The eldest of eight children in a Chinese-Filipino family, Helen Yuchengco Dee recalls business dominating daily life growing up, as her father focused on building a conglomerate.
She stayed loyally by his side into her middle age as her three brothers, presumed heirs, in turn took other paths. But she professed shock when, after concluding a board meeting in 2003, Ambassador Alfonso T. Yuchengco called her aside to ask that, at age 59, she take the reins of the Yuchengco Group of Companies.
“I was just doing my own thing, and he said, “Why don’t you take over?’ I just looked at him with my eyes wide open. I did not really believe what he was saying,” she says. “In more ways than one, my father is old-fashioned Chinese, where a son would take over. He is also a person very much in control.”
He was ready to start relinquishing it, and in the dozen years since, departure from tradition has paid handsome dividends for Ambassador Yuchengco, 92, and for YGC, which has grown rapidly under Dee, now 70. She chairs all three of the group’s flagship companies, Rizal Commercial Banking Corp. (RCBC), Malayan Insurance and House of Investments, a holding firm. Its 30-odd companies operate in 60 sectors and give the family $685 million in wealth, ranking it at No. 23 on the FORBES ASIA rich list for the Philippines.
RCBC is one of the country’s top five commercial banks, with 6.5 million customers. Under her firm hand its share price grew more than fourfold between year-ends 2005 and 2014.
Malayan Insurance is the nation’s largest nonlife insurance company, with assets of $565 million and gross premiums of $165 million in 2014. Dee is also vice chairman at the family’s EEI Corp., a construction company that builds just about any kind of project and took in $350 million in 2014 from domestic operations. Its stock price has increased tenfold in the past nine years.
Despite the advances, Dee says she actually is more conservative than her risk-taking dad, who remains honorary chairman of RCBC but wouldn’t comment for this story. “My father is very personable and naturally good at making contacts with both foreign and local people,” Dee says. “I prefer to stick with a close-knit group of friends and attend socials [events] only when I need to.”
In business, “I don’t want to keep on expanding and borrowing money because I will never know when the next financial crisis will be. We might not grow as fast as other conglomerates, but maybe if there is another crisis we also won’t suffer as much.”
When sizing up an opportunity, she relies on intuition. “I have to like the person first, a gut feel whether a person is sincere or too arrogant,” she says. According to Juan Kevin Belmonte, a director at EEI, “Helen is very shrewd, and she listens to you, but if you don’t know what you are saying, she will figure it out.”
Dee confesses to being both democratic and autocratic as a manager. “I listen to people’s opinions, but there are instances I need to just make a decision and everybody has to follow. I give people enough rein to manage their own areas of business, although I do want to know what is going on.”
Jose Emmanuel Hilado, who was treasurer at RCBC for six years ending in 2014 and is now COO of EastWest Banking Corp. in Manila, agrees, saying that except for key critical areas like credit, Dee’s management style is decentralized. He adds, “She gave us [group heads] the leeway to run our business, which I think made the organization more professional.”
As a boss, Hilado says, she was tough in demanding results but always fair. “She can be brutally frank, and if done in a group it can be embarrassing, but she does not discriminate. This applies to everyone that works for her.”
Belmonte, the director at EEI, says Dee acts when she feels the timing is right. He recalls, “I remember when I first joined the board, I made comments about seeing more cash dividends paid out, but nothing happened, so I stopped asking. Then one day it was just doubled.”
Both men find the toughness is tempered by a maternal streak. Hilado recalls, “She treats her senior executives like family. When our CEO got hospitalized, she would be there on a regular basis, referring doctors and bringing food. When she goes on foreign trips, she would get us souvenirs.” Says Belmonte: “If you are straight with her and she believes you have the company’s interest at heart, she is always there to take a call”–be it business or personal.
Today one of Dee’s sisters, Yvonne S. Yuchengco, is active in YGC, as president of Malayan Insurance. The chairwoman has two daughters in their 40s who work in the business but have yet to take leadership roles. “I am trying to train them, but they don’t seem to want to make the big jump to make big decisions,” Dee says. Having dedicated 12 hours a day, including weekends, to work, she understands her daughters might make different choices.
Her own destiny in top management ultimately was decided by her father, but seeing her potential as a successor reflected a leap of his own. As Dee muses, “He became more open-minded about that in his later years. I think he realized maybe that women are not inferior to men.”
BANKING ON HER
Besides a desire to “leave a good name,” Helen Yuchengco Dee says she has this much in common with her father: “I can be tough when I need to fight back. Any way, any means to win.”
That determination has been on display at RCBC. After an initial focus on reducing the bank’s exposure to bad loans from the late 1990s, Dee turned to upgrading the bank’s core systems, strengthening its position in consumer markets and shoring up its capital base via the sale in 2011 of a 15% stake to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners (later pared to 11%) and a 7% stake to International Finance Corp. (later raised to 11%).
In December Cathay Financial Holdings, Taiwan’s largest financial institution, agreed to buy a 20% stake in RCBC for $402 million. After the deal, which awaits regulatory approvals, CVC’s stake will drop to under 2% and IFC’s to 8%. Proceeds will be used to help RCBC meet more stringent capital adequacy requirements as well as to expand its loan book.
She wants to increase exposure to higher-margin SME and consumer-finance loans to 50% by 2019 from 35% today. Dee says this will allow the bank “to defend its net interest margins since the SME and consumer loan books are less susceptible to competitive pressure.”
Katherine Tan, a senior banking and construction analyst at Maybank ATR Kim Eng in Manila, applauds her moves–not only for removing capital constraints on the bank’s growth, but also for aligning it with a major regional player. –S.L.D.L.
2015 © Forbes Asia
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