One of the most respected local bankers with multiple awards under her belt – including the first Singaporean recognised as the world’s best private banking leader in 2014 by PWM and The Banker, it is safe to say Tan Su Shan, Group Head of Institutional Banking at DBS, has made significant impact in her career so far.
In her last 10 years at DBS, she has been integral to propelling the home-grown bank to becoming one of the most successful consumer banking and wealth management franchises in the region. Now, as the group head of institutional banking at DBS where she looks after the regional and global corporate banking business, her current goal is continue building long-term relationships and equipping clients with business solutions to succeed in this new digital age.
The digital wave
Increasingly, as corporates digitise their processes and the way they do business, they are looking towards their banking partner to help them leapfrog this journey, and Su Shan and her team are paving the way. “I often joke that DBS should be called the Digital Bank of Singapore,” she says, “And if we get it right, it can become the Disappearing Bank of Singapore because we’re intuitive, invisible, integrated and can disappear seamlessly into our customers’ lives.”
In November 2018, the bank launched DBS MAX, a mobile-based QR payment solution allowing merchants to instantly receive funds through an app without having to handle cash. The idea for this came to Su Shan when a friend of hers, who is also the owner of an SME, shared her gripes about the hassle of queueing to bank in cash, which meant precious time that could be spent on her business was wasted.
“I realised a lot of SMEs wanted a cashless solution,” says Su Shan. “So we’re helping them learn and embrace new digital and data-driven solutions, and co-creating fresh and differentiated solutions to help them stay ahead.”
More recently, she has also managed to enable this on the much larger scale of trade finance. “Trade has always been very old-fashioned and functions on paperwork, which can sometimes take double the time of what delivering the goods takes,” she says.
In an industry first, DBS and Trafigura, in collaboration with the Infocomm Media Development Authority, the International Chamber of Commerce (ICC), Enterprise Singapore and tradetech Perlin, developed an open-sourced blockchain trade platform (ICC TradeFlow) to connect trade partners across borders and streamline manual paper-based trade processes to improve trade flows. For the first pilot transaction, DBS was the LC (letter of credit) issuing bank and negotiating bank, facilitating the sales of 160kt of iron ore from South Africa to China. “I’m very happy that we’re the first bank in the world to do this.”
She adds that these multi-faceted digital solutions reflect the cultural mindset of DBS and its movement to make banking more joyful. “We actually don’t want you to waste your time banking – it’s boring and you should be getting on with your life,” she says. “And we will enable that.”
Brave new world
When it comes to the figures who have played a defining role in her career, Su Shan mentions Piyush Gupta (DBS CEO) and Peter Seah (DBS non-executive chairman), both of whom she credits for being very complementary mentors to her in her leadership journey. She says she has learnt many lessons from the former, who is a paragon in strategic thinking, technological adoption and inspirational leadership. The latter is a veteran banker who, she adds, has a big heart for people and has a strong intuition for business and opportunities.
These days, Su Shan does mentoring a little differently and adopts women younger than her as “reverse mentors”. “I believe we can learn from anyone. Mentorship is not age dependent but more attitude dependent; to have the humility to learn and unlearn.”
Most of her reverse mentors are women in their 20s and early 30s who have built multi-million-dollar empires, such as Rachel Lim, the founder of fashion retailer Love, Bonito; Ankiti Bose, co-founder of e-commerce platform Zilingo and former Prestige cover girl; and Pocket Sun, founder of venture capital firm SoGal.
“The skill and speed at which these women have built their businesses have really impressed me. They’ve taught me a lot about not just how their business works but how their generation thinks,” says Su Shan, adding how applicable this is to coming up with digital solutions that engage with the younger generation, like DBS MAX.
The banker also personally supports these women in their businesses and in their crises. However, she wants to take this further and help them in a bigger way. “Eventually, I want to help start organisations to bring these young women entrepreneurs together, and help them to set up a platform to raise money so they can take their businesses to the next level.”
She is also no stranger to establishing such organisations that empower women. In 2001, shortly after having her second child Kai, she and a group of like-minded women from the banking industry founded the Financial Women’s Association Singapore (FWASG) to offer women in the financial world a networking platform for professional support and contacts.
“At the time I observed that after a lot of young women get married and start families, they leave the corporate world and lose touch. They lose opportunities and have more difficulty coming back to work,” explains the mother of two. “So I wanted to provide a network where even if you jumped off the career path, you can still keep up with industry updates, job opportunities and maintain a social life.”
As the FWASG operates on a rotating leadership, she has since handed the reins over to a string of presidents after her, many of whom she says have also gone on to bigger, better things. “I’m very proud to be the founding president but even prouder that we’ve set up a good school of leadership among young women.”
Photography Micky Wong
Art direction Audrey Chan
Hair & makeup Benedict Choo