"Most of the financial institutions left the region. We stayed."
As a child, he left communist-era Prague for capitalist Jakarta and lived through the massive effects of the Asian crisis. Helman Sitohang has worked for Credit Suisse for nearly 20 years. As CEO for the Asia Pacific region, he knows that his customers attach great importance to loyalty.
Manuel Rybach: Mr. Sitohang, you were born in Czechoslovakia in 1965. Your family returned to Indonesia when you were nine years old. Looking back, how did your move to Asia affect you?
Helman Sitohang: Prague was a beautiful city, very orderly, but also communist and not that vibrant. Jakarta, on the other hand, was just beginning to develop and was capitalist – and I found that incredibly exciting. A spirit of entrepreneurship was in the air; practically anything was possible. Business was a constant topic of discussion – I noticed that immediately. Being thrown into an unfamiliar environment and having to find my way was a formative experience, and one that often proved helpful later on.
The population of Indonesia's capital city has increased from 4.5 million in the 1970s to more than 10 million today. How did you experience Jakarta's transformation into a global metropolis?
Our house was just around the corner from Sudirman Street, which is now one of the city's main thoroughfares, but at that time it was just a local road that I took every day as I walked to school. A car might pass by every few hours. Today it's one of those notorious streets where people can spend hours caught in a traffic jam. Back then, only one building in the entire city had 18 floors. My father and I would often go up to the top floor; we found it fascinating, having known only low, prefabricated buildings in Prague. Now, Jakarta has almost 70 high-rise buildings that are at least 150 meters high.
When did you develop an interest in banking?
When we arrived in Jakarta, I spoke only Czech – and that didn't do me much good in school. It took me a few months to pick up the local language, but I was good at mathematics, so I was able to survive. I discovered my talent for numbers and that, coupled with my enthusiasm for the vibrant business atmosphere that I was immersed in, started to spark my interest in banking.
You joined Credit Suisse after the outbreak of the Asian crisis in 1997. The region was in a state of shock.
I started my career in Indonesia. The situation was critical – with the exception of a minor dip in the 1960s, the economy had experienced uninterrupted growth. And suddenly everything fell apart in 1997. Indonesia's GDP dropped by 13 percent in just one year. No one had ever experienced this kind of situation, and no one knew how to handle it. Many of our clients were facing ruin; their capital was practically melting away, and some of the famous Asian billionaires had debts that exceeded their assets.
How did you respond?
We stayed true to our clients and supported them – despite the fact that it's not always easy, even for a bank, when a crisis hits. Most of the financial institutions left the region. We stayed. Our clients have never forgotten that. During that crisis period, Credit Suisse was able to build an outstanding reputation in Southeast Asia.
It's important to remember the sheer size of these markets. All together, China, India and Indonesia have a population of nearly three billion. Four out of ten of the world's people live in one of these three countries!
You work for a Swiss bank. What does "Swissness" mean in Asia?
Switzerland's entrepreneurial spirit is very highly regarded here, and of course entrepreneurship is in Credit Suisse's very DNA. Precision, attention to detail and a focus on quality are other strengths that are associated with the Swiss. Ultimately, Switzerland stands for tradition and longevity. Rather than chasing after the latest trends or abandoning clients at the first sign of adversity, the Swiss show solidarity, just as we did in Indonesia during the crisis.
What sets Asian clients apart, in general terms?
Eighty-five percent of companies are family-owned. That includes everything from small businesses in rural areas to multi-national conglomerates worth billions. It's interesting to note that many of these companies are still led, or at least owned, by members of the founding generation. The needs of our clients are a function of this ownership structure. Today many companies are transitioning to the next generation, wealthy families want to diversify their portfolios, and clients need help with their activities in the capital market – for themselves and their companies. We are also seeing a boom in philanthropy.
Nearly all of the financial institutions have now returned to the region, and they have ambitious growth targets. Asia is a key market for Credit Suisse, too. How do you differ from the competition?
As I've already mentioned, our bank occupies a special position here. And I've been here longer than any other CEO of an international bank in our region. What's more, our model works: Our investment banking and private banking work hand in hand; this is unique in the region and well suited to the prevailing family-based ownership structures. And in general Asia is simply the most interesting market in the world today. More people live here than anywhere else. Nowhere else have assets increased more rapidly over the past 10 years. Nowhere else are there more high net worth individuals.
Today many companies are transitioning to the next generation, wealthy families want to diversify their portfolios, and clients need help with their activities in the capital market – for themselves and their companies.
Where do you see the main opportunities for growth?
The rise of the middle class is a key topic. Asia is a textbook example showing which sectors experience a boom when disposable income exceeds a certain threshold – there is considerable demand for consumer goods, entertainment, media and health care. As far as countries are concerned, it's important to remember the sheer size of these markets. All together, China, India and Indonesia have a population of nearly three billion. Four out of ten of the world's people live in one of these three countries! Asia's emerging markets represent another trend. Today they are experiencing growth that is reminiscent of China 10 years ago. Again, we need to pay attention to the size of these markets: Taken together, the Philippines, Thailand and Vietnam are home to nearly half as many people as the European Union.
Setting aside all the hype, what risks do we need to take seriously in Asia?
There's no doubt that growth in China is the unknown factor with the potential to have the greatest impact. We continue to anticipate GDP growth of 6.5 percent, driven by investments in infrastructure and increased exports. But that's not set in stone. The world has become more uncertain, and that also applies to Asia. The big question is how relations between China and the United States will develop.
This year, for the 20th time, Credit Suisse will be holding the Asian Investment Conference (AIC) in Hong Kong, where issues like this will be discussed. What significance does this conference have for the Asian continent?
The AIC is the region's largest and most exclusive investment conference. It brings together policymakers, business leaders and scientists. Last year 3500 people attended this event, representing 18 trillion US dollars in assets. Jack Ma, Shinzo Abe, Michael S. Dell and Lawrence Summers – all of them have participated in the conference. We will have an incredible line-up of speakers again this year, including Mo Farah and Glenn Hubbard.