Peter Seah to be new DBS Group chairman

By Gabriel Chen
20 March 2010

Veteran banker Peter Seah will take over from DBS Group Holdings chairman Koh Boon Hwee on May 1 – in a move regarded as one of the worst-kept secrets in years on the local banking scene.

Market speculation had been rife that Mr. Koh, 58, would relinquish his position to Mr. Seah, 63, after the latter was appointed to the DBS board last November.

Mr. Koh had kept mum over the rumours despite being pressed repeatedly on the issue by the media.

But in a statement yesterday, DBS said Mr. Seah will assume his new post after DBS’s annual general meeting on April 30. From May 1, he will be chairman of both DBS Group Holdings and DBS Bank.

Mr. Seah was president and chief executive of the now-defunct Overseas Union Bank (OUB) for 10 years, until it was acquired for $10 billion by United Overseas Bank (UOB) in 2001 in a dramatic shake-up of the local banking industry.

Since then, Mr. Seah has taken up other roles outside banking. He is on investment firm Temasek Holdings’ Advisory Panel and is also chairman of conglomerates Sembcorp Industries and Singapore Technologies group.

Analysts have welcomed the move, saying that DBS – which recently installed new chief executive Piyush Gupta – will benefit from Mr. Seah’s appointment.

‘Being a banker, he’ll be well-placed to address the macro issues of capital management, overseas growth and risk management,’ said CIMB-GK analyst Kenneth Ng.

Analysts also expect he will focus on the POSB business, which is more locally oriented.

Mr. Koh said in a statement yesterday: ‘Our new CEO Piyush Gupta is on board and settling in very well, and with Peter Seah agreeing to be chairman of the DBS boards, I’m now able to move on, knowing that DBS is in good hands.’

Mr. Koh was first appointed to the DBS boards in June 2005 and assumed the role of chairman the following year.

The corporate titan, whose career has taken him to top positions at Hewlett-Packard, SingTel and Singapore Airlines, is recognised for having steered DBS through the financial crisis.

He had to preside over one of the toughest periods in its history, which included the High Notes 5 structured product fiasco in which many investors lost money, and the bank’s cutting of 900 jobs mainly in Singapore and Hong Kong – a decision criticised by politicians.

Mr. Koh told The Straits Times at that time: ‘You know, an event like this either tears the organisation apart or gels the team. I’m really extremely proud of the people in DBS.’

To be sure, Mr. Koh had his critics. The industry never saw him as a banker, given his non-banking background, and he received a lot of criticism for that from some quarters in the industry.

Still, Mr. Koh soon familiarised himself with running the bank. He ran operations in the months following the departure of former CEO Jackson Tai, and before the appointment of Mr. Richard Stanley. He took the reins again when Mr. Stanley died of cancer in April last year.

Mr. Gupta, who joined the bank late last year, said he believes the entire team will miss Mr. Koh’s leadership, strong business instincts and incisive wit.

Some staff members said Mr. Koh has yet to make his farewell rounds. They said they will remember him for making the place lean and efficient.

‘He had one of the sharpest minds around, and he controlled expenses tightly,’ a banker said.

Indeed, in Mr. Koh’s inaugural speech to 600 staff at a DBS ‘town hall’ meeting in 2006, he said that DBS needed to watch its costs and improve productivity.

DBS did not say yesterday if Mr. Koh would take up another position at one of Singapore’s many state-owned firms.

Sources say Mr. Koh, who sits on the board of Temasek Holdings and is chairman of Sunningdale Tech, will be taking an extended break.

‘He has got his travelling schedule all lined up,’ a source said. ‘Holidays, of course.’

There is also talk that the father of four might consider a key role at property firm Far East Organization, whose founder was the late property tycoon Ng Teng Fong.

Mr. Koh is now a non-executive director at beverage firm Yeo Hiap Seng, which is owned by Far East.


One Response to “Peter Seah to be new DBS Group chairman”

  1. Peter Seah to become DBS chairman in May

    He sees good future, with DBS having emerged from financial crisis ‘as one of the few well-capitalised banks with a strong balance sheet’


    Peter Seah will become DBS Group Holdings’ next chairman on May 1, the bank said yesterday, confirming Singapore Inc’s worst kept secret.

    With a distinguished career in banking behind him, Mr. Seah will take over from Koh Boon Hwee who will step down as chairman of South-east Asia’s largest bank after its annual shareholder meeting on April 30.

    Mr. Seah will have his hands full, given shareholders’ concern over DBS’s lacklustre performance.

    Yesterday, shareholders dumped the stock, causing it to fall 46 cents or 3.2 per cent. About 1.5 million DBS shares were sold, accounting for 20 per cent of the day’s 5.3 million volume.

    A report by The Boston Consulting Group found that DBS’s relative total shareholder return (RTSR) was a negative 4.6 per cent over the five-year 2005-2009 period, falling behind its local rivals.

    For the same period, OCBC and UOB had a 2.4 per cent and 0.4 per cent RTSR respectively.

    An analyst said yesterday’s selling in DBS was probably on account of some hedge funds getting active.

    Mr. Seah’s upcoming appointment had been well-flagged, he said. ‘I think the market will greet this positively. After all, he has been a banker,’ he added.

    Mr. Seah was the chief executive of Overseas Union Bank before it was acquired in 2001 by United Overseas Bank (UOB). He was appointed to DBS’s board last November and it was widely assumed he would become the next chairman.

    Mr. Koh, who has been chairman of Singapore Airlines and Singapore Telecommunications, joined DBS’s board in June 2005 and became chairman on Jan 1, 2006.

    Although he was not a banker, Mr. Koh stepped up to the plate and steered DBS during a tumultuous time for the global financial industry when its chief executive Richard Stanley suddenly passed away in April last year.

    In a statement, Mr. Koh said that during his time as chairman, ‘we’ve entrenched its (DBS’s) positions in Singapore and Hong Kong, and expanded our presence in China, India, Indonesia and Taiwan.

    ‘DBS has also emerged from the financial crisis in a solid position with strong capital, liquidity and good credit ratings, and is today seen as a worthy competitor in Asian banking,’ he said.

    Mr. Seah said: ‘The world has just experienced its worst financial crisis since the Great Depression. However, DBS has emerged as one of the few well-capitalised banks with a strong balance sheet, and this will offer the bank tremendous opportunities in Singapore and the region.’

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