Chief Financial Officer, OCBC Bank.
You could say 41 is a comparatively young age to be appointed as a chief financial officer, what more at OCBC Bank, Singapore’s longest-established bank and the second-largest financial services group in Southeast Asia by assets.
It certainly was a big challenge for Darren Tan. “The six months understudying my predecessor (Soon Tit Koon, who had been in the financial sector for 28 years before retiring) was difficult, as I was moving from an area of expertise that I was comfortable in – as Head of Asset Liability Management in Global Treasury – to totally unfamiliar ground,” he recalls.
By all accounts, Mr Tan, now 46, is understating the size of the challenge he faced then, when he stepped into the role in 2011. It was when the financial sector was under fierce scrutiny following the Lehman Brothers’ collapse three years previously. His family saw less of him as he put in longer hours to get up to speed. “The first six months in the position were even tougher (than the six months understudying Mr Soon),” says Mr Tan. “How do you step into the shoes of a well-respected veteran? How do you walk and talk like a CFO? How do you (take on) the gravitas of a leader?”
He tried emulating the ways of his predecessor. But after half a year, Mr Tan decided he would not model himself after someone else. “I realised that I have to be myself.” That mindset enabled him to confidently apply his background experience as Portfolio Manager of Government of Singapore Investment Corporation (GIC) to his new role, injecting youthful agility to the Finance department and putting an emphasis on developing the value-add aspects of the team’s work in steering the organisation’s growth.
Today, with six years of experience in his role, Mr Tan was named Best CFO (big cap category*) at the Singapore Corporate Awards 2017.
A CAREER OF UNEXPECTED TURNS
A Science student, Mr Tan turned down a place in the School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering at Nanyang Technological University (NTU). He opted instead for Accountancy at NTU, where he graduated with First Class Honours. “I studied Accountancy for practical reasons; I couldn’t wait to go out to work and this was a professional degree with direct honours that took only three years,” he explains.
However, Mr Tan made a deliberate decision to avoid the common practice of starting an accountancy career as an auditor or accountant. “My experience as a CFO is quite different as I first started out as a portfolio manager,” he says. Finance and accounting are two halves of the financial book. “Accounting is more focused on the past and finance is more focused on the future. I preferred to do something that can impact future outcomes,” he explains. Upon graduation, he joined GIC as Portfolio Manager, trading first in foreign exchange, then moving to other aspects of GIC investments such as bonds and commodities. “I was very much the macro guy taking positions according to trends and analyses,” says Mr Tan, whose last position at GIC was Head of Money Markets.
The role allowed him an easy transition when he joined OCBC Bank as Head of Asset Liability Management, Global Treasury, in 2007. Then came the financial meltdown in 2008. “I was close to being in the hottest seat!” he recalls with a laugh. But if there is anything Mr Tan has in abundance, it is grit. “Perhaps it was how I managed to pull through the difficult period that got the attention of the management or Board of Directors.” So it was no surprise when David Conner, then the CEO of OCBC Bank, approached him with the proposition of stepping into the role of CFO.
Of the Best CFO Award, Mr Tan says it is “an affirmation of not just the external work that has been reported, but also the invisible, internal aspects of what my team is striving to achieve”. He is, he emphasises, “simply a representative of the team”. This internal aspect refers to what he has coined as “S.M.A.R.T.” finance – thinking strategically (S), mining data and information for insights (M), analysing and advising business partners (A), facilitating resources allocation (R) and grooming talent (T).
“This is the vision I have for every member in OCBC Bank’s Finance department, and what it translates to, is an innate inquisitiveness about everything,” he explains. “Always ask why. Why are we producing this report? Why are we doing things a certain way? Why have you generated a certain number? I encourage them to look beyond numbers and be passionately curious. The story behind the numbers is a lot more important.”
He goes on to say that the usual way of managing a bank has evolved after the 2008 financial crisis, and it is evolving into “one where you have to be very mindful of how every single dollar is used”. As such, “accountants can no longer say, ‘Oh, this is none of my business, I am just producing a number.’ They should be able to highlight strange phenomena, and spot abnormalities. Moving away from the past into the future – that is how I think the accounting profession should evolve,” he explains.
“Thus, we are emphasising on developing talent who can value-add. Beyond reporting figures, the Finance department should also be instrumental in steering an organisation in the right direction for business development,” says Mr Tan. This is the same approach he takes for his role as CFO. “There has been on-going discussion about the CFO playing the role of strategic partner to the CEO, and that is certainly how I see it. The CFO should be able to lend insight to strategise, analyse, and decide the direction for the company – at least on the macro level.”
If there is anything Mr Tan’s work and career has demonstrated to young accountants, it is that accountancy is a skill that offers more than a single career path. “ISCA has put a lot of thought on how they want to lead the profession, and it is a full spectrum. They are making existing members relevant to the market through continuing education. They are also influencing education at the university level so that new graduates are equipped with the right skills for an easy assimilation into the working environment. There is continual effort in making the industry relevant to the larger eco system of the business world. ‘Relevance’ is really the key word here,” shares the newly-inducted ISCA Council member. “The recent affiliation with ASEAN CPA also means that ISCA members will be qualified to practise within the region,” he enthuses.
Yet, even with the road paved, it takes personal drive for an individual to walk down a route. In Mr Tan’s opinion, the desire to improve and to learn and do more, is what will take someone far. To that end, Mr Tan has introduced lunchtime workshops for the entire Finance department. Experts dispense insights on topics ranging from the latest changes in the technology space to deportment. He did not imagine that the turnout would be very high, but each session has seen about 150 people from their 200-strong department turning up. “It is difficult to find time to learn new things, so I do my part in giving my team members an easy opportunity through these sessions. It is important to expand one’s horizons beyond that of work, because the best ideas often don’t come at the desk.”
Outside of work, he is an enthusiastic sportsman who runs, cycles and plays soccer. “There was a time when I felt that a weekend without a game of soccer was a weekend wasted,” he quips. He is also an avid reader. “The best way to learn and improve yourself is to learn either from others or read a lot – or do both.” His reading choices are hugely varied, and he finds inspiration even in books for children. From a book he bought for his children years ago, he shares the story of an eagle chick born from an egg that was hatched by a hen. The bird never realised its potential as an eagle, for it only saw itself as a chicken. “You are what you believe you are,” he concludes.