SHE MAY BE a high-flying banker at the top of her game, but DBS’s Tan Su Shan is also refreshingly down-to-earth. She wasn’t always cool, calm and Covid-19 battle-ready of course, but after three decades in the business she’s more capable than most – with the credentials (including a place on all essential power lists) to prove it. It’s easy to imagine Ms Tan, who’s in her 10th year at DBS and now Group Head of Institutional Banking, at ease and in control of just about any situation.
CALM IN A CRISIS
A recent brush with the coronavirus crisis put that theory firmly to the test.
On February 12, she was in the middle of a board meeting when news reached her that a staff member at a DBS office in Marina Bay Financial Centre had contracted the Covid-19 virus. Along with other members of senior management, she reacted by going into rapid-response mode, evacuating an entire floor and sending in a deep-cleaning force. “Keeping calm, constant communication, constant Q and A,” says Ms Tan, 52. “In times of crisis you have to over-communicate and as leaders on the front lines we have to be clear, transparent, honest.”
Making an impact is what matters most to her. In the wake of that incident, members of her team cut through the red tape and documentation normally associated with getting a shipment of face masks to Singapore from Chongqing. They did so by turning a paper-based process into a fully digital one. “We had planned for the group to gradually go digital over the next nine months but ended up doing it within the space of a few days instead,” says Ms Tan. “We were ready to digitalise the process but Covid-19 gave a sense of urgency and pushed people to do it.”
International Women’s Day on March 8 is as good a time as any to recognise the vital role that women in leadership positions like Ms Tan and others play in times of adversity. She has never been afraid to make difficult decisions or to ask for help when needed – even from those who are younger and less experienced. There are some 4,000 employees in her division, and DBS has more claim than most to being proactive when it comes to gender equality: 54 percent of the group’s 28,000 employees are female, and 41 percent of the senior management positions are held by women. “I don’t think DBS needs help (with the gender parity issue), they do a good job of embracing diversity,” says Ms Tan.
“My boss (CEO Piyush Gupta) is a role model with this; he used to joke by saying, ‘I just have to sit here and look pretty.’ In a digital age where physical size and heft don’t matter so much, empathy and intuition are just as important as IQ and EQ. AQ – Adaptability Quotient – is where women do well.”
Female empowerment in the workplace has been high on Ms Tan’s agenda for much of her career. She was working at investment bank Morgan Stanley in 2001 when, after the birth of her second child, she realised that she was in a position to impart necessary skills and serve as mentor to those who had just joined the industry.
“I had a young intern who told me how great it would be if more young women had this kind of mentorship,” says Ms Tan, who together with fellow banker and best pal Trina Liang founded the Financial Women’s Association to promote gender equality and inclusion in the workplace.
Advising other women and helping them to navigate challenges in the industry has also been core to her principles. “I’m really happy because it’s a legacy we built and it’s become much bigger and better than we dreamed – that young intern was the catalyst.”
Ms Tan is also a strong proponent of reverse mentoring, or getting up to speed on developments in the tech and digital world with help from younger colleagues. “I always called myself a digital dinosaur, and after 30 years I still don’t know anything,” she says, not entirely accurately. “The pace of change in the industry has been exponential and what I did then has absolutely no relevance to today.”
She adds, “We’re all in the same learning phase and a lot of the learning is done together – I got a reverse mentor to teach me to code, for example. Just because you’re senior management doesn’t mean you know it all, and just because you’re the boss doesn’t mean you can’t ask the dumb questions – in fact it means that if you can ask them, anyone can ask them.”
PAYING IT FORWARD
We get the impression that Ms Tan doesn’t ask too many dumb questions – if any – these days, but she does admit to a time in the mid-1990s when she went through “a bad spell” while working in Hongkong for merchant bank Barings.
On the same week that the bank collapsed, “I broke up with my fiancé and my landlady told me she wasn’t going to renew my lease – my life was a mess.” Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger, as they say. She bounced back with help from family, friends – and meditation. “Looking back, I’m glad it happened – I suffered early on and came out better for it.”
