‘For me, the most important trait for business and personal success is to understand oneself’: 2023 Alumni Award winner, Nazir Razak (BSc 1988), on a lifetime of building organisations

Tan Sri Nazir Razak graduated with a degree in Economics and Politics from the University of Bristol in 1988. Upon his return to Malaysia, he joined Commerce International Merchant Bankers Berhad (CIMB), a small bank which, under his leadership from the 1990s, grew to become one of the leading universal banks in South East Asia. He retired as Chairman of CIMB in 2018, and has since established Ikhlas Capital, a private equity firm, alongside holding several board positions.  

Recipient of the 2023 Alumni Award for Business and Industry, Nazir reflects on his memories of Bristol, success in leadership, and the importance of regional integration. 

On memories of Bristol
When I arrived at Bristol, the long walk across the Downs from Churchill Hall to my classes was certainly a shock to the system. To be honest, in applying to Bristol I had focused on just getting a place, so when it came to picking where to live, I went for the hall with the most recognisable name! 

I liked Bristol because it was a city, with some buzz and wonderful sights like the Suspension Bridge, but without the extremes of London. Quite quickly, I built a social life at the Hall and around my degree course: I remain in contact with some of the friends I made in that first year to this day. It was also fun to discover the Malaysia Singapore Students Association, which enabled me to be far from home, but still build friendships with my compatriots. When I arrived at Bristol, the Association had around 35 members, but when I became President in my second year, we tripled the membership, with lots of British students joining for the social life and the delicious (and discounted) Malaysian food.  

On problems and solutions
I’m still in contact with [Emeritus] Professor David Demery, who taught some of my Economics seminars. A few years back, he asked me, ‘of all the material you were taught at Bristol, how much have you used through your career in banking?’. The answer was ‘zero’! But I explained to him that the thought processes I learnt were critical: how to look at problems, and how to find solutions. In Economics, there is never one right answer: often the solution is a little of this, a little of that. Real life, and my experience in business and banking, turned out to be just the same: life is full of compromises. 

On a life’s work: building CIMB
CIMB really was my life’s work. Even today, some four years after retiring as Chairman, I still worry about what happens there: I still feel invested in its success.

When I joined corporate finance at CIMB, it was a small national bank. After three years there, I had some good offers to join global banks in Hong Kong. This was the early 1990s, right at the peak of the bull run in emerging markets, and global bankers in those organisations were almost treated like professional footballers, in terms of the packages on offer. Ultimately, I decided that I wanted to stay in Malaysia and contribute to building and growing CIMB, so that we could try to compete with those global banks. 

A key moment during my time as Managing Director and Chief Executive [between 1999 and 2014] was around 2005, when I realised that the business model we had, with CIMB as an investment bank, could not withstand the way our competition was going. We transformed the organisation into a universal bank through acquisitions, firstly in Malaysia, and then across South East Asia. It was a huge transformation – with our first acquisition, we grew, practically overnight, from 1000 people in Malaysia to over 12,000, and at the peak of the process, we had some 45,000 colleagues across Indonesia, Thailand, Cambodia and Singapore.  

On a new chapter
Since I retired as Chairman of CIMB in 2018, I have taken on a few non-executive chair roles, including at BPMB (Malaysia’s Development Bank); and I have also established Ikhlas Capital, a private equity firm. We’re a small start up – there are around 10 of us – and we raise money and invest in companies across South East Asia. When I look at finance in the region, there is a real lack of private equity, so Ikhlas Capital feels like both a logical next step for me, having built a regional universal bank, and also for the economic context today.  

On the power and challenges of regional cooperation
When we made the decision to transform CIMB into a regional bank in the 2000s, it was really to ride on the government-driven aspirations for an Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN) Economic Community, in which the region would become a single market and production base, with free flow of goods, services and investments. Fifteen years on, the sort of liberalisation that was envisioned has not really been delivered – one has to recognise that nationalism and deglobalisation are very real, current political trends that challenge genuine integration.  

But if South East Asian businesses are to compete at a global level, particularly in the context of the billion population markets of China and India, then integration is critical: we need those economies of scale. So I feel that the private sector shouldn’t give up. We can play a part in building regional companies, without relying on governments to bring down barriers. That’s a key motivation for my work at Ikhlas Capital.  

On wise words
When I’m asked to give advice to young people, I often say that the most important trait for business and personal success is understanding oneself. And then doubling down on your strengths, while mitigating your weaknesses. So, when I became CEO of CIMB at 32, I looked in the mirror and asked myself, ‘what are you not good at?’ And in my case, I was impatient, hot tempered, and I could be quite abrupt with people. So, I chose to surround myself [in my senior team] with older colleagues, who could balance out those traits.  

In terms of valuable advice I’ve been given, I think it is to have humility. That was important for me: I come from a relatively privileged background, and I soon discovered in my career that it’s important to keep your feet on the ground, and not believe your own hype, as you move up the ladder.  

Each year, the University of Bristol recognises alumni who have made remarkable contributions to society through the Alumni Awards. You can see the full list of our 2023 winners on our website.

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