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Public Bank's Teh beats all the odds


Teh Hong Piow – A Banking Thoroughbred traces the eventful 40-year financial odyssey of Public Bank Bhd founder and chairman. The story tells of how Public Bank is the cornerstone of Teh's life: Public Bank is him and he is Public Bank. They are synonymous. The book will hit bookstoresnationwide soon. Proceeds from the sales of the book will go to charity. 

STARTING a bank by any measure is not only rare but also exceptional. 

For a young man – with only 16 years' experience in the banking industry and sharp business acumen – to set up his own bank and turn it into one of the country's finest financial institutions was a near impossibility. 

Nevertheless, Teh Hong Piow, then 36, beat all the odds and became the founder, owner and managing director of Public Bank Bhd, which opened its doors for business on Aug 6, 1966, in a three-storey building at No 4, Jalan Gereja in Kuala Lumpur. 

The book

Even from the start, Public Bank was no mediocre bank and different from the others – its niche was retail banking but with a new twist targeting the man-on-the-street. 

The strategy bore fruit and the bank achieved positive results in record time, registering a profit after only five months of operations. 

By the end of 1966, the bank's paid-up capital was RM12.75mil. On Sept 15, 1966, a second branch was set up in Malacca, while Public Finance, a wholly owned subsidiary, started business on Sept 24, 1966. On Jan 7, 1967, another bank branch was opened in Ipoh. 

On April 6, 1967, Public Bank was listed on the Kuala Lumpur Stock Exchange with a paid-up capital of RM16mil, a record then for a commercial bank. 

Malaysia's first Prime Minister Tunku Abdul Rahman Putra Al-Haj is warmly welcomed by Teh Hong Piow at the official opening ofPublic Bank on April 4, 1967.

The bank grew at an astounding pace, turning in profits every single year – even during the Asian financial crisis. 

To Teh, it was an exhilarating adventure from the beginning. He was never doubtful of the success of his venture. Nor did he see it as a gamble. As with all businesses, one needs to take a calculated risk. 

So how did it all start? 

Where most ventures do – with ambition – in this case an unshakeable ambition driving the eager young Teh, who began life as a small trader in Singapore. 

Teh had dabbled in tin mining, tourism, textiles and garments and property development, none of which gave him the fortune he sought. 

When he got a job as a bank teller he found his true, unswerving vocation. He wanted to do nothing else but banking and nothing less than owning a bank. 

Teh at the office

Teh joined the banking industry as a clerk in Oversea Chinese Banking Corp (OCBC) in 1950, at the age of 20. Within five years he was made an officer. 

His starting salary was just S$130 a month, hardly enough to provide for his family. Teh has four children – three daughters and a son. His wife, a teacher, was drawing a bigger salary. However, his main objective was not the pay but a chance to learn the banking trade. 

OCBC gave him the first defined glimpse of his dream – to start his own bank. Malayan Banking was the seminal phase, which developed him to the point when he was ready to take the plunge and realise his dream. 

In 1960, the 30-year-old Teh left OCBC to be part of a small group which helped start Malayan Banking. He was one of the management staff charged with building the bank from scratch. 

He rose swiftly through the ranks and became general manager within four years. 

In 1966 came the decision to strike out on his own. 

Teh - Boys Brigade

One of his earliest breakthroughs – a foray into housing development – generated some RM10mil, which was used as seed money to set up the bank. 

For his management team, Teh enlisted the support of one of Malayan Banking's founders, Khoo Teck Puat, to take with him 10 Malayan Banking staff. One of them was Public Bank's current managing director, Datuk Seri Tay Ah Lek, who along with the rest were supposedly on secondment. The rest, as they say, is history. 

Tan Sri Teh, as he became officially known from 1983, has seen his ambition fulfilled beyond his wildest dreams. And for one who's not known to rest on his laurels, he aims to take Public Bank to greater heights – making it a world-class player. 

Teh has started the ball rolling with the acquisition of Hong Kong-based Public Finance Ltd (formerly JCG Finance Co Ltd) in 1990 and Public Bank (Hong Kong) Ltd (formerly Asia Commercial Bank) in 2006 as well as operations in Indochina. 

The bank's key performance indicators are comparable with those of Hong Kong's Hang Seng Bank, the most profitable and efficient bank in the Asia-Pacific. 

Hence the question, is Public Bank on the way to join the ranks of global banking giants such as HSBC Holdings plc, Citi and Bank of America Corp? 

With Teh, nothing is impossible. 

  • Source: Teh Hong Piow – A Banking Thoroughbred 

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