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31 Aug 2018
The Star Online : Beating the odds to build an institution
 
Beating the odds to build an institution
The Star Online - Star Special  Friday, 31 August 2018
By Gurmeet Kaur


 Tan Sri Azman Hashim.

Independence Day means different things to different people. For seasoned banker and founder of AMMB Holdings Bhd (AmBank Group) Tan Sri Azman Hashim, Merdeka is about Malaysians being able to design and forge their destinies and futures.

“Every Malaysian can decide what he or she wants to be and have the freedom and conducive environment to enable him or her to move forward and progress.

“This is provided that one has the willingness to work hard, acquire knowledge and skills and practise good values, including honesty, integrity and humility,” says the 79-year-old chairman of AmBank, who has beaten the odds and created his own opportunities to be where he is today.

Azman was instrumental in transforming the AmBank group from a relatively unknown bank into one of the country’s largest financial institutions.

He was born in a family of 13 siblings in Kampung Baru – a village in the city centre.

A chartered accountant by training, Azman joined Bank Negara in 1960 after returning from studying abroad.

He left the central bank in 1964 to run his own accounting practice, Azman Wong Salleh and Co, from 1964 to 1971.

His interest in banking saw him returning to the sector as a board member of Malayan Banking Bhd (Maybank).

He was later appointed the executive chairman of Kwong Yik Bank Bhd, a Maybank subsidiary. In 1982, Azman found himself in a fortuitous position when he bought into AmBank in its original guise – Arab-Malaysian Development Bank Bhd.

It was a smallish merchant bank with 200 employees.

“The strategy was to build a financial conglomerate,” Azman says.

“So along the way, I acquired from the marketplace finance companies, stockbroking companies, insurance companies and finally a commercial bank after several unsuccessful attempts.”

A milestone in his corporate journey was the acquisition of the Bank of America-owned Security Pacific Bank’s local operations in 1994.

From there, Azman steered AmBank to become the sixth largest bank by assets out of eight anchor banks.

The banking group aims to become a top-four player in certain categories by 2020.

“There are 10,464 people working for us now. We will continue to play our part in nation-building by striving for improvement in our performance.

“Banks are the backbone of the economy. They finance infrastructure, industries and the services sector, plus provide employment and pay billions in taxes,” he tells The Star in conjunction with the Merdeka celebrations.

Patriotism, as Azman sees it, is being a good Malaysian citizen, contributing one’s efforts, however small and insignificant, to the betterment of the country’s economy, health and happiness of the people.

“Be an asset to the country, not a liability,” he quips.

He says the focus on good governance, transparency and rule of law under a new Malaysia will propel the country’s economy to a higher level.

“I look forward to zero corruption and no inflated or directly negotiated contracts.

“It will result in a more efficient and productive Malaysia, which would be good for the economy, business and the financial services industry,” he says.

Azman, a proponent of equal opportunity for all in education who often lend a helping hand to various charities, believes education is key to the progress of any country.

He says there is a need to review the education system to produce productive, market­able and employable young Malay­sians who can also contribute and compete on the international stage.

Proficiency in English is still a vital requirement, he adds.

Challenges

The journey of an entrepreneur is often filled with ups and downs.

For Azman, one of his most challenging periods was during the Asian Financial Crisis in 1997/1998.

The contagion effect of that crisis caused the Malaysian economy to experience its deepest recession.

“It was a very trying time for the banking group and also for me personally.

“The bank’s share price dropped from RM24 to RM1.15.

“We recorded a loss of RM1bil in one year. Thankfully, we quickly recovered the very next year with profits,” he shares.

Recalling that period in time, Azman says “salvation and turnaround” happened because of the actions of then Prime Minister Tun Dr Mahathir Mohamad, who essentially reversed the demands of the International Monetary Fund (IMF) on how to deal with the crisis.

The Washington-based fund had advocated for interest rates to go up, credit to be cut and for suffering companies not to be bailed out.

However, Dr Mahathir decided to peg the ringgit and introduced a host of other capital controls.

He also released a substantial part of the central bank’s statutory reserves back to the banks, which provided the much-needed liquidity in the system and reduced the borrowing rates from as high as over 20% to a more workable level of around 10%.

The measures were initially met with scepticism from numerous quarters, including the IMF, which later admitted that they were the right moves.

“The bank and I owe Dr Mahathir for having survived the crisis,” Azman says on Dr Mahathir’s approach in dealing with the crisis during his first tenure as premier.

Having weathered the peaks and troughs of economic cycles, budding entrepreneurs can take a page out of his book.

The golden rule, he says, is having passion for what you do.

“There are no overnight gains. You have to work and plan for the long term.

“If you are passionate and love doing what you are doing, the hard work will not seem like hard work,” he says.

Another trait is humility.

“There should be respect for people at all levels,” he adds.

“Be friendly and have no enemies. That’s a win-win for all deals.”