Bahren Shaari on the Drive to Make Bank of Singapore the Private Bank of Choice in its Key Markets
Bahren Shaari needs little introduction. He has been Chief Executive Officer of Bank of Singapore, a subsidiary of OCBC Group, since 2015. Hubbis met with him in Singapore recently to discuss the evolution of private banking in Asia and how he is developing Bank of Singapore’s competitive edge. We found a private bank leader who is just as passionate and committed about the bank as he was when we last spoke with him for an extended interview back in 2018. And someone who is just as affable as before. Offering a wide-angle perspective, Bahren explained that he remains committed to building the bank’s talent, that he remains determined to deliver high-quality services and advice and to ensure that the products, and ideas are all as client centric as possible. He is also evidently consistent in his vision of an organisation that aspires to be a leading protagonist in the world of private banking, that aims to build genuine and lasting client relationships, and that is also enhancing capabilities with the best digital technologies available.
Bahren opens the discussion by acknowledging that the pandemic had somewhat weakened internal and external connectivity. “When you are not regularly in contact directly with clients and colleagues, those bonds are understandably not as strong as they were before,” he comments. “As the pandemic recedes, we are going to spend a lot of time and effort reinvesting in the relationships, bringing people together. This is first and foremost a people business, and we need that regular communication and personal touch.”
He appreciates that things will not return to the way they were and that we will all likely compromise with hybrid working arrangements, but that Bank of Singapore needs to find the right balance, and so too the wealth industry at large. “The challenge,” he says, “is to operate in a hybrid environment, yet at the same time deliver the services and qualities that your clients and your colleagues expect.”
And Bahren’s perspective comes with deep experience. When named CEO in 2015, he was already with the bank as a result of the 2010 OCBC acquisition of ING Private Bank Asia, where he worked at the time, and OCBC then soon renamed Bank of Singapore, promoting Bahren to Global Head of Southeast Asia.
Many will recall that after becoming CEO, one of his early and major coups was the 2016 acquisition of the Barclays wealth and investment management business in Singapore and Hong Kong. With a CV that also includes roles as a Managing Director at UBS Wealth Management and as a committee member of Singapore’s Private Banking Industry Group, which shapes the private banking competency standards, he clearly has a remarkable array of experience.
Re-discovering the EQ in private banking
Distance - He adds that the distance between colleagues and team members since the pandemic struck had hampered the solving of problems and the creation of ideas.
“The more emotional element of the connectivity is not as strong,” he says. “And a reality from the client perspective is that wealth management has become more corporatised, whereas it used to be intensely relationship driven. The relationship side is still there, but things are more structured and more corporatised, I can say.”
Planning for the future
He says that we all now live in a new world in which people have become much more focused on estate and wealth planning and transfer, also on the value of the family office.
“There is a more professional approach,” he reports. “For example, people setting up family offices now incorporate robust investment policies and often external professionals to manage them, whether that is through IAMs, a key trend we have seen, or through multi-family offices. At the same time, private wealth is growing, wealth is transitioning from the older to younger generations, and all these factors are driving a more structured approach to wealth management.”
He says this represents a major opportunity ahead for Bank of Singapore. “We set up our family office services operation four years ago, and the momentum is definitely with Singapore and with us in this endeavour,” he reports.
He says the bank has been helping a variety of families in the whole coordination process, dealing with the Economic Development Board, and the Monetary Authority of Singapore, working with the tax consultants, helping make sure that the structures are correctly set up, setting up bank accounts with OCBC, and so forth.
“Clients like the fact that we are a one-stop centre of expertise for connectivity and for expediting these matters for them,” he reports.
Other growth areas for the bank are private markets and ESG investing. “These are at the intersection for the current and future generations,” Bahren comments. “People increasingly want to elevate their sights, to find a meaningful reason for doing what they do.”
Investing in the future
He says private markets can offer higher returns and are excellent assets for involvement in disruption and transformation, as 40 per cent plus of private market investments are linked to technology.
“Our clients and especially the future generations, connect to and engage with this, and through private equity, they want to be part of that,” he reports. “They want to be involved in businesses through direct investment, the younger generations more so than their parents and others in the past. As a bank, we see ourselves as participating at the crossroads of how past wealth was created and future wealth creation.”
Bank of Singapore does not yet offer clients access to digital assets, but through private equity opportunities the bank does provide indirect access via companies that are involved in the digital asset ecosystem.
“We are not in the business of advising clients on which digital assets to buy into, but we do work closely with some excellent managers for private market opportunities in this space,” Bahren explains. “And of course, there are also some great opportunities on other private assets in growth sectors such as software, healthcare and businesses that offer high impact or excellent ESG credentials.”
Three major wealth hubs
Bank of Singapore today has three hubs – Singapore, Hong Kong, and Dubai. “We are supporting the regions where private wealth is growing most rapidly,” Bahren says, “and the most dynamic markets are China, India and Southeast Asia. We can book in Singapore or in Hong Kong, and we have people on the ground in the three centres to connect to the clients and then connect them to different centres and regions.”
