July 27, 2021

‘World tours’ and broken glass ceilings: A global banking giant invests in Singapore talent

By brit

Mr Fonzarelli Ong’s eyes were first opened to global perspectives in junior college.

The National Junior College alumnus recalls two literature teachers — a Singaporean and a foreigner — who would engage in friendly banter, each bringing their own unique perspective to the subject.

Then, when he attended Nanyang Technological University (NTU), he was taught by an international faculty, including an Indonesian business law lecturer, who would often cite Indonesian and Australian cases from his time as a lawyer.

“I loved the diversity of thought,” says Mr Ong. “And as a young person, I thought that was such a brilliant way to expose us to what an international world would look like. It enriched the experience of someone who’d never lived outside Singapore before that.”

The accountancy graduate joined global bank Citi in 2005 as a management associate. Today, Mr Ong, 40, works in London as director of corporate sales and solutions for Citi Markets, where he does business development for Citi’s digital and fintech sector across Europe, the Middle East and Africa. His career also includes a 2.5-year stop at Citi’s Hong Kong office.

“Some of the countries I’m working with tend not to have a lot of multinational corporations (MNCs),” he says. “People there would have to apply for a job overseas if they want international experience. But it was easy for me because in our own backyard we have all these options available.”

Citi, which began operations in Singapore in 1902, is one of the Republic’s largest foreign banks here with about 8,500 staff. As with many MNCs based here, the local office serves as a regional hub housing its leadership teams for Asean and the rest of Asia.

Mr Ong has benefitted from the bank’s focus on sending employees on a geographical and departmental “tour” of its operations. Apart from his management associate programme, he also underwent a vice-president development programme for a month across Citi’s New York and London offices.

Training programmes that offer rotations not only give staff the flexibility to try various roles and benefit from mentorship, but also provide them the chance to pivot to other career paths if their interests evolve, he says.

Among the programmes open to young talent are the Summer Analyst Programme for interns, Full-Time Analyst/Associate Programme for management associates, and the Asean Talent Development Programme, which aims to develop future leaders for senior roles in the region.

Mr Ong’s 14-year career at the bank includes eight different roles across teams like foreign exchange sales, risk management and digital banking.

“This has helped me understand what the bank’s priorities are in terms of taking care of customers and ensuring that the products we launch make sense for people. This breadth of experience has given me a better appreciation of the business,” he says.

“Citi is one of the world’s most global banks, and mobility is highly encouraged,” says Mr Joel Fastenberg, Citi’s head of human resources for Singapore and Asean. “We offer staff in-country and cross-border mobility programmes to give them the opportunity to gain new skills and experiences without leaving the bank.”

Financial institution breaks Wall Street’s glass ceiling with women leaders

The most memorable assignment of Ms Serene Gay’s career came just weeks into her first job. She was tasked to lead a telesales team of 12 to 16 people in conducting portfolio engagement activities — enormous responsibility for the fresh graduate from NTU’s business school.

“It was the school of hard knocks,” says the Singaporean, who joined the bank in 2000. “That was instrumental in building who I am.”

Ms Serene Gay, 43, was appointed Citibank Singapore’s head of credit cards and personal loans in May. PHOTO: SPH

Two decades later, Ms Gay, 43, is Citibank Singapore’s head of credit cards and personal loans. With more than 16 years of experience in the bank across Singapore, China and Thailand, she oversees credit cards and unsecured lending in consumer and commercial banking.

The mother of two daughters, aged 13 and nine, is also in charge of driving Citi’s customer growth, portfolio management and customer retention for credit cards and ready credit.

NTU accountancy graduate Chan San-San, 42, joined Citi as a management associate in 2003. She scored a six-month programme at its New York headquarters just two years later and then again in 2015.

Ms Chan, who has a 12-year-old daughter, was recently appointed Citi’s private banking high net-worth (HNW) head for Asia-Pacific. In her new role based in Singapore, she will lead and drive the growth of the HNW segment — clients with a net worth of US$10 million (S$13.5 million) to US$25 million.

This month, Ms Chan San-San was one of five Singaporeans appointed to senior positions across Citibank’s Asia-Pacific operations. PHOTO: SPH

The two Singaporean womens’ career growth is a testament to Citi’s reputation as the “university of banks”. Several senior leaders in corporations and the Government hail from the financial institution, Ms Gay explains.

Ms Chan adds that there is a “very deliberate” attempt in the bank to ensure women are given opportunities to move up in the organisation at all stages of their careers, from vice-president to managing director.

Gender diversity has historically been poor at banks and in the financial sector, particularly at the management level. Last year, a global report of 468 companies by management consultancy Oliver Wyman found that the percentage of women in leadership roles in finance hovered around 20 per cent.

Citi is looking to change that: It recently launched an Early ID Women’s Leadership Programme in Asia-Pacific to develop a pipeline of potential women bankers.

It aims to achieve at least 50 per cent representation of women in its annual summer analyst intake for its investment banking and markets and securities services businesses. These are areas where the representation of women has typically been more challenging, it says.

In 2013, Ms Chan and Ms Gay flew to New York for a three-day Citi Women’s Leadership Development Programme. The course, which aims to build leadership skills among the bank’s high-performing women directors and managing directors, included talks by speakers from top universities on working styles and how women can succeed at work.

Last September, Citi’s CEO, Ms Jane Fraser from Scotland, made history as the first woman to run a major Wall Street bank.

Says Ms Chan: “At the end of the day, we focus a lot on diversity of perspectives because as a global bank we realise that there’s global talent everywhere and we want to make sure that voices are heard.”

This is the third of an eight-part series titled “Going global, thinking local” in partnership with the Ministry of Trade and Industry.