DESPITE the financial meltdown, Australia & New Zealand Banking Group (ANZ) Singapore's chief executive officer (CEO) Bill Foo is all smiles.

ANZ is one of only 14 banks globally to have an AA credit rating or better and it is still growing despite the financial meltdown, he explains.

"We are naturally more cautious because of the slowdown, but it was fortuitous that in 2007, ANZ's management made a strategic decision to expand in Asia as part of our super regional bank strategy," he says.

"This resulted in ANZ Singapore roughly doubling its headcount to about 420 staff last year."

The new business means that Mr Foo and his team are on a constant lookout to spot talent within the organisation to grow, nurture and develop future managers.

"We are on track to take in about 100 new staff this year, as we build Singapore as a key ANZ regional financial hub in corporate finance, financial markets, private and corporate banking with additional IT and operations infrastructure for Asia," he says.

As the CEO, he is responsible for the company's business, governance and relationship with customers, regulators and other stakeholders.

He works about 10 hours a day, with engagements, functions or client meetings two to three evenings a week.

Several times a year, he travels to Australia and New Zealand, where ANZ's main clientele of Singaporean investors and businesses are.

Following his guts

Mr Foo developed a strong interest in commerce, accounting and business finance from an early age.

He says: "My late father was an SME (small and medium-sized enterprise) businessman who had frequent contacts with his bankers.

"I would occasionally tag along with him to the bank to meet the bank officers during my student days, which inspired me to become a banker, so I could have more of those nice lunches!"

Determined to gain experience in a leading foreign bank, he pursued a Master of Business Administration degree at McGill University immediately after completing his Bachelor of Administration at Concordia University, both in Montreal, Canada.

After graduating in 1983 at the age of 26, he joined a small offshore bank for a short while before getting his break in BankAmerica as a management trainee.

"It was a wonderful experience being exposed to the various forms of wholesale and commercial banking, which was my career goal as I knew I didn't have a flair for consumer/retail banking," he says.

After working for BankAmerica for about five years in multinational corporation (MNC) banking, he joined Citibank in 1987 just as it was building up to be one of the largest banks in Singapore and globally.

He explains: "I wanted to move into a different area of wholesale banking to do corporate finance and investment banking.

"The work environment was very stimulating and intellectually challenging, which was really exciting."

Cents of balance

After five years at Citibank, he worked at Schroders Investment Bank for seven years before joining ANZ in 1999.

At ANZ, he enjoys interacting with people of diverse backgrounds and skills.

"I think we have over 30 nationalities represented here from across the globe. We are a mini United Nations, which makes it an exciting place," he says.

Also, he enjoys the company's emphasis on work-life balance.

"Recently, we introduced a programme that gives employees a few hours time off every week to 'do their own thing' with no questions asked."

For example, staff can take extended lunch breaks, come in later or leave earlier.

There is also a "Massage-At-Work" programme, where massage therapists are brought into the office every quarter.

For those who want to take up a career in this sector, he says: "Decide as early as possible what you want to do. Don't wait until you graduate.

"If corporate and wholesale banking is your choice of vocation, you would need to have a lot more finance skills.

"With two to three years to go before you graduate, you can plan your electives and courses around it."

Positive about the sector despite the downturn, he adds: "Considering that investment returns and interest rates are at their historic lows, coupled with very low valuations, there are a lot more opportunities for bank executives to be creative in developing value creation for their clients."