SEB: Putting Service Back into Banking
SEB has made a name for itself in Asia, becoming the largest Nordic bank in the region after opening its first Asian branch in Singapore in 1979. It attributes that success to the way it views itself, which is as a relationship bank. “The whole idea is we follow our clients as they grow, everywhere they go. Growth in Asia has been much higher than other parts of the world for some time, so it was only natural that we follow our clients here. Their growth helps lead to our growth,” said Jan Stjernström, general manager for the Southeast Asia and Pacific region at SEB. “SEB set up shop in Asia after our clients in Europe that we had strong relationships with came over here. The majority of our clients are Nordic or German, and of course Norway has long had a business relationship with Singapore because of shipping links. “But having said that, it still comes down to trust. SEB has been here for a long time, established in 1866. For example, Norsk Hydro was founded in 1904 and SEB started providing it assistance in 1909. Our customers know they can trust us, but the advice still has to be sound. “A lot of our small and medium-sized enterprise (SME) clients are from Sweden, but we would welcome more from Norway and Germany as there are several opportunities for them in this region. Several SMEs feel they don’t have the resources to expand overseas, so we help them with that and provide advice on financial decisions. The region can also be challenging for newcomers from Europe, especially in terms of attitudes toward corruption.”
SEB conducted a recent survey of local chief executives and found them to be generally upbeat about the regional economy.
“Local CEOs see some warning signs, describing Indonesia and Malaysia as a concern for the short term. But for the long term, everyone is positive about the region. The Philippines and Vietnam are getting a really good response,” said Mr Stjernström.
“For Thailand, we see industrial production signs improving in some segments, which is positive going forward.”
Lars Hagne, head of international corporate coverage in Singapore, said the bank’s customer- centric approach has three prongs. First, it wants to offer competitive terms and service levels to help build a relationship. Second, it works to foster that relationship over the long term. And finally, it hopes to excel at advice, always putting the clients’ needs first. “SEB also works with partners in Asia because in some markets we are not allowed to compete,” said Mr Hagne. “We do a lot of cross-border transactions, which is challenging because we take risks on using local banks as well as the buyers and sellers.” Thailand is notable for SEB because of the large number of private banking clients it has living here. Many of them are retirees who have moved here from Europe, said Mr Stjernström. The bank’s Singapore office focuses on corporate matters such as cash management, foreign exchange and lending, with an emphasis on the shipping industry. It has 110 employees. SEB also has an office in Shanghai opened in 2005, and another in Hong Kong specialising in financial institutions that started in 2011. The bank’s branch in Tokyo has 200 team members.