China Daily

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Friday, February 22, 2019, 16:19
Banking on change
By Low Shi Ping in Yangon
Friday, February 22, 2019, 16:19 By Low Shi Ping in Yangon

Top Myanmar bank executive works to boost her country’s quality of life through financial inclusion

Nang Lang Kham, deputy CEOs of KBZ Bank. (PHOTO PROVIDED TO CHINA DAILY)

Although she is only 30, it would be foolish to underestimate Nang Lang Kham.

The Myanmar national is one of three deputy CEOs of KBZ Bank, one of her country’s largest financial institutions with 510 branches and an 18,000-strong workforce.

The other CEOs are her younger sister Marlene Nang Kham Noung and Aung Kyaw Myo, who is unrelated to the pair. 

The three came into their current positions in 2017, after Nang’s parents Aung Ko Win and Nan Than Htwe, who own the bank, decided to take a step back from running the show.

But Nang’s age belies her experience. After all, she grew up with the business, which her parents acquired in 1997 when she was just 9, and helped guide it to where it is today.

Nang is also well-placed to help KBZ fulfill its vision of creating 100 percent financial inclusion in Myanmar within 10 years. 

One way she is doing this is through the launch of the mobile wallet app KBZPay. 

“Only 30 percent of the adult population in Myanmar is banked,” she said in an interview at KBZ’s Yangon headquarters.

“But we have a 90 percent smartphone penetration rate. We thought about how to reach the (unbanked) population and give it more and better access to financial services.”

KBZPay is the outcome of that train of thought. “We want to be a part of their lifestyle and daily life by going onto their mobile platform.”

To date, it is working with nearly 50,000 merchants and agents, and has over 1.7 million customers using KBZPay.

“It’s a collective activity because it needs merchants and agents. Everyone is working together toward reaching that goal that people are part of the financial system,” Nang said. 

She revealed that she and her counterparts looked to China’s experience creating a cashless society through mobile payment platforms. To make KBZPay a reality, the bank partnered with Chinese tech giant Huawei. 

“We codeveloped the product features and (together decided) how we put the product to market.

“They are giving us a lot of knowledge to make sure our ambition and goal of financial inclusion is achieved. We are learning a lot from them.”

Following the signing of the partnership in March last year, the bank sent its regional branch managers to Shenzhen, in South China’s Guangdong province, to gain a deeper insight into digital payment systems.

Nang said it has not started marketing activities to the public as the agent and merchant network is still expanding. KBZPay has been hitting quarterly targets, and the steering committee behind the project is setting more ambitious targets.

The digital wallet is just one part of the transformation process the bank started in 2017.

It began with the appointment of a “professional” CEO, American banker Michael DeNoma, followed by independent directors to form the board.

“Our mission is to bring about a higher quality of life through banking. We are trying to become a stronger institution and build more governance,” Nang said.

It is also working toward evolving KBZ to be on par with industry leaders. 

“Our main focus now is retail banking. After banking regulation reforms were made in 2011, we were allowed to do international banking,” Nang said.

“We need to get the right strategy for retail and wholesale banking. Then in one to two years we can start segmenting customers into (different tiers).”

Outside of Myanmar, KBZ has representative offices in Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore. Nang sees them as opportunities to attract investors looking to Myanmar and to facilitate overseas nationals’ banking activities.

China is on her radar too, particularly the southwestern province of Yunnan, which lies just across the border of northeastern Myanmar. 

“We need to look at how to strengthen relationships with it and the financial institutions there, and promote more investment opportunities for Myanmar. 

“If we had the opportunity to open a representative office in China, we would.”

Nang said she took a leadership role with the bank as she was “drawn to how we can improve the quality of life through banking, and how much it can make an impact on the population of the country, especially through financial inclusion”.

Following her return to Myanmar after receiving a bachelor’s degree from the National University of Singapore, Nang devoted her time to the family foundation she cofounded with her sister – the Brighter Future Myanmar Foundation.

“I wanted to create impact in Myanmar. Our vision was to work with the public, private and civil society sectors to uplift the lives of underdeveloped communities in the country,” she said. 

The foundation was established after Cyclone Nargis devastated parts of Myanmar in 2008. “I experienced it and saw what happened. I really wanted to help in any way I could. Imagine losing your home, or someone in your life.”

Nang visited camps set up for those displaced by the cyclone to understand their needs. The answer was the basic necessities of food, water and clothing. 

“That’s what we did for the first volunteer run. Later, the bank also donated money to rebuild houses in the Irrawaddy region.”

Subsequently, she decided to tap the KBZ network of branches and its sizable workforce to help with disaster relief efforts. 

Working with the Red Cross, she saw to it that one staff member from every branch was trained in first aid, and between 10 and 20 were sent for rescue training. 

“I felt that with the network we have, if there is a disaster, we can go and help directly.”

In spite of all her efforts, Nang said she is dissatisfied, as most of the work focuses primarily on recovery. She is hoping to build capacity around prevention too, by partnering with different states around the country and their regional social welfare departments.

Other projects the foundation has been involved in include a microfinance program for women, university scholarship funding, facial deformity treatments, and well donations.

“My dad saw that we were really interested in the development of communities, so he thought to empower us by setting up a foundation for the family. We turned it into one of the largest foundations in the country.”

To date, Nang is proudest of the work they have carried out on female empowerment. 

In 2017, the foundation hosted the country’s first Women’s Week, together with KBZ and the Ministry of Social Welfare. 

“Women’s Week was about bringing the public, private and nonprofit sectors together – which is a dream of mine – to bring advancement of empowerment of women and make the workplace more inclusive.”

Leading by example, KBZ Bank now has a nursing room in its headquarters. It also established a childcare center in Yangon, and hopes to build a network of those across major cities in Myanmar. 

Nang said that although there are three deputy CEOs, the responsibilities are clearly split, with each managing 10 departments.

In due course, they will rotate the duties among themselves. “It’s part of our personal growth plan.”

Asked how she finds working with her sister Marlene, she replied: “As sisters, we have arguments but it’s good that we challenge each other. It is also good to have someone to bounce off ideas and reassure you when there are difficult times.”

Remarking happily that her role is working out well, she added, however, that deputy CEO is “just a title” and leading a bank should not be misconstrued as “having it all”.

“What motivates me is to see how much impact I can make through the products we offer at the bank and projects we do at the foundation. I don’t have it all now. 

“It’s just the beginning of my goal of trying to impact community. As I hit new goals, I’ll form new ones.”

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