With ANZ establishing a presence in Myanmar this month, Grant Knuckey is investing his expertise in the region’s most exciting markets
By Philip Heijmans Photography by Sam Jam
The banking sector in Southeast Asia’s emerging markets is surging. In Cambodia, deposits are increasing, topping $6 billion in 2012, while overall loan dispersals for new projects are at record highs. New commercial banks entering the scene are forcing a growing field of competitors to offer new services in an effort to stand out from the pack.
In Myanmar, the recent lifting of international sanctions has foreign banks racing to be among the first to plant their corporate flags in a country of nearly 50 million potential customers. Laos, too, has a small and underdeveloped banking sector, but experts expect that will change as economic conditions become more liberal.
While it remains unclear which banks will last in the region, nobody knows better than ANZ Royal Bank’s freshman CEO, Grant Knuckey, that it will take a strong and meaningful presence to make a lasting impression.
“Myanmar makes perfect sense for a bank that has a deep Mekong presence, plus you’ve got a country that sits in between China and India, two countries where ANZ has fast growing businesses. It’s potentially a very big market with a lot of trade and investment potential,” said Knuckey, who holds jurisdiction over Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar for ANZ. “For a bank in our position, you need to be there.”
With nearly 20 branches in Cambodia and Laos, ANZ will become one of the first foreign-owned banks to enter the Myanmar marketplace when it opens its representative office there in April.
“[The future in Myanmar] is certainly an unknown right now, but we will be spending time to work out a sustainable strategy there for the next 20 years,” Knuckey said.
The Cambodian market, on the other hand, is far more developed and on a sustainable path. However, Knuckey does believe that some cracks are appearing in a system that has been hailed for its recent progress.
“Rapid credit growth is always a threat to sustainability over a period of time and that has been proven time and time again in the world markets. Personally, I have some question marks over the current credit growth in Cambodia,” he said, referring to the relative concentration of borrowers and rapidly declining lending rates.
Knuckey began working out of Phnom Penh in June 2012, taking over as chief executive of ANZ Royal Bank following a decade-long Asia tour with ANZ that took him to ten different countries. This continental journey was all part of an ambition that began during his MBA studies at the turn of the millennium.
“I had really only one intent and that was to work in Asia, and my view then… was that this was going to be the place to be for the next few decades. The problem was how to get here,” he said.
Luckily for Knuckey, a former employer had an opening. “I was very fortunate to get a call from ANZ,” he explained. “It was an ex-boss, who said, ‘There is a job in Singapore, are you keen?’ So I went there and started the Asian part of my career – that was more than ten years ago.”
However, despite his success in banking, heading down the financial route was not the original choice of a young Kiwi in Wellington, New Zealand, who had just completed a degree in law.
“I was a bit idealistic going into it about what a lawyer does and we had a few lawyers in the family but, to be honest, I realised… it probably wasn’t where I wanted to go,” he said. “I saw myself heading more into a finance direction and – partly having had the idealism sucked out of me – I thought if I was going to become a commercial animal, I should go all the way and be a banker.”
“From prison to parliament” – National League for Democracy MP Phyo Min Thein discusses torture, ethnic violence and Myanmar’s long road towards democracy