Corporate View: Wilson Koh, Grab

Published: Nov 2019
Wilson Koh, Group Treasurer, Grab

Grabbing the opportunity

Heart, hunger, honour and humility – these are the four core principles that Wilson Koh, Group Treasurer at Grab lives by on a daily basis. These values help keep him grounded and always ready to face the many different challenges that come his way.

Wilson Koh

Group Treasurer

Grab logo

Grab is Southeast Asia’s leading super app that provides everyday services that matter the most to its customers. Its mission: solve key problems in the region whilst improving the lives of millions. Through its open platform strategy, Grab works with partners to provide safe, accessible and affordable transport, food, package, grocery delivery, mobile payments and financial services to millions of people in Southeast Asia. Headquartered in Singapore, Grab is Southeast Asia’s first decacorn.

Today, the Grab platform sustains a dynamic ecosystem, connecting Grab seamlessly with its partners and consumers to order food, buy tickets, book accommodation and deliver packages. It enables its drivers and merchants to be paid instantly, whilst also being able to access banking services.

With such an array of differing businesses, serving completely different markets, it is down to Wilson Koh, Group Treasurer of Grab, and his team to keep the company running smoothly.

“The way I think about running corporate treasury is that if we are doing a good job, nobody will even realise we exist or the extent of the value we create. Our consumers and partners deserve the very best, and it is imperative that we earn the right to serve,” he says.

From a bright spark…

Koh’s journey into treasury began back in high school. Although he scored distinctions in physics, chemistry and biology, his real passion was understanding just how businesses work and what makes them tick, as well as interpreting financial statements and how management decisions impact equity prices. There was just one issue however, he wanted to obtain a qualification that allowed him to start work as soon as possible.

“University takes far too long to complete and it can be expensive,” he recalls. “I didn’t want to burden my parents.” He therefore opted for the Association of Chartered Certified Accountants (ACCA), a globally-recognised professional qualification which he could complete in two years.

But many people warned him that ACCA is notorious for its low pass rates, and the norm is to do ACCA after securing a university degree which acts as a fallback. Koh just shrugged it off. “You’ve got to go all-in to what you have set your mind to do,” he says. And so he did – and passed with flying colours.

He was quickly snapped up by one of the big four accountancy firms, Ernst & Young (EY), in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, where he was responsible for overall planning, organising, leading and control of assignments, and statutory reporting for both listed and private companies.

“When I joined EY, it was at the onset of the Asian financial crisis, so I did a lot of really interesting work. There were many Asian companies that were desperate for help, especially those funded by foreign currency debt; my early days were spent doing lots of advisory and restructuring work on top of audit and assurance.”

…to a shining star

After close to four years working for EY, British Petroleum (BP), one of the largest oil companies in the world, came knocking. It was a no-brainer for Koh to join BP as it was an established multinational corporation. He ended up staying at the company for over 17 years in a wide variety of roles.

He started with a management reporting role, supporting the fuels business in Malaysia and part of the newly-established shared service centre. He then moved on to do various projects and team-leading roles. “It was refreshing to see the transition from an audit firm to being part of a large corporate and gaining new insights and putting into practice the skills I obtained from EY,” he says.

A decade of treasury at BP

“From very early on I saw the advantages of moving across different parts of BP’s functions/businesses and I definitely had to unlearn and relearn as I went along,” he muses. “The final transition into treasury was very interesting for me. I did so many different roles every year, from project management to implementation of systems, whilst also working closely to build a regional business intelligence warehouse.”

After several years with BP in Malaysia, as part of his personal development it became obvious that Koh needed to look beyond Malaysia for a new challenge, to assess what the options were and how he wanted his career to progress.

After looking through the BP career portal for many months, he applied for two jobs at BP – a finance job in London, and a treasury job in Hong Kong. “To my surprise the Hong Kong offer came first, and that’s how I ended up in treasury.”

So, in 2005, five years after he joined BP Malaysia, Koh moved with his family to Hong Kong as an expatriate, taking up the role as Finance Manager, Treasury Asia Pacific. Indeed, he loved his new role so much he stayed in the position for more than a decade.

Grabbing the next challenge

And then one fine sunny day (“it’s mostly sunny in Singapore!” he jokes) someone from Grab called him. “My first reaction was: why in the world would a start-up call me and expect to convince me to move from a global energy company?” Truth be told, the timing was uncanny, as Koh was already toying with the idea of moving on after so many years with BP, as he wanted to stretch himself more. He had indeed been watching closely how Grab was solving real-life transportation issues.

“People often ask me, why did I move from BP, a very established company with very clear processes and systems to a large start-up like Grab? To be honest, I got a bit restless with BP,” he says. “The opportunity to become Group Treasurer for Southeast Asia’s leading super app and playing a part in improving lives for millions of people every day was simply far too attractive an offer to turn down.”

In October 2017, Koh started his Grab journey, initially tasked to professionalise the function and build a solid team – a role he loves to this day. He manages financial risks at group level and is also very hands-on with issues at the country level. “That includes liquidity, FX, counterparty risks and investment risks,” he says. Another big part of his role is to make senior management aware of these risks and make recommendations for mitigations and steps that need to be taken to address them.

Strong faith and values

Key to Grab’s success, Koh notes, are the culture and values that every employee and customer treasures. “While we put the customer at the heart of everything we do, Grab is very different from a typical company, as the guiding values and principles are pivoted on the individual at the very personal level,” he says.

