How I Manage: Aaron Ferguson, Head of Legal, Standard Chartered Bank Vietnam On Investing In Change | Vietcetera
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How I Manage: Aaron Ferguson, Head of Legal, Standard Chartered Bank Vietnam On Investing In Change

Source: Co Nguyen for Vietcetera

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Standard Chartered Bank has been present in Vietnam since 1904. In that time, the British multinational has touched the community in many ways, both as a provider of financial services and a CSR leader. 

Running multiple highly impactful outreach programs requires the kind of focused precision, high-level expertise and community relationships that are only found in organizations that place CSR at the core of their operations and, like Standard Chartered, foster the culture from within: the bank grants all employees three volunteering days per year to be solely dedicated to community work.

To learn more about the bank’s community-minded business model, we sit down with Aaron Ferguson, Head of Legal at Standard Chartered Bank Vietnam and the Chair of its Diversity and Inclusion Committee in Vietnam.

Aaron Ferguson, Head of Legal at Standard Chartered Bank Vietnam. | Source: Co Nguyen for Vietcetera

An international lawyer with over 20 years’ experience in the finance sectors of Asia, USA and Australia, Aaron has found his calling in bringing entrepreneurial principles to the field of CSR. We ask him what it’s like working for a responsible company, how he defines leadership and for his crystal ball prediction of the future of banking.

Legal meets banking meets CSR. How do these functions combine in your role as Head of Legal?

As Head of Legal my core responsibilities rest with advising the bank on legal issues. I’ve been doing this for most of my career so the legal and banking aspects of my role gel quite easily. Admittedly, working in Vietnam does throw up a few more challenges than other countries where I’ve worked, given that the law is in a language I can’t understand and it’s also a civil law jurisdiction.

But that’s where my great team comes into the picture! Drawing on a combination of their expertise and my international experience, we’re able to do a good job in advising our bank. 

But what really excites me is the opportunity to mold my role to accommodate CSR activities too. This flexibility is in large part due to the fact that Standard Chartered is very supportive of community outreach. 

For example, from 2004 to 2018, our Seeing is Believing program has tackled avoidable blindness and has provided eye-screening services for more than 3 million people, conducted over 47,000 eye surgeries, and presented over 34,600 pairs of spectacles to people in need in Vietnam.

In recent years, as part of the Seeing is Believing fundraising, I’ve participated in two Ride 4 Sight cycling trips where we’ve had staff from Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and Indonesia come and tour Vietnam’s countryside – all in an effort to raise funds that then get matched by the bank.

Similarly, we’ve partnered with a local language school to set up an English language program at a girls’ orphanage in Saigon with our bank staff going there on weekends to help with homework and to provide conversational practice.

We launched Futuremakers in 2019 which is part of our global attempt to tackle inequality and promote greater economic inclusion for young people. We are running an Employability project in Lao Cai to increase access to livelihood opportunities for young adults through career development and entrepreneurship initiatives. We also implemented the Goal project, which combines sports with life-skills training to empower girls with the confidence, knowledge and skills they need to be integral economic leaders in their families and communities. Goal has benefited over 30,000 locals since its launch in Vietnam in 2014.

Standard Chartered prides itself on being a responsible company. What does it mean to you personally?

In brief it means doing the right thing. The bank’s sole objective cannot be simply to maximize profits for its shareholders. This is certainly an important objective given our jobs are dependent upon financial success, but the way in which we do it and the considerations we take into account when making decisions are equally important.

We employ over 1,500 staff in Vietnam and have clients spanning the largest corporates in the country to mums and dads operating their individual retail bank accounts. As a large multinational operating in Vietnam for over 115 years, we have obligations to our staff, our clients, our regulator and our community. 

And while it is important we recognize the needs of all these stakeholders, our sphere of influence is wider than just our engagements with them. We are in a position to influence attitudinal change within the wider community and with that opportunity comes a responsibility to do so properly.

As a large multinational operating in Vietnam for over 115 years, we have obligations to our staff, our clients, our regulator and our community. | Source: Co Nguyen for Vietcetera

As an example, we can look at what we’re doing for our staff from a diversity and inclusion perspective. We’re trying to promote diversity in our workforce and also ensure that our employees feel fully included at the bank irrespective of personal differences. 

I chair our Diversity and Inclusion Committee and our focus areas are gender, sexual orientation, generations, nationalities/ethnicities and disability. Personally, I’d love to see us hiring more disabled workers. We’re currently looking to set up a team within the bank, possibly our call center, which would provide jobs for a workforce of visually impaired workers. We’ve already done this in our Taiwan offices and it's proven to be a big success.

We do put a lot of effort into staff development as well given our industry is changing so rapidly. In recognition, we’ve been voted one of ‘The Best Companies to Work for in Asia’ from HR Asia for three years in a row.

