Teh Hong Piow has been in Malaysian banking longer than there has been a Malaysia.
“I will never forget August 6, 1966, when Public Bank officially commenced business in Kuala Lumpur,” he says.
It started out in a three-storey building; today its 36-storey office headquarters oversees 265 branches nationwide. It has never not been profitable; having crossed a billion ringgit profit for the first time in 2000, it increased that figure sevenfold by 2017.
“Starting a bank, by any measure, is daunting,” he says.
But even back then he had built a strong career at OCBC in Singapore and Malayan Banking, a forerunner of today’s Maybank.
“I was not totally venturing into the unknown. For me, it was an exhilarating adventure from the beginning.”
Why launch a bank? “I was torn between a successful career and starting all over again,” he says. “But the pull was strong to realize my dream, to stretch my potential, to venture into what I saw as a blue ocean while addressing the needs of the public for banking services.
“I made sure I did my homework and was very careful to first establish a good business network as the bank’s support structure.”
A strong team helped. “I would also like to believe that luck favours the prepared.”
Public Bank is best known today as a relentlessly stable, well-run, low-risk institution – you might call it dull and mean it as a compliment. It was set up with prudence in mind. He remembers being told by then central bank governor Tun Ismail Ali: “If you want to be a banker, be a banker and nothing else.” It hit home.
Today, asked how he wants the bank to look in 20 years, he cites the same values: “To live its mission of being the most efficient, profitable and respected premier banking group in Malaysia… guided by its time-tested practices of prudent banking, strong corporate governance and sound risk management.”
His time in charge has covered the entire history of the country as an independent state, through race riots, regional and global crises, and most recently a pivotal and sometimes volatile change of government.
“Malaysia has gone a long way to develop into a vibrant and competitive economy in the international marketplace today,” he says.
He supports efforts by the new government to push for greater governance and economic reform.
“These reform initiatives are necessary and pragmatic, as they are aimed to nurture and ensure long-term sustainable growth for the people’s wellbeing.”