“It was an interesting opportunity, a new challenge that was very different from what I had been doing. The job scope, responsibility and accountability were very different. It was a great move for me to make.“
WHEN Sanjiv Vohra informed his wife and children in India some months ago that he was the new president and chief executive officer of Security Bank, their reaction was instantaneous and unanimous. “They wanted to pack their bags and leave immediately for Manila,” he says.
His family had good reason to. The Vohras — who reside in Mumbai, India’s business capital — lived for eight years in the Philippines, when the veteran banker was Citibank head for the country and Guam from 2006 to 2013. “Manila is our second home,” he says with unmistakable warmth.
Those years have also been indelibly stamped in Vohra’s memory. “I probably witnessed one of the most phenomenal transformations of any country,” he says. “When I arrived [in 2006], the Philippines’ rating was way below investment grade. It was politically and economically unstable. GDP [gross domestic product] growth was not very high.”
“Having worked with Filipinos, I understand the landscape and culture, which makes it easier to return. That’s why, as I’ve said, I call the Philippines my ‘second home.”
But things started to stabilize and improve, aided by certain events, which includes the peaceful transition of power from the administration of Gloria Macapagal Arroyo to that of Benigno Aquino 3rd in June 2010. “Within…three to four years, the [country’s credit] ratings [improved]. I witnessed this and we in the banking community benefited. Local banks were much stronger by the time I left [for another posting] in 2013.”
Trying his luck
An engineering graduate of the Indian Institute of Technology and a holder of a master’s degree in business administration from the University of Delhi, Vohra did not plan on being a banker at first. That is, until he saw the snazzy lifestyle, replete with fancy cars and dining at nice restaurants, that two relatives of his led.
“I wasn’t planning on working overseas,” Vohra says, adding that he “was interested in the textile industry” then. But his elders convinced him to try his luck, and since Citibank was aggressively recruiting in India at the time, he says, “that’s where I ended up in 1986.”
Thirteen years later, Vohra moved to ABN Amro, during which he worked in India and Singapore. In 2002, he rejoined Citibank as corporate banking head for its India, Sri Lanka and Bangladesh region, and afterward moved to Manila. In 2013, he transferred to Deutsche Bank, where as head of corporate banking, he was in charge of 15 countries in the Asia-Pacific region. In 2017, he moved to MUFG Bank Ltd. in Singapore to become its managing director and head of corporate banking and co-head of investment banking for Asia and Oceania.
At MUFG, Vohra got to reconnect with Filipino banking executives, particularly those of Security Bank. In 2016, MUFG bought a 20-percent stake in the latter, resulting in a strategic partnership.
“They [MUFG Bank and Security Bank] work very closely to leverage each other’s strengths, both outside and here in the Philippines, to serve our clients,” the banker says.
“This hybrid combination is a very unique one in the Philippine banking system. MUFG has a huge network outside of the country, and for clients coming into the Philippines, Security Bank has a good presence in the market…. It’s operating like a ‘glocal [global-local]’ bank.”
In his two years at MUFG, Vohra was able to observe Security Bank’s activities at close range, so when his predecessor Alfonso Salcedo Jr. retired and he was offered the post of president and CEO, he did not hesitate to accept.
“It was an interesting opportunity, a new challenge that was very different from what I had been doing,” Vohra says. “In short, it was a great move for me to make.”
The contrast between global and local financial services operations is marked, which is what revved up Vohra’s adrenalin. “The job scope, responsibility and accountability are very different,” he says.
“As part of a global organization, there are systems and procedures and resources available for you to tap into. However, there are boundaries, and you have to work within those boundaries.”
In a local entity, Vohra says, “the buck stops with you — you are responsible to 6,000 employees, the board of directors and shareholders, as well.”
“You also have a mandate from the board and your shareholders, which you have to deliver to your management team and the rest of the organization.”
What has stoked his confidence about accepting Security Bank’s top post has been the network established during his eight years in the Philippine capital.
Building, nurturing and maintaining relationships are usually the core of his town-hall conversations with colleagues. He can’t stress enough the importance of relationships, not only for the individual alone, but also for their bank.
“Having worked with Filipinos, I understand the landscape and culture, which makes it easier to return,” Vohra says. “That’s why, as I said, I call the Philippines my ‘second home.’ ’’
The Security Bank chief also upholds the significance of a “win-win” situation when dealing with customers: “It shouldn’t be a win-lose or lose-win, but a win-win relationship, where value is added with every interaction. Otherwise, you’re not going to come back and trust is not going to develop.”
