Hungry to learn, addicted to change
Hans De Cuyper (MBA-FSI, 2004) is one of the few, if not the only foreigner at the top of a government-linked Malaysian company. During the Beijing module of this year’s MBA-FSI he’ll be giving a lecture about the different aspects of setting up cross-cultural partnerships. More than lecturing, he’ll be sharing first-hand experiences.
Hans is CEO of Maybank Ageas Holdings Bhd, which is active in insurance and takaful – Sharia-compliant insurance. He also sits on the executive committee of Maybank, Malaysia’s leading bank and controlling shareholder of Maybank Ageas Holdings Bhd, a joint venture between Maybank and Ageas.
When asked why he took the MBA-FSI himself, he replies: “At that time I was director of risk management at ING Insurance in Belgium and I’d got to the point where I’d pretty much gone through all the insurance activities at ING. I was looking to broaden and deepen my knowledge and expertise. As I wasn’t planning to change sector, I felt I’d be using my time most effectively by doing this specialised MBA rather than a general one. Also, the format was such that I could combine it with my work, and the international dimension - in terms of locations and participant mix - was definitely a plus.”
Well-settled with his wife and two young sons, he wasn’t really looking for an international career. But while the MBA initially satisfied his hunger for learning, it also whetted his appetite for more. So, when Fortis approached him in 2004 to set up the regional office for insurance management in Asia, he took on the challenge. “I went to Hong Kong, was charmed by the city, and one thing led to another.”
Easy does it
Hans and his family left Hong Kong in 2007 and they’ve been living in Kuala Lumpur ever since. How does he compare doing business in Belgium to doing business in Malaysia? “Back in Belgium I used to have a rather forthcoming management style. In meetings I’d outline the issue, suggest a possible solution and then we’d discuss it. As a result, our decision would be based on a much broader perspective. When I tried the same approach here, people would just listen and start executing. In the beginning we had to reconsider certain decisions, simply because we’d overlooked some important facts.”
So how has he dealt with it? “I’ve had to learn to curb my enthusiasm and encourage others to give their opinion before making any suggestions. It’s a matter of culture. Malays have huge respect for hierarchy. Also, I'm a ‘mat salih’ – a white man. Rightly or wrongly, people expect me to know more than they do.” Over the years, however, he’s noticed a change in his team. “There’s much more interaction during meetings now. It seems I’ve managed to infuse this organisation with some aspects of our business culture.”
According to Flanders Investment & Trade, Flemish people are renowned for their multilingualism, productivity, loyalty and cross-border flexibility. Hans agrees. “I’d also add that we usually have a healthy dose of modesty. Expats who think they can just copy what they do back home are bound to fail. It’s about finding ways to adapt what you know works best in such a way that it works here as well. You shouldn’t be the one in the spotlight. You should make sure others, your hosts, can take centre stage.”
Has his MBA helped him in managing across different cultures? “It’s certainly given me a larger toolbox. And what’s more, it’s helped combat short-sightedness. After ten years in the same market you take certain things for granted that may not be so self-evident in another context. That’s also why once every two years I take the time to attend sessions or workshops on topical management issues, to keep abreast of the latest changes and developments, not only in my own area of business but in the world of business in general.”
A market in motion
Talking about change, how does the banking and insurance market deal with change? What does he see as the challenges ahead?
Hans thinks for a while before answering, choosing his words carefully: “Until the financial crisis our market was not particularly inclined to respond to change or rather, it was very much in control. If there’s one thing the crisis has made clear, it’s that our market was largely driven by the company’s interest first. And this is changing rapidly. Banking and insurance have become much more customer and service focused… The crisis has forced us to reflect on our strategic purpose. Why are we in business and how can we make sure we stay in business? These questions have become all the more pertinent and need to be asked regularly. Also, the crisis has battered the once infallible reputation of the financial services industry. I reckon that’s a change we’ll have to deal with for some time to come.”
On a more optimistic note he adds: “I also expect the way in which we bring our products to the market to change radically. Our high intermediation costs are no longer viable. What iTunes did for the music industry might happen to our business as well. After all, we deliver paper and promises. We could quite quickly digitise more of our processes.”
Change? Yes, please!
How about his own attitude to change? “It’s almost an addiction, really,” he says, smiling. “Every so many years I need some form of change. Mind you, that doesn’t necessarily mean moving or changing jobs, as long as there’s something new to it.”
His healthy addiction to change is probably explained by his hunger for learning, and vice versa. “It’s what makes me tick. I’m not a specialist. You won’t find me taking part in a quiz but I like to know more than average about lots of different things. This means I couldn’t settle for a job that would leave no time for anything else. I love sport, I want to keep fit. I have plenty of other interests and hobbies such as film, music, art and lifestyle. And I absolutely love spending my holidays travelling!” So what’s his next destination? His eyes twinkle as he answers: “We’re planning to explore East Australia by camper van!”