A leading light in Cambodia’s banking industry is an Englishman of the colonial banking tradition called John Brinsden. During his long, steady career at Standard Chartered Bank, he learned the tricks of the trade from the textile mills of Bandung, Indonesia, to the Punjab region of North India, to the rural cities of Iran, to Vietnam as the country was starting to open up.
The most satisfying part of his career, how-ever, has been right here in Cambodia, where teamwork with ACLEDA Bank CEO In Channy and hundreds of others created the conditions for the bank to grow from $16.5 million in assets in 2000 to $1.5 billion today and transform itself from an NGO into Cambodia’s largest bank.
“One day, my former Standard Chartered Bank chairman said to me: “How are the mighty fallen!” when he heard I was working for a micro-finance organisation. I replied: ‘When you get 24 per cent return on investment, you can come and see me and I might give you a job,” Brinsden chuckles.
His father, a Royal Air Force Spitfire pilot in the Battle of Britain, was shot down three times – the last time becoming a POW in Stalag Luft III.
“Even at the age of six, we had to put on a suit for dinner. He was very strict. It was part of the level of society, and that’s the thing one did: you dressed for dinner.
“My only recollection I have of the war was my nanny bathing me in the garden when a US Air Force Thunderbolt crashed behind the wall into the field behind our house. I remember the air-raid sirens.”
Brinsden’s grandfather served as the adjutant of RAF Duxford during the Battle of Britain.
“I was named after my uncle John, who was killed in the first week of the war.”
Brinsden’s outlook on Cambodia is highly optimistic. “In Cambodia, you’re starting off on a fairly low economic base.
“A country and economy like Cambodia expanding at the rate it is, has a thirst for new services and mineral resources which are totally unexplored _ the French never really did a geological survey, and all kinds of things are popping up out of the woodwork here for somebody who’s got an entrepreneurial bent,” he said.
Brinsden’s easy-going style belies a rigorous attention to detail, something that’s been one of the keys to his and ACLEDA’s success.
Another key to success has been correspondent banking, with ACELEDA acting as the correspondent bank for more 450 other bank branches around the world, making it very easy for other banks to use ACE-LEDA to interface with their own, like Wells Fargo, JP Morgan Chase and many others.
“All their transfers come through us, which creates cash flow and foreign exchange,” he says.
“Very few bankers of my generation considered correspondent banking as being an actual business, yet you can earn a lot of money out of it.”
A huge amount of money, in fact.
“In 2004, we went out and we got a Moody’s rating. No company in Cambodia had ever had a Moody’s or Standard and Poor’s rating. In those days we were borrowing from foreign banks and as soon as they learned we had a Moody’s rating, right away they reduced our interest rates.”
“We invited banks to come and open inter-bank accounts with us at ACLEDA. We used that as a marketing tool and as fee income. Even today it had never occurred to anyone that being a correspondent can actually be a huge business.”
Brinsden says the Cambodian government’s business-friendly attitude has been very helpful
“The government are very friendly and it is very easy here to open a business. Running a business is more difficult, and you can come to a conclusion that they want success as much as you do.”
His was a childhood of classic Englishness, and when he went for his first job, the interview was entirely about cricket.
“If I had not played a sport, they would not have hired me,” he says. In the British colonial tradition of Standard Chartered Bank, every young officer was chosen to work as part of a team.
“My interview for the bank lasted one hour, 55 minutes discussing my prowess at cricket, five minutes about the Malay language, and nothing else. At the end, the interviewing officer said, ‘Are you free to play for the bank’s cricket team on Saturday afternoon? Excellent, you can start work on Monday morning.’
“There was a reason behind it: team spi-rit. If you didn’t play a team sport you didn’t get in. Promotion – at least at the beginning - was entirely on length of service, not on your ability. Promotion was pretty much automatic in your early years, which at least discouraged office politics. You couldn’t further your career by being nice to anybody. And everybody got the same ten per cent bonus.”
At 21, Brinsden was sent to Malaya, in charge of 40 native clerks.
“They had these 40- or 50- year-old Chinese clerks who knew far more about banking than I ever did,” he notes. Later Brinsden he served in Calcutta, India.
“For a bachelor it was a wonderful place: every kind of social life you could possibly wish for, and I even played polo on a sub-accountant’s salary.”
Later he was sent to Amritsar, in northwest India, the Center of the Sikh religion.
“There was a very small expat community, mostly dominated by the Jesuits. They were a grand bunch and taught kids at their school how to play rugby.” Brinsden served as second in charge of the branch.
