Wednesday, July 4, 2012

Nazir Razak: Hardworking, Smart and Professional

By Paul J. Davies (July 1, 2012)

Nazir Razak does not seem the “princeling” type, but then that is an accident of birth.
The 45-year-old Chief Executive of CIMB, Malaysia’s second largest banking group, is part of the country’s near “royalty” in the words of one investor.

Inside Malaysia, he is seen by some as an unofficial Finance Minister to the Prime Minister – his eldest brother, Najib Razak. Their father was Tun Abdul Razak, Malaysia’s second Prime Minister after independence from Britain.

Outside South-East Asia, however, many people may never have heard of him or CIMB. While he draws himself humbly as a small player getting his chance on a bigger stage, he has got there through an aggressive acquisition-fuelled expansion across the region.

The latest deal was to cherry pick a handful of investment banking businesses from Royal Bank of Scotland, the UK lender majority-owned by the government, in a cut-price deal. “I never thought this moment would come, where CIMB could get its hands on an asset like this at that value and have a good go,” he says of the RBS deal.

Mr Razak’s growing regional clout is winning him admirers among clients and rivals. Investment bankers in Hong Kong and Singapore say he is one to watch and CIMB the most likely Asian bank to become a true regional rainmaker.

But his proximity to power at home, in a country that ranked 60th in Transparency International’s corruption perception index, raises inevitable questions. Malaysians who are aligned with opposition groups or who have lost out on business to CIMB point to his government links as instrumental in his success.

Mr Razak does not deny that as head of a large company he holds some sway with political leaders, but only in so far as others in similar positions do. “We are a successful business that doesn’t get involved in that stuff [corruption],” he says. “But I’m not going to deny the fact that it is a problem.”

Pushed on his influence with the country’s Prime Minister, it is difficult to tell whether the family tie is a benefit or an irritant. His voice for once is slightly strained in reply: “I do have family occasions, but I wouldn’t say that I have more influence with the present PM than I did with previous PMs, if you like. Therefore, the relationship is more derivative of my position running the bank rather than family.” With a touch of pique, he adds that his brother has been leader only since 2009, while he has led CIMB’s investment bank since 1999. “But I suppose people forget that,” he says.

Mr Razak is soft-spoken and affable and he has a relaxed, natural smile. But the bank’s expansion, which since 2004 has taken its staff from 1,000 to 40,000 and its balance sheet from $4bn to $95bn, highlights a ferocious ambition.

In the small, careworn room in CIMB’s modest offices in a suburb of Kuala Lumpur where he is talking to the Financial Times, there hangs a large black and white photo montage commemorating the original formation of the bank in 1974. It was a venture between the national agricultural bank and the local Sanwa Bank with Baring Brothers and London Multinational Bank.

The attendees at the launch event were a mix of Malays, Sikhs, Hindus and moustachioed Englishmen in stiff suits, illustrating the cultural heritage of Malaysia and CIMB. Somewhat awkwardly, the man presiding over this ceremony, Mr Razak’s father as Prime Minister, was responsible for starting the positive discimination policies in favour of ethnic Malays that still provoke controversy in Malaysia today.

But Nazir Razak himself, whose part-British, part-Malaysian accent would not sound out-of-place in any of the countries represented in the photo, is proud of the bank’s diverse staff and management. It is one reason why he thinks cultural differences between his business and, for example, the Australian parts of RBS he now owns, should not prove problematic.

“Diversity is our second nature,” he says. “You look at the make-up of our community here and . . . the vast majority of my leadership team; they’re all very international people.”

Peers and rivals admire him for his equal comfort in south-east Asian and more Anglo-Saxon cultures. As a 13-year-old Mr Razak was sent to study at Oundle School in Northamptonshire. His choice of Bristol University over the London School of Economics, highlights a sober nature. “From Oundle, everything was very disciplined from what time you wake up to what you do the whole day and suddenly the full freedom of London . . . I couldn’t trust myself,” he says.

Across Asia, he is seen as very hard working, smart and professional, according to about 20 clients, bankers, and investors spoken to for this article, none of whom questioned his propriety.

Hugo Young at Aberdeen Asset Management, the UK fund manager that is CIMB’s biggest private shareholder with a 10 per cent stake, says that while Mr Razak may be high-born, he has worked his way up from the bottom at CIMB. “He has earned his position and he has professionalised the business in a way that few other Malaysian businesses have been,” he says.

Aside from his high-profile brother and father, Nazir Razak’s uncle was also a Prime Minister, he is also very close to Azman Mokhtar, who runs Khazanah, Malaysia’s sovereign wealth fund which in effect controls CIMB along with the country’s national pension scheme. And Mr Razak’s wife is the daughter of a former central bank governor.

Ironically, perhaps, these tight links with the rest of the establishment pose the greatest threat to his own future if the upcoming elections result in a regime change, kicking out the political party that has ruled Malaysia since independence.

“It is obviously a vulnerability [for him],” says Mr Young. “It is not so much political or connected to his brother, it is more that he is a part of that almost royalty, that power in Malaysia.”

Mr Razak says that he runs a large company for his shareholders and from that perspective does not give politics much thought. He has certainly steered clear from any public involvement, but he remains realistic about the pace and difficulty of domestic reform. “Najib’s got a hell of a task . . . but I think he’s giving it a very good go.”

He says the country must combat corruption, give more free rein to market forces and roll back government ownership of business – through privatisations such as this month’s multibillion-dollar part listing of Felda, an agri-business group.

This is the only way that Malaysia can hope to progress beyond middle income status, which would bring much greater recognition to the country and some of its leading companies, like AirAsia, Axiata and CIMB.

Mr Razak jokes that there was a bit of a muddle when he hosted David Cameron, the UK Prime Minister, at a dinner this year. “We had a good laugh because he got a bit confused as to who was buying what when I introduced him to the [Royal Bank of Scotland] Asia head,” says Mr Razak. “His final remark was: ‘I’ve got some more of that if you want it’.”

It will have been quite apparent to Mr Cameron, however, that this “princeling” wasn’t born yesterday.


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