July 23, 2012

The Passionate CEO

Weihua Ma, the force behind one of China’s major state-owned banks, opens up about why he hopped off the Communist party’s fast track to head up a failing bank and what he’s learned along the way.

Betsy Wiesendanger
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Innovation and transformation, the themes of the 2012 China Business Initiative Global Summit, are two adjectives that have infused Weihua Ma’s 40-year career. The CEO of China Merchants Bank for the past 12 years, Ma has steered the state-owned institution from near-insolvency to dominance in China’s consumer banking sector. While other state-owned banks focused on commercial lending, Ma spearheaded consumer-focused products such as mobile cell-phone banking and a dual-currency credit card. Current assets total 2.9 trillion yuan (US$464 billion); last year the company broke into the Fortune 500.

Ma was a keynote speaker at the summit, held on July 7 in Shenzhen and organized by the Chazen Institute of International Business at Columbia Business School. During a break, 64-year-old Ma paused to reflect on his transformation from communist party official to CEO and why he’s continually seeking the next big thing.

Chazen Global Insights: You were an official with the Communist party when you were tapped to head China Merchants Bank [CMB]. What adjustments did you have to make?

Ma: I turned from being a regulator to the person being regulated. I also turned from a job that involved macroeconomic management to managing commercial banking on a daily basis. Back then, the CMB was still a small bank with around 100 billion yuan [US $15 billion] of assets, and not many people knew about it.

CGI: Did being small have its advantages?

Ma: Well, when I took the job, CMB was suffering from two of the major consequences of the Asian financial crisis. The first was a run on our Shenzhen branch, caused by some rumors. The second was that regulators halted CMB’s offshore banking business. These two crises were a matter of survival for the bank.

These ups and down gave me lessons on how commercial banks can deal with this risk. To fundamentally prevent this kind of risk, you need to have a strategy. So we started to formulate a five-year plan.

CGI: Isn’t this a lesson US banks should have learned?

Ma: Well, sure. After the subprime financial crisis, US banks are definitely going to learn from it.

Over hundreds of years, Wall Street has created or gone through dozens of crises, but it never fell down. After each crisis it found a new way out, and started to innovate and grow again.

CGI: Some people would argue that Wall Street came pretty close to falling down this last time around.

Ma: I think Wall Street’s role in creating wealth is much larger than its role of destroying wealth. Wall Street can provide lessons for the whole world to learn.

I’ve served in this position for 12 years, and I think I have become smarter and more mature over all these years. After dealing with [CMB’s] liquidity crisis, we started to formulate a plan for future development [that centered around] the internet, and we started to evolve our international presence. We had only a few physical branches at that time, but we were very ambitious about our retail business.

CGI: Twelve years is a long tenure for any CEO, either in China or outside of it. What’s the key to your success?

Ma: I think I can identify maybe two personal qualities that have contributed to this success. One is passion for this business — the love for what you are doing. The second is a sense of responsibility. Of course, CMB’s success is also due to many outside factors, such as the reform process of China, economic development, and efforts by my employees and my colleagues.

I also collect a lot of information. I use the internet to familiarize myself with young people and with the language they are using so I connect better with my employees. I carry my iPad with me to take pictures of the architecture styles I like, because sometimes I have to make decisions on the design of our branches. On international flights I like to catch up with movies and novels, especially those which have a very deep depiction of current society. This is a colorful world and there’s so much to learn.

CGI: Is this the career path you envisioned for yourself?

Ma: It was an accident, almost. I should be a government official because I served in government since graduation from college. I was among a group of officials that the government tried to foster to assume higher positions, so I would actually be a very senior official today. Along the way, there were many offers of major government positions that I refused. Many of my colleagues and schoolmates are now in major positions in the central government and in the provinces. I have never regretted my choice. I like this job very much.

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