Chinese bankers are often low-key state-employed bureaucrats whose names are rarely known outside the industry. One exception is Ma Weihua, president of the small but highly regarded China Merchants Bank (CMB).
Mr Ma, 55, is ranked in public surveys as one of the country’s favourite financial figures, alongside Alan Greenspan and Warren Buffet.
Mr Ma rose to national fame because of his strong leadership in transforming an obscure, weak bank into an industry leader in terms of innovation, marketing and profitability. When he assumed the reins in 1999, the bank was burdened by a non-performing loan (NPL) ratio of 13.3% and a presence limited to the south, near its Shenzhen headquarters.
Now it is one of China’s most profitable banks, with a year-on-year 46% increase in earnings to Rmb844.75m ($102.1m) in the third quarter of 2004 and a NPL ratio of 2.7%. Under Mr Ma, CMB was the first bank in the country to introduce online banking in 1999 and, since then, other forms of electronic banking.
Mr Ma is also the bank’s best marketing weapon, persuading clients eloquently that his bank, which has only 1% of China’s banking assets, is the best and most reform-minded. Most Chinese bankers recite party documents; Mr Ma speaks like a genuine banker. He also has charisma; he has “electricity”, as one businessman said, who met him recently in Beijing.
Mr Ma, who has an economics degree, worked his way up steadily through China’s financial bureaucracy. Between 1990 and 1998, he worked at various divisions of the central bank in Beijing and the southern province of Hainan. There, he oversaw the receivership of the bankrupt Hainan Development Bank, which gave him an important example of how not to run a bank.
When The Banker asked him what makes a good banker, he said conscientiousness and integrity were the most important qualities. “If something goes wrong with a bank, it will affect the interests of ordinary people and threaten the stability of society. Bankers must uphold the credibility of their bank as sacredly as that of their own lives,” he said.
He believes the biggest challenge facing Chinese banks is better corporate governance. “We have made a lot of progress in recent years. However, we need to do more before we can survive in the face of growing competition from foreign banks.”
Risks: Having done so much in five years at CMB, Mr Ma is ready to move on, probably to become head of one of China’s four largest state banks. If that does not happen, it will have much to do with politics, rather than his management credentials. He does not seem to have a strong patron at the centre of government, since his relocation to the south in 1992 to head various institutions.
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