Power of Han’s hands
By Oh Young-jin
The power of Han Dong-woo, chairman of Shinhan Financial Group, comes from his hands.
One handshake is all it needs to appreciate it.
It is not the strength of his grasp but the warmth one will feel.
His hands are thick but tender, conveying a sense of trust to the one who holds it.
So immediately after a brief handshake, I asked him about his hands, half out of curiosity and half in an attempt to warm the atmosphere for a more serious conversation during a recent interview at his office.
He revealed that I was the first to talk about his power of his hands.
The 63-year-old career banker remembered his salad days when one of his seniors told him that his hands would be his asset.
He liked to believe they helped but knew that no help would have enabled him to reach the top of his banking group, unless he has not done his best.
He makes it a rule to do his best, which brought him back out of the mothball.
He was almost crossed out as a candidate for the top job but he came back not by his choice but by chance last year in the middle of turmoil engulfing Shinhan.
With its two leaders out, Shinhan needed a new leader and Han was chosen.
He only respected the two leaders ― former Chairman Ra Eung-chan and his protege Shin Sang-hoon, believing they contributed to an exponential growth of the banking group in such a short period of time.
At the same time, Han believes that Shinhan needs to grow further.
His plan for Shinhan’s future is different from its erstwhile growth path.
That is where he can put his hands of trust to their best use.
“I want Shinhan to be a bank with a warm heart,” Han said.
Shinhan is so far known for its organizational efficiency and the can-do spirit of its members.
In the banking industry, the so-called Shinhan Way is often emulated by competitors.
A good example was the same response made by two Shinhan executives I separately asked about their banking group’s plan to introduce a matrix in its apparatus. The matrix, already in wide use in global banking groups, has component divisions dually controlled by executives from their holding firm as well as their bosses.
Only Hana Financial, which is in the process of absorbing the Korea Exchange Bank (KEB), has adopted it to a degree but Hana’s limited success is owed to its charismatic leader Kim Seung-yu and its smaller size.
Woori Financial, the biggest by some latest standard, is trying to adopt t it but its bank, the flagship in the group, is resisting it, causing a delay in the introduction schedule.
Back to the two Shinhan executives.
Asked about their thoughts, both of them said that it would be successful because they believe in their bank’s winning tradition. “When we put our mind on something, we succeed,” they said individually in unison.
When told of this episode, Han nodded as if he had expected it from any of the “Shinhan family.”
But he promptly said that that is not enough.
“I want Shinhan to be more than a teller machine,” he said. “I want us to care about our customers, try to solve their problems together and get them back on their feet.”
When he explained his vision about giving a heart to his bank, he resembled an older brother who listens to his kid brother’s concerns with his hands folded in front of him and eyes full of sympathy. Occasionally, he spoke in his deep bass voice that caused the listeners to get reassured.
So Han’s vision is an answer to what Occupy Wall Street protestors have complained about as the down-to-luck 99 percent against the wealthy 1 percent. He can be but he is also a banker who cherishes a bottom line.
Is a sympathetic banker oxymoronic? He didn’t deny it but he believes that there is so much the bankers can do between the two so as to become sympathetic to their clients at the same time boosting the bottom line. “Banking is all about trust. I bet trust comes ahead of profit making.”
Then, there are some hard facts I checked with him.
Does he want another term? He neither denied nor confirmed his intention but said, “Even if I do seek another term, I wouldn’t fall under the 70-year-old rule.” Shinhan set a rule after last year’s power struggle that prevents one from seeking a term as chairman after 70.
He also pointed out that the decision is not his to make alone. But he pointed out that 70 is too old for the top job that is very demanding physically and mentally. He added that the decision would be made in three years’ time, when his term is up.
Asked about his possible successors, he said that CEOs of the subsidiaries can be strong candidates with Suh Jin-won, Shinhan Bank CEO, included. “It is more likely that we will have one from inside,” he said.
About the matrix system, he said that he is flexible. “I don’t intend to apply the system to the truest of its meaning. It would be more like a compromise at first. If it didn’t work, I am willing to withdraw it.”