Breaking the mould: Jiang Jianqing has led reform and innovation at ICBC © Bloomberg
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November 30 2015 was an exciting moment in China’s financial history, with the renminbi joining the International Monetary Fund’s elite Special Drawing Rights basket of reserve currencies.

This was a milestone in the integration of China into the international financial system. It also brought to my mind Jiang Jianqing, chairman of Industrial and Commercial Bank of China, the world’s biggest commercial bank by market capitalisation. One of the most respected bankers in China, he was an early advocate of the internationalisation of the renminbi. Unusually for someone in his position, he also possesses a powerful entrepreneurial spirit.

I first met Jiang a decade ago when the School of Management at Fudan University and the University of Hong Kong launched the second class of a joint MBA for senior ICBC executives. He joined the participants for the opening ceremony. Friendly and easygoing, he was not how people would imagine a senior official to be. I was impressed by his understanding of business education and talent development.

Jiang’s relationship with Fudan began in 1995, when he took part in the first executive development programme of Shanghai cadres. His classmates included government officials and top executives from state-owned enterprises. He stays in touch and exchanges ideas with his peers. I have had the chance to join such talks and hear his analysis of China’s economy and financial reforms.

As a customer of ICBC, I have also seen it leap ahead in service quality and innovation in the past decade.

Most Chinese MBA graduates aim to be professional managers. Sometimes they find it difficult to make breakthroughs working within outdated business models. Entrepreneurs, on the other hand, tend to be visionary and self-motivated, thinking out of the box and taking the lead in reform and innovation.

Top executives of state-owned enterprises such as ICBC are also government officials in their political status. Those who risk their career with changes or innovations are often offbeat and regarded as “strangers”. Jiang is one of these “strangers”, a banker with visionary insight and an innovative spirit. Under his leadership, ICBC has been transformed.

Internet banking has changed the nature of the sector. Risk management has been stepped up. There have been acquisitions of overseas commercial banks and other financial institutions. He established a new system centred on a culture of “profit, quality, development, management and innovation”. This fundamentally reshaped the business model of state-owned banks, which focus on scale and market share.

Jiang pays unusual attention to management. In his eyes, a bank is like a “delicate instrument” and management is key to its smooth operation. Running a bank is like running a marathon — one needs strength, focus, endurance and speed. Applause in the middle means nothing.

Under his leadership, ICBC has improved governance and developed performance-based appraisal. He streamlined both structure and scale and shifted the business model from being sales-orientated to customer-driven.

Jiang understands the importance of talent management. ICBC has set up training centres across China and at its headquarters. Graduates of the Fudan-HKU MBA are given a further two years of coaching. Meanwhile, a large-scale personnel development project was launched, which includes sending core staff to study or do internships abroad.

An entrepreneur with a global perspective, Jiang was aware from early on of the need to reform ICBC into an internationally competitive bank. His internationalisation strategy has helped the bank to deploy resources globally, reduce financial risk, resist the economic downturn, explore opportunities abroad and develop its brand.

Under Jiang, ICBC has grown into the world’s largest lender by market capitalisation, with 400 branches and offices in 42 countries and territories and 14,000 employees abroad, only 900 of whom are from China. There are four main components to the internationalisation of enterprises: learning from international experiences; following international standards; benchmarking international leaders; and attracting international talents. Jiang has achieved all these.

It is rare that a professional banker can also be an entrepreneur. Jiang is one such exception — both a revolutionary against the outdated mechanism of the state-owned enterprise and a leader bringing a local bank to the global stage.

Lu Xiongwen is dean of the School of Management at Fudan University

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