“I was called the Chota Sahib, small guy.
“Banking was fairly simple in those days. The textile and garment industry in the Punjab formed 90 per cent of our business. They would buy cloth, and we would finance their stock, to manufacture that in to the finished product. Some of them had been our customers for a hundred years and you were expected to live up to traditional standards, we played cricket with them, went to all their weddings.”
Brinsden’s grandfather had served in the Punjab in the Third Afghan War.
“It was partly a family tradition – both my mother and my uncle were born in what was then ‘British India’. I learned so much from my grandfather, the ways and wiles of the ‘East’. In a way I felt it was my birthright. This is what I had to do. Mine was a career for life. You had no choice what part of the world you were sent to, you just accepted it.”
So it went for Brinsden learning more and more in various places along the way including Kota Kinabalu, Penang, Bombay and Bandung.
“As Foreign banks were not allowed to operate outside Jakarta, we were using a local bank owned by one of our Chinese customers as a ‘proxy’ in Bandung and I was sent up there to represent Standard Chartered’s interests. The Chinese dominated the trade and a lot of them were also our customers in Hong Kong.”
Brinsden was posted to Tehran, Iran for three years.
“I was responsible for the whole branch network, 24 in all, of the Irano-British Bank, which was an affiliate of Standard Chartered.
“We opened 14 new offices but when the Shah left everything got nationalised. I got out three months before the Shah, but had to leave behind some rather valuable Persian rugs!” he says with a laugh.
“In a sense, we could see the revolution coming. Whilst Tehran itself was as sophisticated as any capital city, the rural countryside was extremely conservative.
“The womenfolk didn’t join the dinner table. You could see there were a lot of tensions there.”
This was followed by five years in the United States, including New York City. Working in an American banking environment provided “the best learning curve of my life,” he said.
“It was a big struggle for me to keep up with my American counterparts I learned a lot about marketing and product development.
As a result, I became very sought after by some of our more forward-thinking managers back in the Far East. They wanted people who had more exposure.”
He spent two years in Houston, Texas, one year in Los Angeles, a short stints in Seattle, Chicago, Atlanta, Miami, and my last year in New York, where I was number two.”
He had a $1.5 billion loan portfolio, “which in 1981 was pretty big,” he said.
Brinsden’s next stop was Taiwan in 1984 to set up Standard Chartered’s first branch there and it was here that he met and married Triby. They have a six-year-old daughter named Eleanor, known as Jo Jo.
“I loved Taiwan and I still do. They’re just a great people, they work bloody hard. I never had one bad debt in six years from a Taiwanese customer . I loved the food, the scenery and the history.”
Brinsden’s next posting was Ho Chi Minh, in 1990, to reopen Standard Chartered after a 15 year absence.
“It was interesting, tough and exciting. The Vietnamese knew they needed help. With the collapse of the Soviet ‘Comecon’ system all their trade settlement which had been guaranteed by the respective governments disappeared. It was hard for them to trust private capitalists. My first few years were telling them how to deal with them.”
“We were hugely successful, opened offices in Hanoi, and in the neighbouring countries of Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar,” Brinsden said.
“We were taking ex-communist countries, and we would underwrite their local banks’ letters of credit. To do this you had to know who the real buyers were and where the money was: I had to have my own informants telling me what was really behind the deals.”
During one of the long Vietnamese holidays in 1991 he took the opportunity of visiting Cambodia by car from Ho Chi Minh City.
“The Khmer Rouge was still running around the countryside, so it wasn’t the smartest thing to do! However, it soon became apparent that what we were doing in Vietnam was equally applicable in Cambodia.”
Since working with ACLEDA CEO In Channy, after his retirement from Standard Chartered in 1999, Brinsden has been able to apply what he learned over the years, in Asia, America and Vietnam and apply them to Cambodia.
“These are probably some of the best professional years of my life. Whilst I enjoyed my life with Standard Chartered, it could be said that Standard Chartered’s shareholders paid for ACLEDA’s progress.
“Channy had a very clear idea of what he wanted the bank to be, and he discussed it with me, and the implications of this. Essentially, it was driven by Channy’s vision.”
“ACLEDA is entirely Cambodian-managed, the core of which are those who with Channy, all knew each other in a refugee camp in Thailand and they received some help from agencies. They knew what they were going to do was to set up a micro-finance bank.”
“There was a very good team of people who knew the country, knew the customers, had tremendous thirst to learn, and kept me very busy in the first few years extracting everything I knew (and some things I didn’t!) in order to prepare the business strategy,” he said.