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The deliberations for the best CEO awards could be viewed as referendum on the Western style of management versus various Asian models. In the era of the celebrity CEO, the differences are becoming ever more stark. Whereas Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg and Sharon Sandberg – to say nothing of Donald Trump – have become household names, the same cannot be said of the many CEOs of Chinese state-owned enterprises (SOEs) who prefer to stay under the radar.
And perhaps that is a good thing. When the investment community first heard of Steve Jobs’ health concerns, the future of Apple was thrown into question. This kind of shock did not upset a number of listed Chinese enterprises when they became the target of President Xi Jinping’s crackdown on corruption that led to the resignation of many top executives.
Yet while the role of a founder CEO is clearly more shock-sensitive than that of the chief executive in an established firm, the Western-style celebrity CEO model also carries huge risks. Lehman Brothers had survived the transition from a family-owned firm set up by a German immigrant to the US in 1844 until Dick Fuld was its undoing a century and a half later. Enron was another casualty of celebrity CEO hubris when Kenneth Lay took it under. Vivendi, a company whose foundations were laid in 1853 by Napoleon Bonaparte, had a close call when Jean-Marie Messier pushed the water utility into media and telecoms. Vivendi survived the resulting debt-induced losses, but Messier was replaced and was later found guilty of embezzlement.
What is the role of a CEO? As the highest-ranking executive in a company, they must take responsibility for all the major corporate decisions. They monitor and direct the company’s operations and determine how its resources are allocated. As such, they are the interface between the board of directors to whom they are ultimately responsible and the day-to-day corporate operations. The CEO often sits on the board; in some cases, they are both CEO and chair.
So, what are the yardsticks by which a CEO should be measured? While consistently strong financial performance, good governance and being a responsible corporate citizen would be a given, the Western model of chief executive might be expected to be a visionary and media star appearing at the World Economic Forum. This would not be expected of their Asian counterparts, particularly in the case of state-owned enterprises.
When investors and analysts are asked to comment on the qualities of the CEOs of China Telecom and China Everbright Limited, they are flummoxed. For them, the role of the CEO of an SOE or SOE-owned company is to build the value of the asset, manage relations with the government and to generally be a safe pair of hands. Flamboyancy and media fame serve no purpose and – especially in the current anti-corruption environment – are actually frowned upon.
Beyond the media spotlight, it can be said that China Everbright Limited, part of the state-owned China Everbright Group, has found a strong and reliable pair of hands in CEO Chen Shuang. Under his leadership, the financial services and investment firm came back from the brink of bankruptcy in 2000 following a restructuring within the group’s assets. China Everbright has since evolved into an international cross-border asset management investment platform covering primary and secondary market funds as well as mezzanine funds. As CEO, Chen believes he should “lead the company’s growth strategy, but take action when circumstances change”. Chen seized an opportunity in 2014 to acquire the former funds arm of China’s postal system, Prestige Capital Asset Management Co, to pursue investments in China and overseas assets. As of the end of last year, China Everbright managed 31 funds with assets under management of more than HK$49 billion (US$6.3 billion). His achievements make Chen deserving of the accolade, The Asset Corporate Awards Best CEO for the Banking and Finance category.
Another CEO of a state-owned is also rising to his challenge without a brash fanfare. Yang Jie had his work cut out for him when he took over the leadership at China Telecom in 2015. He was promoted to CEO during one of the toughest periods in the company’s history – facing a series of top-level leadership changes and increasing competition from rivals. Under Yang’s stewardship, the country’s largest fixed-line telecom operator has been focusing on developing its 4G cellular network to drive growth. That is clearly paying off with data consumption doubling and average revenue per user for 4G networks rising up to 30% this year. Yang, the youngest the firm has ever appointed to president, now wants to invest in emerging technology to boost growth that includes big data, high-definition internet surfing, and mobile payment service Bestpay. The company operates 400 internet data centres that represent 70% of the data from the top three Chinese tech conglomerates – Baidu, Alibaba and Tencent. Yang is this year’s Best CEO for Telecommunications.
The Southeast Asian model of a quasi-government enterprise is being taken into a new realm if PTT is anything to go by. Graduating from the subsidiary PTTEP, Tevin Vongvanich took the helm of the parent oil and gas company last year and immediately rose to the challenge of responding to low crude oil prices. Trained as a chemical and petroleum engineer, Tevin sees himself as serving two roles: the custodian of a state-owned asset and the manager of a publicly listed enterprise: “We have a mission to ensure energy sustainability for the country while providing fair return to our shareholders,” he explains. To this end, he has adopted to more Western-style communication via emails, townhall meetings and Facebook updates “to regain trust from our stakeholders including government authority, shareholders, employees, Thai citizen or even NGOs”. Tevin wins The Asset Corporate Awards 2016 Best CEO for Oil & Gas.
Noriaki Goto, who joined Bank of Ayudhya (Krungsri) as CEO from the Japanese majority shareholder Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ knows the pitfalls of corporate takeovers. He understands that clashing company cultures can inflict on corporate integration. When Mitsubishi UFJ acquired Krungsri in late 2013, Goto was determined to deliver synergy out of the acquisition. He spearheaded change management efforts at Krungsri, while dealing with cultural differences. His management style had to adapt. “People usually do not like change and stick to what they want to do,” says Goto. To address this, Goto worked with the management team to effectively communicate why, what and how the company needed to change. He has made significant strides at transforming the organization. Going forward Goto aims to maintain Krungsri’s stronghold in the Thai and Japanese corporate market, as well as in retail and consumer finance. This year The Asset presents Goto the Best CEO award for the Banking and Finance category.
Having risen through the ranks to become CEO at E.SUN Bank, Joseph Huang has witnessed the company’s highs and lows in the last 25 years – starting out as a small local bank and transforming into a competitive market leader in Taiwan’s finance sector amid slowing economic growth. He has led the bank to focus on fintech solutions. “We need to do something to cope with the challenges in Taiwan banking industry,” says Huang. E.SUN has devoted great efforts to integrate financial services into its clients’ daily lives, forging cooperation with tech giants Alipay, Tencent and PayPal. As a result, it has achieved a 20% annual net profit growth over the last five years, higher than any other bank in Taiwan. The bank also has aggressively expanded its regional footprint. In January, E.SUN set up its first China subsidiary in the Pearl River Delta region. In October, it entered the Myanmar market and set up its first branch there. “We know that it is a marathon rather than a sprint,” says Huang. Currently, E.SUN has 23 overseas operating units. The bank has attained significant milestones over the last few years, expanding the business via organic growth, strategic alliances, and M&A activity. He takes home this year’s Best CEO award for Banking and Finance.
To view the awardees of The Asset Corporate Awards 2016 – Best Chief Executive Officer, please click here.
1 Dec 2016