When she’s not busy working late or dealing with all things DBS, Ms Tan somehow finds time for another life that centres around the philanthropic endeavours of husband Chris Wilson, a laid-back ex-British Army, ex-investment banker, motorbike-riding type whose notfor-profit foundation WAH (https://www.wahglobal.org/) helps to provide clean water and healthcare to underprivileged communities in Cambodia.
Last year, she and son Kai followed Mr Wilson on a trip to a central Cambodian province that helped to repair the eyesight of 250 people. The project was a joint effort with fellow non-profit A-New Vision.
She speaks with the same total commitment about that aspect of her life as she does about her day job – both of which she clearly loves doing. Ms Tan deep dives into everything she does (she also likes actual scuba diving, by the way) and her long-term objective is for DBS to be an integral part of people’s lives, without being an intrusive part of it. Or as she jokingly says, turning DBS into the Disappearing Bank of Singapore. “We’re using real-time data analytics to transform the way we work,” she says. “My vision is to be like an F1 team when they change tires – doing that in a hyper-coordinated way, using data and tech to make us more efficient. As a leader, our job is to set a common vision, orchestrate and empower people and enable success. It’s a journey.”
Admired and respected by both peers and employees, the highly personable Ms Tan has a reputation for being hard-working and confident in her own abilities. “She’s very well-regarded by the industry,” says David Loh, a retired senior banker and former colleague at Citi Private Bank.
“When she was recruited to work at Citi about 15 years ago, she was given her own office but chose to sit with the rest of her team instead – that says a lot. She’s proven herself through time and is destined for higher places.”
For downtime, Tan bonds with a group of close female friends who help to keep her grounded in reality. “As a woman, you look up to her and as a friend, you look up to her even more,” says Lynn Yeow-De Vito, a veteran in the public relations and communications field. “She’s so capable, it’s scary.” Ms Tan didn’t have to look very far for inspiration. “As kids, we were taught by my mother to do the right thing by helping others less fortunate than us,” she says.
“It was automatic, no questions asked – hopefully a bit of that has rubbed off on my kids.”
Ms Tan is a big believer in fashion sustainability. When asked about the changing landscape of fashion, she says, “Luxury today is less about price point and design but more about sustainability.”
Her observation echoes the hard truth for fashion and retail this millennium. Buzzwords like relevance and reinvention fuel the rapid growth aimed at the soon-to-be dominant affluent millennial population.
“The millennials, baby boomers and Gen- Z are intolerant of any brand that is not sustainable,” says Ms Tan, who reveals that she invested in the consciously designed direct-to-consumer brand Aday (pronounced as A-Day). Based in New York and London, Aday’s mission is to simplify wardrobes with a line of seasonless, versatile clothing that can be worn in many ways.
Ms Tan does not consider herself to be fashion-conscious but she does love fashion. And, she’s very supportive of talent especially in the local scene. Under her DBS portfolio, Ms Tan has worked with lawyer-turned-fashion designer Priscilla Shunmugam by helping to promote her collections to Taiwan and Indonesia. Together with her team, she’s also helped Phuay Li Ying from Ying the Label to branch out with the tools and support for her SME business model. From her interaction with the local brands, Ms Tan has in turn become a customer and enjoys wearing their designs in and out of the office.
She’s also formed a close friendship with Rachel Lim, founder of Love, Bonito. “I’m very proud of her and what she has done with her brand,” says Ms Tan who describes her friendship with Lim as “reverse mentorship – she mentors me and I mentor her back!”
Her personal style is simple “with a little snazz”, adding, “I’m not brand conscious – I own brands from A to Z – from Armani to Zara. Comfort is most important to me – and functionality.” She’s most often found in dresses, except when she has to sit on a panel. “They always put you on a high chair and it’s not practical to wear a dress, so that’s when you’ll see me in a pantsuit.”
Too busy to shop, she either sneaks in some airport shopping or shops online. A believer in the e-commerce business model, she even toyed with the idea of bringing fashion website yoox.com to Singapore in 2001. “I wrote to Federico Marchetti (now the chairman and CEO of the Net-a-porter group) and we corresponded a few times about the possibility but it was too hard. My biggest regret is not following up on it,” she says candidly.
– additional reporting by Lena Kamarudin
For inspiring stories on female empowerment, watch Season 2 of DBS' award-winning mini-series Sparks at https://www.dbs.com/livemore/sparks/index.html