WHEN Chatchai Sirilai moved into the CEO’s office at Government Housing Bank (GHB) in 2016 he became the youngest head of a state-owned lender in Thailand. Though, at just 45, he was very much the veteran at the lender after starting out as a fresh-faced graduate.
Chatchai, looking back at that time, recalls in an interview with The Nation how his two decades of experience at GHB had equipped him well for his rise through the ranks,
“I had acquired much experience working at the bank after I graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Commerce and Accountancy (Statistics) from Chulalongkorn University and then gained a GHB scholarship to study for a master’s in computer science from Syracuse University in the US,” Chatchai said in the interview.
“With my qualifications, I was then able to go straight to work at GHB. That also gave me an opportunity to learn about the bank’s history, marked by ups and downs in line with periods of prosperity and economic slumps.
“With these insights, that’s why I decided to apply to become the bank’s chief executive officer two years ago.”
At the time of putting his hand up for the top job, Chatchai said that he saw the bank was facing a difficult period with the onslaught of the digital disruption that was sweeping across the banking sector.
He was acutely aware that GHB was among the banks that needed to act with greater urgency to change the business model in order to compete in the changing business landscape.
“I thought that I could draw on my experience in having learnt a great deal about the bank’s culture,” Chatchai said of his attitude to the challenge of seeking the CEO post at a state-backed lender that has a mission to provide housing finance to low- and middle-come earners.
“I had the required ability to manage the bank and guide its passage through the transformation needed to cope with the technological disruption in the industry.
“I was set on improving the fortunes of the bank in order for it to continue providing the opportunity for all Thais to have their own homes. Part of this effort was establishing a digital platform to help our customers gain loans more easily than they would have in the past.”
Chatchai said that after the GHB board gave him the nod as the bank’s youngest chief executive, he got down to work on drawing up a three-pronged strategy to drive forwards the institution’s goal of ensuring sustainable growth in its business
The first strand of this strategy was to devise a means of encouraging the bank’s workers to share the goals of the directors in driving organisational growth. The other elements addressed the changes needed for the bank to become a fully fledged digital service provider and, tied to this, how to reshape the mindset of the employees to adapt to the new ways of doing business in an environment of digital disruption.
For the first element of the strategy, Chatchai said that he broadened channels of communication with the staff to drive home the point that the bank has a responsibility to support Thai people in their efforts to achieve home ownership,
He stressed to the workers that while GHB is not only a provider of mortgage loans, it also bears a responsibility to find ways to help the disadvantaged people in society, such as the disabled, to share in the right to owning their own homes.
“We have instilled in our workers the message that it is our responsibility to help people of every background across the country to gain their own home,” Chatchai said.
“We must continue to find ways to help them achieve this goal. With our staff now being more clear about this responsibility, they are acting to explore all avenues to help people get on the property ladder.
“The staff are also proud to carry out this responsibility as they want to feel they are contributing to the efforts of these people to get a home of their own.”
On the technology front, Chatchai said he had changed the bank’s information technology (IT) system by assigning IT staff to carry out research and development on a system that can meet customers’ demands in order to achieve the second goal.
“Most of our staff asked me why we hadn’t invested to develop the bank as a digital bank. I had to explain to them that there were limitations imposed on the business that the bank can perform, as per the legislative Act that enabled the establishment of GHB,” Chatchai said.
“As such, the bank does not have a full licence as seen with the commercial banks. When we wanted to develop our digital system we had to develop the system in a way that matched with our business. As a result, we had to develop our digital system so that it could make the bank a digital service provider. This was achieved through our application that was develop by my IT team. The in-house work enabled us to make big cost savings in the development of the system in comparison with the outlays of other banks. We managed to spend only Bt59 million on the system.”
A greater challenge came, Chatchai said, with the effort to change attitudes among the staff for them to make the adjustment to working in an era of digital disruption.
This work had to be carried out a large scale as the bank has some 5,000 employees. Their mindsets and experience were shaped by the norms of the traditional banking environment, said Chatchai, noting that while some of them could make the necessary changes, others could not.
However, he takes encouragement from the signs that some of the people initially resistant to change are coming round to the new ways and are leaning how to work in the new environment.
Two years into his stewardship of the bank, Chatchai said that the progress on the three-pronged strategy is exceeding his expectations.
He speaks of the greater pride that staff now take in their work and the strides they are making in changing the way they do their duties.
With the improvements in the system and the new attitudes among the workers, the bank has succeeded in providing more mortgage loans to its customers, especially to those in the lower-income group and the disabled.
For the first half of this year, the bank issued new mortgage loans totalling Bt105.42 billion, up 53.67 per cent from the same period of last year. The amount covers 85,263 new accounts, of which 51,482 were opened by lower- and middle-income people receiving loans for homes valued at under Bt2 million.
For the second half of his mandated four-year term, Chatchai said that he aims to restructure the bank and the plans are in the process of being proposed to the GHB board. The restructuring is aimed at building on the gains already made to improve the bank’s position in ensuring sustainable business growth.
“As I said at the start of this interview, I spent time learning about the bank’s history and saw that the swings between the prosperous times and slumps depends a lot on the performance of the bank’s leader,” Chatchai said.
“This question weighed on me in trying to determine how to solve the bank’s problems for the long term. This is important because the bank has to have a stable strategy to drive the business’s growth for the long term and thus be less dependent on who comes in next as the leader. This is difficult to do, but I will try to achieve that.”
Chatchai said that when his set term ends in two years, he expects that the bank will decide on a new leader who will drive the bank’s business growth at an even faster pace than he would achieved.
Such an outcome would work out better for both the bank and the Thai people who rely on it to secure financing for their homes.
“At that time, I would not want the bank’s staff to miss me or to pay too much attention to the role I played in the improvements, as that would give less space for the new CEO to take the work forward,” Chatchai said. “I hope the staff will forget me, as that would help the new chief to do an even better job than me.
That would mean the bank beds down sustainable growth – and that’s what is most important.”