AFTER TAKING the helm of Kasikornbank' in 1992, Banthoon Lamsam considers he has more than 80 per cent accomplished his mission. The full accomplishment will come when he retires and the bank prospers long after that.
The banker sees his retirement coming only when the operations structure, information-technology system and, importantly, the KBank brand are strong amid the fierce competition in the industry. Banks offer similar products but branding is more effective than advertising, he said. Branding is about the bank’s image. When people want to finance their car or house purchase, the strong brand will tell them which bank they should go to.
“If I leave, it must be better than when I was here. It would be a failure if I left and it fell apart,” he said.
Last year, Banthoon turned 60, the age at which most Thais retire, which sparked speculation over when he would leave the bank founded in 1945 by his grandfather, Choti. The speculation heightened last year when he appointed Predee Daochai and Teeranun Srihong as co-presidents and set himself up as chairman and chief executive officer.
The speculation comes amid fierce competition and opportunities driven by the Asean Economic Community (AEC). While Bangkok Bank is the Thai bank with the widest network in Asean, Banthoon does not see any other Thai banks, including his own, following in BBL’s footsteps. Rather, he sees KBank as a facilitator, cashing in on the AEC as well as China’s rising prosperity.
Over the past 10 years, Banthoon has worked hard to establish a foothold in China. When the bank opened its second branch in that country last March, he disclosed the plan to obtain more branch licences, to achieve the ultimate goal of becoming a truly local bank even though that could take years.
Such patience should yield fruit, given China’s prominent status in the global economic arena, when the AEC starts. China’s economic slowdown is not a worry, as its growth rate is still well above 7 per cent. In parallel, KBank in the past few years has forged partnership with several banks in Asean nations.
“Thai banks have insufficient money to acquire other banks in Asean. We must find a new business platform. Through partners, we can facilitate our customers. This helps us maintain our customer base. Banking is not just about lending. It entails the provision of knowledge and other services,” he said.
In this scenario, it is important that Thailand and KBank ponder the roles that they can play to act as a bridge between China and Asean. The stronghold in China will help KBank prosper when the AEC starts, Banthoon believes.
At home, his focus is on neutralising differences among KBank’s executives. He is also looking for his own replacement. For a successful transition, he needs to be sure that when the baton is passed, the next guy can do the job.
Saying that he will not die in his chair, when the time comes, he will not hold a single position related to the bank, which as a result of the 1997 financial crisis is no longer majority-owned by the Lamsam family.
“The bank and I are identical. Thais don’t look at figures but they see me as the bank’s representative. It’s good for the image but it could be bad. If I die, whose face will represent the bank? If I remain as chairman, all responsibility will still fall on me. I will not hold any honorary positions.”
Buying a hotel in Nan, after retirement, Banthoon sees himself devoting time to reforestation in the northern province.
Repeatedly telling people how much he hates being a banker, Banthoon noted that running the bank was an assigned mission. “I have another mission that I want to do and there’s limited time, as I’m now 60,” he said.
Good health is what he is after, to finish the other mission. His father died at 68 of cancer, while his grandfather passed away before 50. Despite the urge to quit the banking business, he knows that the house must be put in order first so that he will be able to leave and live in peace. His retirement will come soon.
“If I can’t leave, that means failure.”