees and the community. Looking ahead, while the macroeconomic outlook is uncertain, we will remain watchful and nimble while staying ahead of the curve in harnessing emerging technologies and building a sustainable future.

    How is DBS ‘a different kind of bank’?

    We continue to stay true to our brand promise of helping our customers to “Live more, Bank less” by making banking seamless and invisible, but at the same time we are mindful that a world emerging from the throes of Covid-19 calls for a different kind of bank – one that is more technology and sustainability-focused. These are areas we know DBS can step up to the plate.

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    How important is company culture at DBS and how has that evolved since you joined in 2001?

    Many companies swear by the oft-quoted management adage that “culture eats strategy”, but at DBS we’ve stretched that notion in an ethos we call “culture by design.” What that means is having a very clear vision of the culture we want in the bank, then running programmes of change to shift mindsets and nudge behaviours towards that vision. 

    Culture does not happen by accident. It needs to be carefully shaped and nurtured. When we embarked on our digital transformation in 2014, we wanted to change the way we worked such that we became more nimble, more agile, more innovative – in other words, more like a startup, and less like a traditional bank.

    Our aim is to build a dynamic culture that embraces innovation, while future-proofing employees by equipping our people with digital skillsets. 

    To deliver customer service with a DBS touch and a unique brand of Asian service and came up with our “RED” ethos, which stands for Respectful, Easy to deal with, and Dependable. Our aim for RED was to have something that every employee at every level could understand and remember effortlessly, which in turns makes it easier to implement initiatives that bring this customer service ethos to life. 

    Under RED, we created cross-functional teams called PIEs (process improvement events) to take the waste out of operating processes and improve customer service. We initially set out to achieve 10 million customer hours saved through PIEs, but eventually achieved about 250 million customer hours saved annually. We have since evolved this into “customer journey thinking”, which entails having a deep understanding of the end-to-end experience of various customer interactions with DBS and relentlessly eliminating pain points. 

    How is DBS embracing sustainability? 

    At DBS, we have embedded environmental and social considerations into the fabric of our business via three sustainability pillars:

    In our Responsible Banking pillar, where we seek to empower our clients to be more sustainable, we materially accelerated our climate agenda in 2022, when we published ‘Our Path to Net Zero – Supporting Asia’s Transition to a Low Carbon Economy’. In our new report, we described in great detail how we selected science-informed decarbonisation pathways and set interim 2030 decarbonisation targets for a large number of sectors. As of today, this is one of the most comprehensive and ambitious sets of decarbonisation targets among banks globally.

    In our Responsible Business Practices pillar, which focuses on how we conduct ourselves as an organisation, we delivered on our commitment to be carbon neutral by the end of 2022 in our own operations and updated our carbon offset guide to further strengthen the governance and processes around the selection, purchase and use of offsets as the final lever to our operational decarbonisation strategy. In Singapore, we opened DBS Newton Green as the first net-zero-energy office building by a bank in Singapore in July 2022. 

    And in our Impact Beyond Banking pillar, which supports social enterprises and community causes as well as employee volunteerism, we launched a new Community Impact chapter under the DBS Foundation, which aims to equip the underserved with digital and financial literacy skills to face the future with confidence and enable communities to be more food secure and resilient.

    The Business for Impact chapter under the DBS Foundation expanded its flagship Grant Programme to nurture SMEs and help kickstart their transformation journey. We launched the Asia Impact First Fund, which will focus on scaling innovative and high growth enterprises committed to tackling significant social and environmental challenges in Asia.

    DBS Newton Green is Singapore’s first net zero building by a bank

    DBS now has offices across Asia, in Europe, the Middle East, and America – what are your expansion plans?

    While we are present in 19 markets globally, as a leading Asian financial services group, we are committed to supporting clients in this region. Asia holds a lot of promise, and we continue to believe that the long-term prospects of the region are compelling. 

    We are unique in that we have an established presence in the three key Asian axes of growth, namely Greater China, Southeast Asia, and South Asia. Our strategy continues to be anchored by our entrenched hub status in Singapore, while our regional footprint positions us well to capture growth opportunities.

    In the long term, DBS aims to be more deeply embedded in one or more of our four key markets outside of Singapore and Hong Kong – namely, China, India, Indonesia and Taiwan. While we are relying on digital expansion in these markets, our experience has shown that a digital-only strategy has been difficult to monetise adequately, and a “phygital” approach results in better customer selection and path to profitability.

    In the past three years, DBS amalgamated Lakshmi Vilas Bank in India, acquired Citigroup’s consumer banking business in Taiwan, and invested in Shenzhen Rural Commercial Bank. All three transactions will position DBS well for growth as we look out into the next decade. 

    Finally, how is a traditional bank like DBS embracing the fintech opportunity?

    We believe that the greatest opportunities for bringing the financial services industry to the next level lies in pushing each other – incumbent banks and fintechs – to bring the best solutions to customers. 

    We are guided by our proprietary innovation framework called the ‘Innovation Pyramid’ which provides the basis for all major innovations and ecosystem partnerships across the bank, helping clarify the processes, adding cadence and quality controls to ensure there is ambition. We leverage the Innovation Pyramid to galvanise our fintech innovations. Additionally, we adopt a two-pronged approach to engaging start-ups:

    • Outbound – problem-based: Where the trigger is a problem statement from the business against which we find a startup 
    • Inbound – opportunity-based: Where the trigger is an exciting startup solution that sparks our curiosity, and we bring them into the business

    We have a dedicated fintech team within our Innovation Group that runs a number of startup engagement programmes. Our flagship programme, Startup Xchange, was set up in 2018 to match internal opportunity statements to startups. To date, we have introduced and assessed over 550 startups from which we have conducted around 65 proof of concepts and over 20 which have been deployed within our ecosystem.

    We found this engagement approach highly effective and have since extended a version this model to the sustainability space. In 2020, we introduced the Sustaintech Xcelerator together with our partners to accelerate the development of climate tech solutions that can help businesses reduce their carbon dioxide and greenhouse gas emissions at a faster rate.

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