Malaysia in the 1950s was a place where people sought stable and secure government sector jobs for life. Few people strayed from the norm.
Those who did so faced an uphill battle to achieve financial security, let alone make a name for themselves. Building your own career was a bold move, and one perceived as reckless.
But, as the saying goes, fortune favours the brave, and for one deeply respected leader in Malaysia, his courageous leap of faith would become one of Malaysia’s greatest success stories.
Tan Sri Azman Hashim is the executive chairman of Amcorp Group and chairman of several subsidiaries of the AmBank Group, and also Amcorp Properties.
His career spans over half a century, and he has inspired generations of leaders throughout Southeast Asia, who have sought his wisdom and insights into the business world.
Ahead of the 2018 AmBank BizCONFERENCE and AmBank BizRACE, taking place in Penang from Nov 10, Azman sat down with host Roshan Thiran on a fascinating episode of The Leaderonomics Show to talk about his life as an entrepreneur and businessman.
Studying accountancy in Australia on a Colombo Plan Scholarship, he became a chartered accountant and chartered secretary before the age of 21.
"On his return to Malaysia, and after a four-year stint at Bank Negara, he knew his heart lay in running his own business. But there was one problem…"
He explained: “In those days, business people were seen as small people. I remember that the top Malay businessmen were just running petrol stations – that was big at that time. But they would say at the time that if you’re a businessman, you can’t get a job.
“I wanted to work for a chartered accountancy firm initially, but the environment was such that I worked at Bank Negara – that was my first job. After four years, I felt that it’s not for me.
“After my first year, I told the deputy governor I wanted to leave for a firm I worked for before (during the scholarship). The deputy governor called the boss there and said, ‘You want Azman? Over my dead body!’ That was it.”
Four years later, he went back to his boss, this time determined to start his own practice.
It was a pioneering attitude for the time – climbing the ladder in civil service was very much the thing to do. But Azman had made up his mind: he felt a passion to go beyond the norm, and was courageous to take a calculated risk.
“Everybody thought I was crazy,” he said. “The people thought I was crazy for leaving a good, stable government job. That was the mindset, and it was the most difficult decision for me to make.”
Azman revealed that he was fearless in his decision-making, even though his practice started out with just three people: himself, an office boy, and his wife who filled the role of secretary.
The accountancy practice soon acquired a staff of 100, but after a time, Maybank came calling for Azman’s services to help keep a sinking ship afloat.
He was invited to join the bank’s board to help turn around the bank’s fortunes, which meant that he had to leave his business before joining the bank as an executive – a role he filled for 10 years.
At that point, another foray into the corporate world beckoned, this time in the shape of a successful textile company that ran for 20 years.
In the 1980s, Azman was appointed chairman of the AmBank Group, a position he continues to hold today and in which he remains a highly-regarded example of effective leadership.
In recent decades, countless books and programmes on leadership have increasingly been shaping the thoughts and views of executives in the business world as to what it truly means to be a great leader.
"For Azman, being a leader is less about your approach and skillset, and more about who you are as a person… and how others see you."
When asked what kind of leadership advice he would give, Azman joked that, when he was invited to give a speech to Harvard Alumni here in Malaysia, his opening sentence was, “Sorry fellas, I didn’t go to university, I don’t have an MBA, there are no management gurus I follow… I just managed by flying by the seat of my pants!”
He added, “I didn’t learn anything in the books about leadership or management. To me, everybody’s a leader. If you’re leading a group of people or anything, you’re a leader. A leader is appointed by their peers – they must accept you as a leader.
“I think people accept me because they think I’m a nice fellow, I get along with people, I’m fair, I don’t have any secret agenda – some people promote themselves, right? People like that don’t last. So, that’s why I’ve been the chairman of AmBank for over 30 years.”