Interview with Lars Rejding, CEO of HSBC Kazakhstan

“The Kazakhstan economy continues to grow and there is a strong aspiration to improve international trade which offers ample opportunities for international companies to grow and for local companies to grow internationally!”

In this issue Lars Rejding (in the middle), PwC alumnus and CEO of HSBC Kazakhstan, described his career and shared his insights about the country’s banking sector with Derek Clark, PwC Assurance Partner (left side), and Alexander Kottmann, PwC Financial Services Director (right side).

The interview took place on a bright day early in Spring in Lars’ office at the Esentai Tower. The light and spacious venue provided tremendous views of the Tien Shan Mountains.

Derek: Where did you start your career?

Lars: I was at Stockholm University studying economics, finance and law and that enabled me to become familiar with many of the accounting firms. While there I concluded that starting my career as an auditor would be a good foundation to understand industry and provide insights that would help me deal with challenges later in my working life. I graduated in 1990 and had interviews with a number of firms. PwC impressed me the most, in particular the international aspects of their business, their customers and their people who were professional and friendly and I warmed to them.

Derek: How did you find life at PwC?

Lars: I have a range of memories. A new era of my life had begun. I started at PwC with around 20 other graduates. We found we had similar values and similar views of life. At first PwC seemed like an extension of university life and we worked hard and played hard. From the very beginning I felt a strong team spirit. It was training by doing. Valuable leadership and management opportunities came to us very early in our careers.

At that time PwC Stockholm was a small but rather exclusive firm. I worked in a general audit department. There was no opportunity to specialize in a particular industry and therefore I got a broad picture of various industries. I very much liked the PwC culture of hard work honesty and fairness and of being held accountable. The firm’s culture reinforced the core values that had been deep inside me since childhood. Those values helped me a lot later in my career.  I still have a lot of good friends from that time.

Alex: When did you leave PwC?

Lars: I had six years with PwC including a year’s secondment in Dusseldorf. By that time I had accumulated the experience I sought from the firm and wanted to try my hand in commerce. I was keen to understand how a CFO can contribute to a company’s success. I joined the Stockholm subsidiary of HSBC as CFO and soon afterwords became COO. I was responsible for a wide range of things including HR, Finance, Operations and IT. One of the things that attracted me to PwC was the fact it’s a global business with an international outlook. The same thing attracted me to HSBC and I’ve been able to extend my international experience by  working for the Bank in Jersey, Moscow, Brazil, Mexico and now Kazakhstan. I’ve been in Almaty for 18 months and it’s going well.

Derek: How do you feel about Kazakhstan?

Lars: I think Kazakhstan has had fantastic development for the last 20 years. The economy continues to grow and there is a strong aspiration to improve international trade which offers ample opportunities for international companies to grow and for local companies to grow internationally!

Derek: And what about the banking sector? Clearly the industry is going through difficult times.

Lars: That’s an interesting question. Since the crisis, some banks have experienced problems when trying to recover but I don’t think it’s fair to lump all local banks together. Some local banks are catching up and are doing well, while others continue to restructure. We also see increasing competition, particularly from Russian banks. Competition is healthy and the effect over time is that banks will need to broaden their proposition and offer a wider spectrum of services than purely lending. They will need to build strong sustainable customer relationships to service the total customer need – lending, payments, trade, foreign currency, capital markets access etc. This is very much the focus and the direction of HSBC.

Alex: How does your international network help you?

Lars: As the Kazakh industry grows stronger, local companies have an increasing demand for access to international financial markets and international companies have an increasing demand for local knowledge. Like many of our clients, we’re an internationally linked business. Our value proposition is built around a strong local presence and leveraging off our vast international network and our strong specialist capabilities.

HSBC is well placed to maximize value out of this in Kazakhstan as we indeed focus on providing the broad set of services to our customer relationships through our strong local capabilities. We also add value through our strong capabilities and presence in the target markets for many Kazakh companies. Thinking about it, this is not very different from the PwC value proposition.   

In retail we concentrate on the “mass affluent” segment and servicing the employees of our corporate relationships. With our international network and expertise in global financial services, we think of HSBC as being an ideal partner for customers who have or aspire to an international life style or business proposition.   

HSBC celebrates its 15th anniversary in Kazakhstan this year. We went through various phases of development for the first dozen or so years. Then, in 2010, HSBC took over a large retail business from RBS. That was a major development for HSBC and we clearly see the strategic value and potential of the country.

Derek: How would you describe your management style?

Lars: Hands on, open, inclusive and quite demanding. I expect a lot of ownership and accountability from our people. I give space for initiatives but am ‘firm’ with the direction.  I’ve worked in many countries around the world and adopted to various cultures but I don’t think that impacts my leadership style too much.  I’m simply a great believer that open and clear communication responds well in most cultures.

As an example, here in Kazakhstan I have introduced CEO Breakfasts where I regularly bring together 10 - 15 staff members from all levels to have informal discussions and receive feedback on how we see the Bank and where we are heading. I believe that locally it is quite unusual for staff to meet and openly discuss issues with the “Chairman of the Bank” – I am told that is not the norm. With a bit encouragement though, I get a great response. The staff and me enjoy the sessions and find them valuable. I learn a lot from their input and it makes them feel more included and engaged.

This kind of activity is also important for building the ‘culture’ and to enforce what matters to us as an organization. Creating the right culture at HSBC has been a major part of my job in Kazakhstan. The Bank suddenly went from 200 people to 700 in late 2010 when we acquired the RBS retail business. The culture we had with 200 people risked being swamped when we absorbed another 500. Equally, for the newcomers it was also important for them to quickly be on-boarded as we otherwise risked ending up with no culture at all, risked having a vacuum which would have been very unsettling for all our people. As a business leader, a very important part of the job is to establish a team spirit and be sure that everyone is heading in the right direction and understand what matters to us as a business – doing the right thing internally and externally.

At HSBC we conduct staff surveys every quarter, all over the world. I’m proud of the fact that our survey results are greatly improved with particular progress being made in the areas of inclusiveness, communication, clarity and staff engagement.

Derek: Tell us about your life outside the office.

Lars: I met my wife in 1994 while I was with PwC in Dusseldorf. She’s fantastic. We have enjoyed living in so many different parts of the world and we enjoy experiencing other cultures. We never forget it’s a privilege to be able to travel with the job and experience places, people and cultures. While we don’t have children, we have nine cats and three dogs; we are very close to them and they’ve travelled the world with us. Also as a result of the Bank, we have friends all over the world and we enjoy catching up with them.

I enjoy skiing and golfing and I like to cook as it helps me unwind at the end of the day. My favorite dish at the moment is a simple grilled salmon recipe. On weekends my idea of heaven is breakfast at home on the balcony, followed by a round of golf with friends, after which we relax over a barbecue.

Back in Europe I keep a vintage MGB sports car. It was manufactured in the year I was born, perhaps explaining why I’m so attached to it. I’d love to spend more time maintaining it and driving it.

Alex: What is your advice for young professionals starting their careers?

Lars: My advice is for people to remember what really matters to them, their core values - keep that very close to your heart and be true to it. Always be prepared to go the extra step. Get out of your comfort zone, keep challenging yourself, keep learning and give 100% to everything you do.

"Dare and care! Have fun on your way!