When Chu Chong Lim joined DBS 23 years ago, his chosen field, corporate banking, sat very much at the unglamorous edge of the finance sector in Singapore. Now an MD and regional head of small and medium-sized enterprises (SME) corporate banking, Lim says that today the sector is pulling in some of the best finance graduates in the city state.
“Until quite recently most graduates looking for financial services jobs in Singapore wanted to be investment bankers, then wealth management became more popular, then corporate banking serving large companies, and now SME corporate banking is becoming more attractive,” says Lim. “It’s a very competitive marketplace now so we are expanding our headcount, mainly via our associate training programme.”
So why the change in graduates’ attitude? “The SME segment of corporate banking is growing – and people like to be part of something that’s expanding. It also helps that SME banking is leading the creation of new digital platforms for bankers and clients, so that’s now attracting intelligent young people with a digital mindset.”
Lim says he enjoys the SME sector because “you always get to deal with the head of the company, the entrepreneur themselves – you get direct access to what they’re thinking”. “If you’re servicing a big conglomerate you might receive a call to tender for business, but SMEs turn to you for actual advice about business strategy. And because most of them aren’t listed so don’t publish their figures, you have to do more research into their plans yourself – site visits are common.”
Success in SME corporate banking is as much down to your personality and “attitude to clients” as it is to technical banking prowess. “It’s a bridge job – you’re the interpreter between them and the bank. You need to be comfortable dealing with different types of business owners across Singapore and speaking to them in the language they’re most accustomed to. So you must be humble – your clients mightn’t be large but they’re masters of their own universe and you mustn’t talk down to them.”
New career paths in the once staid sector are also opening up. “When I started out corporate bankers had quite one-track careers – you’d try to rise to be a boss in your area. Now we encourage internal mobility. For example, I’ve taken on a regional role as DBS expands regionally and more Singaporean SMEs look for overseas opportunities.”
Meanwhile, bankers serving SMEs or large corporates are increasingly moving into wealth management roles, helping to alleviate the desperate need for staff in that sector. “If you have strong enough relationships with business owners you could potentially serve their private wealth needs and make the switch internally – I’ve seen it happen,” says Lim.
And what does Lim think of the new crop of corporate bankers in Singapore? “Compared to my generation they’re better overall – better exposed to financial services theory. And they speak up more, ask more questions and come up with better ideas. In my day in Singapore we were a bit more obedient and less innovative. But because they’re better educated and more comfortable than graduates 25 years ago, they have to make sure they retain hunger and energy in their careers and don’t get complacent.”