When asked where he hopes his company will be in five years, Acleda Bank CEO In Channy said immediately: “At the top.”
His firm reply might contrast with his “soft-spoken” personality, as described by Forbes in 2011; however, he believes a leader’s strengths must be judged not by his demeanour but by his company’s results.
How about Acleda Bank’s results? The company, with operating branches in Cambodia and Laos, is widely regarded as the top bank in Cambodia.
Channy is confident his bank will stay on the top as it maximizes its use of electronic banking infrastructures. Mobile phone banking, which Acleda introduced in 2010, remains its competitive advantage. Allowing customers to transfer money quickly and easily, it also has an edge on the national market.
“No other bank has this facility,” Channy said.
Back in 2000, Acleda was facing difficult times. The company was going through a dramatic change, transforming itself from an institution that was ranked last among Cambodian banks in loan portfolio and saving.
One reason for this ascent, says Channy, is the company’s transparency: the bank “operates like an open book”.
While other banks may include hidden service charges, Acleda publishes its fees, “so [customers] know exactly how much they have to pay”, he said.
His employees, meanwhile, are regularly kept in the loop on the company’s performance.
Channy also believes in giving his employees a voice, which, he said, can sometimes be difficult, as there is a tendency for people in Asian cultures to “not talk much”.
He remembers how, when he first co-founded the bank as a nonprofit microfinance lender in 1993, he wanted his staff to choose a company logo, but they insisted that as the boss, he should be doing it.
He suggested using a pig as the logo, hoping his staff would quickly object. In the end, he got what he wanted – the staff discussed ideas among themselves and decided on a mythological bird, which remains the logo today.
His belief is each employee’s ability to contribute stems from his experience in the US, where he studied for a year on a scholarship in 1989.
When there was a student council election, he was approached for his vote but initially resisted because he believed that one person’s vote would not matter much. He was told that every vote counts.
This is why Acleda enforces a “participative approach” for its employees – because every voice counts too, he said.
Life in the US was easy compared to his other life experiences. In 1975, he was separated from his family in Phnom Penh under the Pol Pot regime, and ended up in Battambang, where he had to count cows every day.
In 1981, he fled to a refugee camp in Thailand, working as an English teacher until 1989 when he went to the US to study. He returned to the camp in 1990 and continued teaching until his return to Cambodia in 1992. It was then that he established Acleda. Even though life the in US was comfortable, he chose to come back to Cambodia.
“Most of my family is in Cambodia, so how can I live in the US?”
Remembering his roots seems to be part of his philosophy. He said that he is “happy that we can establish a commercial bank that is still able to grow with its original customers – those with low incomes”. In 2012, the company lent more than $166 million in micro-business loans, much of which have helped low-income earners start their own businesses.
In fact, when asked about his biggest challenge managing the company, Channy said it was when Acleda transitioned from an NGO to a commercial entity in 2000.
It was difficult because previously getting paid back on loans to low-income recipients was not strictly mandatory. As a commercial entity, loans were more strictly enforced.
“As a social entity you provide loans to subside, but as a commercial entity you provide loans to be profitable,” he said.
To contact the reporter on this story: Low Wei Xiang at [email protected]