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CO-WRITTEN / PARTNER | Tim Charlton, Singapore
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Mazars partners welcomed to ABF Awards judging panel

In this exclusive interview, Justin Tan and Sean Choo also share their thoughts on the “new normal” of Post-COVID-19 banking.

Justin Tan is a Partner at Mazars Consulting based in Singapore,focusing on financial services consulting in the Asia-Pacific. Formerly a Partner at Oliver Wyman, he has also served as Head of Strategy and Business Development of Merrill Lynch Wealth Management in the Pacific Rim.

His experience includes strategy development and business transformation in Retail Banking and Wealth Management, as well as the development of robust analytics capabilities, framework and tools applied to both digital and traditional segments.

Sean Choo is also a Partner at Mazars Consulting, and is focused on financial services. He has over 20 years of consulting and industry experience in banking across Asia, working with global, regional as well as local leading banks in South East Asia, Hong Kong, Taiwan, China, Japan, Korea and Australia.

Sean’s expertise spans banking strategy, proposition design & customer experience, digital, analytics, risk management, sales effectiveness and end-to-end process redesign, across retail and wholesale banking.

Both Tan and Choo are part of the extensive judging panel for the Asian Banking and Finance Awards in 2020, lending their individual expertise to review the more than 500 submissions across each of the award categories. In this exclusive joint interview, they also share their their thoughts on the unprecdented environment that the banking industry finds itself in in 2020.

Can you share with us your work experience or any backstory that has contributed to your professional career? How did you end up at Mazars Consulting?

Both of us started our respective careers at a leading global management consultancy focusing exclusively on the financial services industry. We joined at a time when the firm was a nascent, bordering on start-up, player in the Asia-Pacific market. By the time we left, our previous firm had grown into a well-established, leading player in the industry.

These formative years were instrumental in nurturing the entrepreneurial spark in us, even as we pursued our respective careers in banking – Justin was Head of Strategy and Business Development at Merrill Lynch Wealth Management in Asia Pacific, while Sean was a key executive in the strategy group at Barclays Capital.

The Global Financial Crisis hit, and as they say, the rest was history.

Justin saw this as an opportunity to take the plunge into entrepreneurship, by co-founding a boutique consulting firm leveraging his experience and expertise in financial services, and was joined shortly after by Sean as a pioneering leader of the firm. We ran our consulting outfit for a good seven years; it was, on the whole, a successful and profitable if not stellar run, with a business presence spanning Southeast Asia to Greater China, but the proverbial seven-year itch prompted us to seriously contemplate the future direction of the firm, especially since it has grown from a small team to a modestly-sized outfit comprising of several young, capable and ambitious consultants who have, in many ways, entrusted their careers to us.

At the same time, Mazars knocked on our doors as it was committed to expanding into the financial services market in the Asia-Pacific, as a natural extension of their successful European franchise into a massive and booming market. One thing led to another; we were convinced of their commitment and sincerity to invest over the long haul in this market, and importantly we felt that joining a global platform would only be a boost for the future careers of our young consultants as well as for our clients increasingly looking towards global expertise and support, while the unique globally integrated partnership model which is the DNA of Mazars would enable us to continue running our outfit with virtually full operational autonomy, thereby effectively enabling us to transition from entrepreneurs to ‘intrapreneurs’. We therefore decided to integrate our firm into Mazars, and became global Partners co-leading the financial services consulting practice across the whole of the Asia-Pacific.

How have client priorities evolved since the onset of Covid-19, or what shifts do you expect as a result of the new normal situation?

Prior to the onset of Covid-19, I would describe most of our client conversations as ebullient, even ‘gung-ho’, if tempered by a baseline level of circumspection. The majority of our clients were focusing on making sure that they transform, and invest in transformation, to keep up with the times and, in some cases, keep up with the ‘Joneses’, including the fintechs and neobanks on the horizon. Key themes that dominated our client priorities then ranged from building new digital propositions, if not digital banks per se, to capture potential segments such as millennials and small businesses in an economically viable manner, to leveraging analytics and AI ‘aggressively’ to not only provide new insights into client behaviours and preferences, but importantly also to transform the end-to-end customer journey and overall experience.