But being back into the intensity of COVID-19 has once again put the spotlight onto those that have been struggling within our communities. I’m pleased to say that the bank has established a global fund of $1bn to provide not-for-profit funding to companies who can help in the fight against COVID-19. This includes manufacturers and distributors in the healthcare industry and those producing ventilators, face masks, protective equipment, sanitizers and other consumables. To date, we have extended preferential credit to two companies in Vietnam and are working to help more local businesses benefit from the program.

In addition to subsidized lending we’ve also donated $200,000 and 70,000 surgical masks to support Vietnam’s relief efforts and have teamed up with the Vietnam Women Entrepreneurs Council to launch a $25m financial support program for women-owned enterprises that are struggling as a result of COVID-19.

In your time with Standard Chartered, what are some of the achievements you and your team are most proud of?

Prior to joining Standard Chartered Bank in Vietnam, I was based in Singapore for 8 years. During my time there I realized that football was a huge passion for Singaporeans but it was also largely inaccessible to the vast majority of secondary school students, particularly girls. Participation rates were below 5% for students that wanted to play football.

To address that, I worked with an organization called CARE Singapore whose mission is to help youths-at-risk succeed. It was clear that a football program could fit into their plan by teaching life skills through “the beautiful game”. Fast-forward to 2020 and we’re now in our 10th year of The Free Kick Project!

We’ve had over 1,000 students go through the program, with over 15 secondary schools involved. I’ll always remember arriving for the first year's competition 1,5 hours early to set up the fields, only to find all the players already there warming up, their excitement palpable.

I’d be interested to see if I can get something similar set up here given the Vietnamese love for football and recent fervor for the national teams.

Within Vietnam, my proudest achievement would be putting together a great legal team that functions exceptionally well together. This is despite a few good members moving on to bigger and better roles during my time here. Also, double-hatting as the CEO of our Hanoi branch for a number of years provided an opportunity to learn a lot about banking here in Vietnam.

Most satisfying at a personal level was taking 60 of our SCB staff to Singapore last year to represent Vietnam in the Standard Chartered Games. This was the first time we’d participated and for many staff it was their first trip to Singapore. Participating in 12 different sports including football, badminton, basketball, triathlon and table tennis whilst wearing the national flag and competing against teams from 7 other countries in the region was an amazing experience.

Needless to say, the Vietnam flag flew high wherever the team went. We were due to host the games this year but unfortunately COVID-19 has put those plans on hold until next year.

What advice would you give for effective leadership?

My advice to any aspiring managers is two-fold. Firstly, to lead a team you need to provide direction on where you want to go. This is imperative as you’re not going to achieve anything unless your resources are all pointed in the right direction and everyone understands the ultimate objective. For my team, we’re continually focused on client support and increasing efficiencies within the organization. The ultimate goal is to be the best inhouse legal team in the country!

The second piece of advice is to really care for the members of your team. Make sure you want each member to have success in their career. Keep in mind that an employee has a choice as to how well he or she does their job and an effective leader supportive of their development can be the distinguishing factor.

If your employees are happy, then there’s a far higher likelihood that they will choose to excel as opposed to simply waiting for the next pay packet. | Source: Co Nguyen for Vietcetera

If you’re looking for a team full of engaged, high-performing members then you need to come to the party as well. This means understanding where each team member wants to take their careers, what they enjoy about their jobs, what courses they’d like to pursue, what development they require to progress, what support they need when they’re operating outside of their comfort zones, etc.

In my experience, I’ve found that if staff have momentum and are developing as professionals then they will generally be happy. If they’re happy, then there’s a far higher likelihood that they will choose to excel as opposed to simply waiting for the next pay packet.

The future of banking – what imminent changes can consumers expect?

Banking, like most other industries, is going through a massive digital revolution. The primary consequence of this for the consumer is a wider range of banking services being accessible 24/7 via online or mobile devices. 

There is no doubt that this transition has been accelerated by the recent COVID-19 crisis. Before long, a full end-to-end digital experience will be in place enabling customers to open an account online, transact online and have queries addressed via chatbots leveraging AI.

Currently, most of such activity in Vietnam is in the payments space but in the coming years this will be supplemented by lending, investments and insurance offerings as well.

Already in a number of markets in the region such as Hong Kong, Malaysia and Singapore we’re seeing digital bank licenses being offered, and at some point in the future this may also occur here.

This is good news for the community as digital banking could lead to more financial inclusivity for those underbanked or unbanked. Banking penetration in Vietnam currently sits at around 30% so there’s plenty of room for growth.

I can’t talk about the future of banking without mentioning the various players now competing or partnering with traditional banks. Here in Vietnam we have a vibrant startup sector and fintech is an important part of that community, particularly with respect to payments.

Similar to other markets I can see that the larger consumer technology platforms (e.g. ride-hailing or e-commerce) will start looking to embed financial service products within their existing services as a way of monetizing their customer base. A customer’s digital journey could then potentially entail a loan at check-out utilizing immediately accessible credit data.

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