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Jacques Kemp may come across as a pretty sober business executive. But scratch the surface and you will discover a passionate soccer coach trapped in the body of a Flying Dutchman.

Inspired by the beautiful game and spurred by his wanderlust, the chief executive of ING’s Asian operation has led a two-year attempt to revamp his sprawling empire, including 23 business units and 10,000 employees.

“Few companies are able to create an effective process to manage complexities,” says Mr Kemp, speaking at ING’s offices in central Hong Kong. “Typically, these companies are still playing amateur soccer, where everybody starts running after the ball.”

He has developed a management system he believes is superior to the single-topic concept many management consultants and university professors offer. Rather than focus on narrow issues such as shareholder value or customer satisfaction, ING “field players” should face up to the complexities of their organisation.

That, of course, is easier said than done. In fact, Mr Kemp’s description of “drivers”, “key performance indicators” and various forms of “excellence” can be slightly confusing.

His obsession with management theory reflects something of a Damascene conversion. After joining ING – then known as NMB Bank – in the mid-1970s, Mr Kemp went on to become a hands-on emerging markets banker based in Latin America, where he sold and bought bonds during hyperinflation and debt crises.

“In the 1980s we became the biggest rival of Citibank in emerging markets banking,” he says. “We were always at the cutting edge of building new markets and franchises.”

A few years later, he moved back to Europe to lead ING’s push into the “wild east” of the continent. “We brought over our best people from Brazil, Argentina and Chile to new markets such as Russia and Poland,” he says. “We were one of the first banks to go in – even ahead of the German banks.”

As he moved through the ranks of the Dutch banking and insurance giant, Mr Kemp found he was expected to be more of a leader than a specialist. But he felt he was not quite ready to transform himself from a “player into a coach”.

After a three-month course at Harvard Business School, which he thought was “much too short”, Mr Kemp was ready for a bigger intellectual challenge – a two-year executive MBA programme.

“I had a fascinating time in Latin American and eastern Europe, because I was learning by doing,” says Mr Kemp, who holds an economics degree. “When I got to the mid-point of my career, I wanted to look more closely at the fundamentals, at the theory behind business.”

Hence his decision to become one of the first students on the Chicago Executive MBA programme in Barcelona, where he graduated in 1996. He was 43 when he joined an eclectic group of students, many of whom held technology-related or medical degrees.

“I had to make quite some time available, but I did not mind commuting from Amsterdam to Barcelona,” he says. “It was only a two-hour flight, and Barcelona is such a lovely city.”

The Chicago EMBA has since moved its European campus to London and has followed rival Insead by launching its first Asian campus in Singapore. Mr Kemp remains coy about a recent decision by senior lecturers at Warwick University to vote against setting up a branch campus in Singapore amid worries about limits on academic freedom in the country.

He says he will play a “modest role” in strengthening the Chicago EMBA programme in Singapore. “I am interested in helping the university build more campuses around the world and in particular in Asia, where I think it can make a very useful contribution,” he says. “I have offered to give lectures at the university, and I am willing to promote the educational programmes to employees of ING and other companies.”

Still, he believes ING should sponsor only those who have shown an interest in moving beyond their specialities. “They should be open to playing ‘total soccer’,” says Mr Kemp, referring to the highly sophisticated play used by the Dutch national team. “We would not want to encourage someone who wants to be just a goalkeeper.”

He insists his educational “refresher” in Barcelona was time well spent. “Without the EMBA, I would have been less likely to develop my own management concept,” he says. “It gave me confirmation that there was quite a lot of theory behind running companies.”

While he has managed to streamline the reporting structure of ING’s Asian businesses, he has yet to find ways of turning round lossmaking operations. A case in point is ING’s insurance business in mainland China. ING claims to be the third-largest foreign insurer after AIG and Prudential of the UK. “Our China insurance operation has seen disappointing growth figures, because of the market restrictions on foreign players,” he says. “It will take another four to five years before our insurance business has substance.”

It contrasts with ING’s profitable fund management joint venture with China Merchants Securities, which has become the biggest Sino-foreign manager with $3.8bn of assets under management at the end of June.

Another management challenge is the Bank of Beijing, a medium-sized Chinese lender, in which ING acquired a 19.9 per cent stake in March – a deal he helped to pull off.

“We wanted to have maximum influence rather than a small stake in big bank,” he says. “This is about building the best organisational structure, rather than the latest credit card venture.”

Despite his busy schedule, he keeps in touch with former EMBA classmates.

Pointing to the challenge of cracking case studies with a team of opinionated students, he says: “Team members become your mates. Sometimes you love them; sometime you hate them because they have different views.”

Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2017. All rights reserved.
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