After the onset of Covid-19, in the new uncertain ‘normal’ of today, whilst I would not necessarily describe that clients have largely pulled back from their ambition or placed large-scale investment plans on hold, certainly their level of ambition has been tempered by the new economic realities and, indeed, risk. This does not imply ‘risk off’ per se, but certainly we see a palpable shift along the risk spectrum towards the more conservative end, but varying obviously by each organization’s individual situation and risk appetite. This is, in our view, probably not a bad thing; we already saw increasingly the danger of exuberance not necessarily grounded in sound economic fundamentals pre-Covid-19, with market players having been caught up in a kaleidoscope of new trends, technologies, and new ‘white spaces’ to conquer.

Going forward, we expect good ‘old-fashioned’ economic rationality to prevail, with clients increasingly balancing short-to-medium term profitability with longer term investments, and overall questioning the economic viability of any new significant venture or investment, beyond just acquiring the latest ‘shiny toys’.

We’re hearing and reading about AI, digital banking, APIs and open banking. What are some key topics or trends that resonate with your clients nowadays?

Those that you have listed above certainly epitomize the lexicon that dominate discussions across the industry, and certainly amongst our clients. That said, we find that clients, especially the more ‘discerning’ ones, are increasingly going beyond these buzzwords to understand not only how these trends would inexorably shape the industry and their specific markets, but also more importantly, if and how they could identify and potentially exploit selected trends strategically, and develop the new capabilities and mindset transformation that will be inevitably required for them to embrace these new developments successfully. In other words, clients are increasingly selective about which areas to take strategic bets on, how to make correspondingly smart investments.

This is especially crucial in an environment of increasingly tight economic constraints and relentless market and technological disruptions. The importance of possessing both strategic clarity and smart execution in this ‘new normal’, especially post-Covid, cannot be overstated. For example, whilst virtually everyone would agree that AI, machine learning and the like is transforming banking from internal processes to the client experience, the ‘optimal’ way to adopt such technologies and leverage them to deliver tangible benefits inevitably varies across clients and markets, depending on their positioning, size, resources, etc. Some clients take a big bang approach, making massive investments embarking on ambitious transformation plans, while others take a somewhat more incremental, bottom-up approach, preferring to make selective bets to improve selected processes and business decisions, thereby building internal momentum in a practice way which in turn breeds further success and overall confidence. As such, beyond the key trends that we get bombarded with, our clients are increasingly focused on the ‘how’ and ‘how to’, practical matters that resonate with them today in a world of uncertainty and volatility.

How do you differentiate yourselves as Mazars Consulting? What’s your plan for the business going forward, and what can your clients expect more of in the near term?

At Mazars Consulting today, we specialize only in the financial services industry. More than that, given both our current modest size as well as our respective experiences in both consulting and banking, we only specialize in consulting for high value areas that place a premium on expertise and real-world practical experience, such as embedding cutting-edge data analytics and AI solutions into business decision-making and overall organizational ‘DNA’, helping Asian financial institutions create ‘greenfield’ wealth management businesses that are ‘future-proof’ and calibrated to succeed in the unique Asian wealth market, as well as , of course, partnering our clients on the digital transformation journey, especially in terms of ‘re-engineering’ the customer experience. Looking ahead, we expect to continue deepening our expertise in these chosen areas of expertise which we believe we have unique competitive advantage in, and broadening our experience in terms of expanding into new clients and markets in the Asia-Pacific, building on what believe is today a solid core of expertise and client credentials.

As such, our clients should frankly expect ‘more of the same’, in terms of high quality delivery and intimate partnership on their transformation journeys which is, in our view, a hallmark from working with a specialized boutique outfit driven by dedicated professionals with a ‘business owner’ mentality. Beyond that, clients will expect us to continue to innovate and to bring innovative ideas and solutions to them, as they face unprecedented, multi-faceted disruptions, across technology, customer demand, market regulations, and so on. As strategic partners to our clients, we promise to evolve together with them, with a spirit of fortitude and adventure, and in so doing aim to create mutual success and precious shared experiences.

 

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