“I’ll share with you something one of my mentors said,” says Nestor Tan, chief executive of BDO Unibank. “When you’re approaching a merger, make sure you move fast. Because if you move fast enough, nobody will have time to think.”
Nestor Tan, BDO Unibank
He should know. BDO Unibank, perhaps more than any other large bank in the region, has transformed over the last 25 years.
Tan joined what was then Banco de Oro in 1997, and thinks of its evolution in stages.
“The first 10 years was just trying to establish ourselves as a good medium-sized bank. The capability, the foundations and scale,” he says.
At the time the central bank was trying to encourage bank consolidation and so was not allowing banks to open new branches, so BDO grew by acquisition at first.
“I would say the turning point was when we went public in 2002,” he says. “It was a small issue, but it opened us to the capital markets, to fund slowly what we needed.”
By 2005, it was roughly the sixth-biggest bank in the Philippines.
“Then we decided that being a niche player may not fulfil the ambitions of the shareholders.” It merged with the third-largest bank, Equitable PCI.
“That moved us from a niche player into a full-service bank.” It made them number two in the market. “But a very young number two. Sometimes I called us ‘Baby Hueys’. We were not yet nimble or strong.
“The key to a merger,” he says now, “is the execution of the integration, and the most divisive part is deciding who, what and which will survive.
“But the choice is normally between two right choices and unfortunately most people spend a lot of time trying to debate the pros and cons. We go with a cursory look, we decide and move to implementation right away.”
Building cross-functional teams immediately is vital too, he says, “to shake off the ‘us and them’ attitude.”
And then 2008 came and turned BDO Unibank into the number one bank “without us really trying” as others struggled. Now, it is by far the biggest, firing on all cylinders with 17% net earnings growth in 2018 and a record profit.
“We are embarking on the third stage of our development, which we call internally future-proofing,” says Tan.
In practice this means boosting tech, microfinance and insurance, among other things. They have an in-house phrase for it: “What got us here will not get us there.”