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Banker at the Top: Q&A with DBS’s Tan Su Shan, managing director and group head, wealth management

Tan Su Shan

Q: Was banking what you always envisioned yourself doing? Why did you choose to go into wealth management?

A: In my second year at Oxford University [Tan graduated with a Masters of Arts], I did a summer internship in London with Rothschild and visited the dealing room at Barings Securities. I was 19 and fell in love with it. I knew this was where I belonged and where I was going to work. When I graduated, I got a job at Barings Securities in institutional equity sales. I worked there for the next eight years in London, Tokyo and Hong Kong.

In ’97, I moved back to Singapore and got married. I was offered the opportunity to join Morgan Stanley as a VP in wealth management and decided to go for it, even though it meant taking a pay and title cut. I was 29 then and thought I was young enough to try. If it didn’t work out, I could always go back to what I was doing before.

I made the transition to private banking because I felt it was time to broaden my market knowledge. I picked up FICC, commodities, hedge funds, ECM, DCM, M&A and credit. I left Morgan Stanley (as an executive director) after eight years and moved to Citi Private Bank as the region head for Singapore, Malaysia and Brunei. My three years there taught me how to manage people and opened my eyes to the world of commercial banking. I returned to Morgan Stanley for a year and moved to DBS in July 2010.

Why did I move to a Singapore bank? There was fresh new leadership under DBS CEO Piyush Gupta and I could see it was Asia’s time now. Having gone through the last financial crisis in ’08/ ’09, I saw a lot of money leave Europe and the US and come into Singapore banks. That was a big wake-up call for many bankers.

Q: What has been the most memorable and challenging aspect of your career so far?

I will never forget the day when Nick Leeson did a runner in February 1995 (causing Barings Bank to collapse with his speculative trades). The realisation hit that my colleagues and I may become jobless. It was déjà vu again when Lehman’s went down in the recent financial crisis and there was talk that Morgan Stanley was next. We gathered in the office in our pyjamas and everyone just bonded together.

On a more positive note, I’ve mentored quite a few young successful bankers, so seeing them do incredibly well is tremendously rewarding. Being able to build strong teams at DBS and be in an environment where we can spearhead change is also very exciting for me.

Q: There are regularly stories about the lack of women at the top in banking, why do you think this is the case? What has your own experience been like as a woman in banking?

We are quite lucky in Singapore. There are several female managing directors in Singapore, so I don’t really see female leadership as an issue here. I helped set up The Financial Women’s Association in Singapore. This is a platform for female bankers to network and help each other; we also run skills training for women who are re-entering the workforce.

I’m lucky that my mother is a good grandmother to my two children and my husband is very supportive. I also have a good domestic helper. Working women have to find help where they can. When my children were younger, I coped by working from home.

Now with technology like mobile phones and the internet, I try to work on the go whenever I can. I also try my best to be present at key events, even if I can’t attend every occasion. It’s time management and learning how to prioritise what’s important.

Q: What is your advice to female bankers who aspire to reach MD level or higher?

My advice is to make clear to your bosses your ambitions, understand what development points you require and how to get there. Basically chart your own career path and have regular dialogues with your boss and separately, a mentor.

Don’t be afraid to have presence and speak up. Being able to present well, engage people and think strategically are all important. If you want to rise through the ranks, you need to add value to your colleagues, clients and shareholders.

Q: What are your favourite questions to ask candidates that you are interviewing? What do you look for in their responses?

I always ask what motivates them. There’s no perfect answer, I just want to find out what makes them wake up and go to work, and if that’s present in our workplace. Markets and bonuses go up and down, so you need more to keep someone engaged in the long term.

I also ask interviewees questions about the business and markets. From their replies I look at how candidates have thought through certain issues – if they can think critically and strategically.

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