“To take an example, at BP the main core values were safety, respect, excellence, courage and one team – at Grab it is what we call the ‘4Hs’: heart, hunger, honour and humility.” Koh adds, “When I heard about the 4Hs, I knew instantly that Grab was the place for me as this is aligned with my biblical values and my Christian faith, which serves as the foundation for my life.”

These values are something that Koh extols daily. “One needs the heart to do things for the right reason and serve the community, the hunger and grit to push ourselves to raise our game and not settle for less, the honour to be ethical and keep to our word, and the humility to own up to our mistakes and be better versions of ourselves every day.”

Creating impact for growth

When Koh first joined the Grab group two years ago, it was just a ride-hailing company to meet the need of moving people safely and affordably from point A to point B (GrabTaxi/GrabCar/GrabBike). Since then, Grab has grown massively, moving into the e-wallet space to encourage cash to cashless transactions (GrabPay), food delivery service (GrabFood), package delivery service (GrabExpress), financial services (GrabLending) and more.

Koh adds, “A key challenge as Group Treasurer is that I have to understand how cash flows in and out of different businesses, entities and countries across Grab and how to manage risks across many levels.” For context, he points out that Southeast Asia is one of the most culturally diverse regions in the world. The numerous countries within it account for more than 640 million people and there are large economic realities separating the region – such as differing central bank regulatory frameworks.

This presents challenges in managing cash, liquidity and treasury activities, ranging from cross border payments, reducing the costs of funds-in and funds-out, foreign exchange transactions, counterparty risks, investments and financing to bank account management, across the different markets while conforming to different local regulations and constraints.

Grab adopts a hyperlocal approach to businesses by setting up a local presence in every country that it operates and works closely with relevant government authorities, including tax and banking regulators.

Accessing local strategic partners

In addition, what has been very effective for Grab is the forging of strategic partnerships where the intentions are aligned and access deep local expertise. This is due in part to the fragmented nature of the markets and the dynamic operating environment across Southeast Asian countries.

Koh recognises that there are differences in social trust between people, as well as the way they interact with cash and cashless channels, coupled with the way they transact with banks across markets.

As Grab expands its service delivery platform in the region, leveraging these strategic partnerships has enabled it to drive innovation, ensuring that quick-to-market, regulatory-compliant and market-relevant products and services are deployed.

He highlights the criticality of finding the right partners. “When Grab started a lending business, it found a joint venture partner to enable the target business model,” he says. “When we wanted to deliver an insurance service offering to our consumers, we found a joint venture partner.”

In Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia, Grab has also established banking partnerships. This has helped Grab scale up very quickly in each of these markets and to be ‘plugged-in’ on any changes to rules, regulations and practices which may present risks (or opportunities) to its emerging currency exposures, counterparty credit risk or yields.

Harnessing the power of technology

In November 2018, Grab forged a strategic alliance and partnership with United Overseas Bank (UOB) in Singapore to access a variety of banking solutions as part of a broader commercial collaboration. It rolled out an instant payment solution for settlement with driver partners and merchants, using a straight through processing (STP) application programming interface (API). This greatly enhances the payout experience for the driver partners and merchants on a 24/7 basis.

“The partnership with UOB has created many wins for Grab’s finance and treasury teams – from enhancing driver and merchant payment experience to reducing costs, improving cash visibility, standardising documentation, executing FX, leveraging industry-standard SWIFT interfaces and other banking requirements via a single platform,” he explains.

“I’m absolutely delighted that this partnership was recognised as a Highly Commended Winner in Treasury Today Asia’s Adam Smith Awards Asia 2019 under the category of ‘Harnessing the Power of Technology’. This is testament to and validation of our strategy of leveraging local partners and technology to create impact,” he adds.

Team leadership

Koh stresses that there is no way he can do this alone; he needs to win the hearts and minds of the fun-loving and capable team who subscribe to the same vision that he holds dear. In addition to demonstrating the 4Hs in everyday interaction with stakeholders and building trust, he points to five key attributes that make a well-rounded treasury professional:

  • A strategic mindset – knowing where the value proposition is in the context of where the organisation is heading.
  • Growth mindset – thinking ahead of scalable solutions to manage growth aspirations.
  • Costs – being mindful of what the drivers of costs are and striving to optimise where appropriate.
  • Risks – being aware of the current and potential financial risks that may occur and preparing mitigating actions.
  • Insights – harnessing technology to produce relevant and high quality data-driven insights.

“I’m also a strong believer of continuous learning and improvement,” he notes. “My team members are encouraged to learn new skills such as data analytics, network to share ideas and take charge of their own career aspirations. In other words, being proactive to future-proof their careers in the VUCA (volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity) environment,” he adds.

So what does Koh think the future holds for treasury? “The future of the finance/treasury workforce will be in the hands of those who can harness the power of technology and data analytics, combined with depth of the various finance competencies, to offer useful insights to their stakeholders,” he adds.

Koh concludes: “I’m blessed to have come this far and am enjoying my role as Group Treasurer at Grab. To be a part of the Grab journey has truly opened up my eyes; it has shown me that if you have the hunger, the drive and the passion, you can, in your own way, make a difference to people’s lives every single day.”

It’s a message he wants every treasurer to hear.

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