He explains, for example, that there is connectivity through the UAE to the major and fast-growth market of Saudi Arabia. SE Asia is expected to keep registering rapid economic expansion and is continuing to grow its technology sectors. For example, he notes that Indonesia is moving to the forefront for new technologies and new start-ups, with money flowing in from the Middle East to SE Asia, from SE Asia to India and so forth.
Teamwork and talent
Whatever the opportunities ahead – and there will be more – Bahren knows that without enhancing the talent in-house and in the wider industry, there will be shortfalls in performance compared with potential.
“This industry must invest in the talent pool,” he says, “and we are doing that. We are also seeing increasing support from the government as well, moving talent to the top of the priorities in Singapore.”
He maintains that professionalism is of paramount importance and institutions and individuals should be challenging themselves constantly. His view is that private bankers need to really understand the markets, the products, compliance, and the technicalities, and also have the right technologies available to support them. “And the bankers also need the softer skills to build the relationships and leverage their knowledge for the good of their clients and to build our business,” he says.
Expanding capabilities, building from within
“And within the bank, we need to make sure that we are building skills throughout all the teams, whether it is the RMs, the product specialists, the asset managers, or the technology teams,” he comments. “We do not want to rely on hiring from outside, as it is too expensive and not sustainable; we want to build from within as much as we possibly can. To do that, we are investing heavily in our people.”
He adds that on the technology front, there is a gap between talent and remuneration, driven by the incredibly competitive environment for hiring, with demand coming from literally every angle, including the numerous start-ups and well-funded tech ventures.
“We lose people to these new operations, as they are seen as exciting and alluring,” he says, “so we have to plug those gaps, build the talent base internally and offer the right environment for good people, which is a key area we are working on, but it will take at least two to three years to really develop that.”
This leads Bahren neatly into articulating his key missions for the foreseeable future. “People are the number one priority,” he says, “and that references back also to my earlier comment about promoting closer connectivity as well.”
He observes that from the client's viewpoint, investments are likely to be much tougher for the next one or two years. That in turn means it is going to be even more important for the bank to have the requisite conversations with them on performance, on managing market volatility and navigating the rising geopolitical instabilities.
“We need to be able to connect closely to these clients on the ground, and that is challenging in some markets, for example, Hong Kong where pandemic restrictions remain tight,” he comments. “The closer we can be to our teams and clients, the more significant a role as a private bank that we can play, including for the broader communities in which we operate, as well.”
The second priority centres on managing for simplicity in order to capture growth and scale without becoming over-bureaucratic. “We have many questions we are addressing in terms of how we approach our systems and processes to ensure we are efficient, compliant, that we provide the right risk management, and we are also incredibly client-centric,” he reports.
He says the bank is striving to attain the right balance of excellence throughout and all the way to the client. “If we can achieve that,” he elucidates, “and if we can make it all as easy and painless and as pleasant as possible for the clients, we are truly providing private banking. If not, then the digital apps will take over. Big picture, we want to make it easy for clients to do business with us and for our bankers to do business with our clients.”
He draws the conversation to a close with a remark that the pandemic struck just about the same time as the new Bank of Singapore core banking system went operational in March 2020. “Thankfully, the hardest phases of this transformation are now behind us,” he reports, “We spent the next several quarters fixing teething issues, and we came through rather well, despite the pandemic and the market turmoil in those early months,” he says, with somewhat of a sigh of relief.
“In hindsight, we have been incredibly lucky,” he adds. “We had to transform, there was no other option, and we made some mistakes, but we were lucky with our timing, as nobody would have started on this journey amidst the onset of Covid. But now it is all behind us, and we are sailing ahead. We must now be prepared to adjust our approach and to continue to be responsive to change at all times.”
Getting Personal with Bahren Shaari
Bahren is a born and bred Singaporean who has spent all his working life in the city-state. He attended the National University of Singapore, where he qualified with a degree in Accountancy. He also completed a senior executive programme at Columbia University in New York in 2014 and, before that, at the University of Pennsylvania, The Wharton School, where he completed the Advanced Management Programme in 2002.
Bahren's long experience in the corporate and banking world in Singapore has armed him with a world of knowledge and deep insights into business and people.
He has been with Bank of Singapore for over 13 years now, and CEO for the past seven-plus years.
Bahren was appointed to the National University of Singapore’s Board of Trustees on 1 June 2021. He also serves as a director on the board of SPH Media Holdings. Bahren is a member of the Council of Presidential Advisors and served as an alternate member from April 2017 to January 2020.
With three grown-up children, Bahren manages to find time to enjoy golf on his favourite Serapong course. He also enjoys cycling on trips with colleagues and friends to places such as Japan or Taiwan but has not been able to venture out on those types of trips since the pandemic hit.
Without the regular overseas cycling trips, he has focused more intently on improving his golf, he reports. “But it has already been a multi-decade effort, so I am afraid it is still a work in progress,” he quips.
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