It would be an understatement to say that the banking space has drastically changed since the time Vohra left Manila to that day in July this year when he stepped into his latest role. Perhaps, “dramatically changed” would be a more evocative description.
He cites the current positive economic environment throughout Asia for this.
“During the [Asian financial crisis], local economies were down; investment ratings were down; deficits were high; and local banks had no capital. This enabled global banks like Citibank, Standard Chartered and HSBC to build formidable [positions] in a lot of Asian countries, including the Philippines.
“Then came the evolution of the economies, and local banks started getting stronger. Better capitalized, they’ve been able to attract good people like global bankers, who see lots of opportunities there.”
He recalls that when he first joined Citibank, the global lender was the only one with the capability to send and receive email — dubbed “Citimail” — that allowed them to connect with anyone in the world on their network almost instantaneously. That competitive advantage is gone now, with everyone today having access to the internet amid the explosion of technological aids and apps from countless vendors.
“Since a local bank can easily buy technology from a supplier, it turns out to be more nimble than a global bank that is so wired up it takes years to make changes,” Vohra says. Rivalry between local and internationally branded banks has become so keen over the years, especially in retail banking and SME (small and medium enterprise) services, that the lead between the two has become very narrow. According to Vohra, the top credit card players in the Philippine market are dominated by local banks and not global ones.
“To play in the market these days, you need scale, cost advantage and an understanding of the local business, and that may be the reason global brands are not too big a presence in the country anymore,” Vohra says.
Youngest of three
When asked about his family, Vohra says he is the youngest of three children of an Indian couple who met in Penang, Malaysia. His two older sisters were born in that picturesque state known for delicious cuisine; he, in India. While his parents’ marriage was an arranged one, his was not: he met his wife Meena at a friend’s party.
Together, they have three daughters. The older two, Sanna and Manssi, previously worked on Wall Street before teaming up to run theweddingbrigade.com — a curated marketplace for everything to do with weddings — back in India, while the youngest, Mishaa, is still in school.
A voracious consumer of biographies and biopics, Vohra just finished reading the life journey of Nike co-founder Phil Knight. He says there is just “so much heroism in these kinds of stories.” Also, would you believe that, unlike his football and cricket-mad compatriots, he played basketball in his youth? So, his two tours of duty in the Philippines are pure serendipity.
One of his mentors is Aditya Puri, an ex-boss from Citibank India and founder of HFDC Bank, reportedly India’s largest private sector lender. “From him, I learned clarity of thought, prioritization and time management,” Vohra says.
Puri, his friend says, “never works beyond 6 p.m. and doesn’t carry a cell phone.” But he is a great believer in Post-its, which employees receive in abundance with notes from their boss. “You think he’ll forget what he wrote — he never does,” Vohra chuckles.
Going back to Security Bank, does Vohra expect it to go totally digital sooner than later? He believes the Philippines is not ready to fully tread the digital highway.
“Not everyone has a smartphone, and a big chunk of the population [is] still not comfortable with going digital,” he says. There is still a need to present the bank’s products and services in a multichannel strategy, such as through physical branches (“Not to ignore the millennials who are coming up, but the big revenue pool is still my generation, who are used to these,” he says), mobile web browsers and other online platforms.
At present, the prototype of a “Learning Hub” occupies a section of the lobby of Security Bank’s headquarters on Ayala Avenue. Here, clients of all ages can come into pick up information on the banks’ digital products and services or ask for tutorials from helpful staff. More of these are expected to pop up in the newer branches.
“Banks are not going to be extinct if you plan well. We have the products and services. We have the customer base,” Vohra says. “What is changing are the channels to deliver those products and services to the customers.”
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LOCAL VS. GLOBAL
Sanjiv Vohra has worked for prestigious global banking brands for most of his career, and he now rounds up his journey by heading a gung-ho local bank. He couldn’t be happier.
• Local banks can be more nimble than their global counterparts. They can buy technology more easily from vendors, while global banks are so wired up, it may take them years to make changes in their system.
• To play effectively in the local market, one needs scale, deep understanding of the local business and cost advantages, which domestic banks may be more equipped with. Global banks may have constraints.
• In a local entity, the buck stops with the top executive. He is responsible to the employees, board of directors and shareholders. In a global organization, there are systems and procedures and resources available for managers to tap into, and there are boundaries one has to work within.
PHOTOS BY HARVEY TAPAN