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[Global Finance Awards] Woori Bank CEO all set for ‘financial holding group’ era


Nov. 28, 2018 - 17:05 By Bae Hyun-jung

When Sohn Tae-seung took office as Woori Bank CEO in December last year, his leadership had seemed to face multiple hurdles ahead, ranging from prolonged recruitment irregularities that led to the resignation of his predecessor to the uncertainties lingering in the domestic financial market.

Over the past year, however, South Korea’s third-largest commercial lender in terms of operating profit has successfully gained new momentum under Sohn’s lead -- renewing its net profit record, topping in brand reputation, and most of all, finally clearing the way to a financial holding company structure.

(Woori Bank)

According to the latest Korea Reputation Report issued by the Korea Reputation Center, Woori Bank was ranked No. 1 among local banks in brand reputation, ahead of KB Kookmin Bank and Industrial Bank of Korea.

Earlier in October, CEO Sohn received the CEO of 2018 Award from the Korea CEO Association for achieving sound earnings and contributing to the bank’s successful corporate governance restructuring.

“He is a man of few words, who prefers action over talk,” said an official of the bank.

“Thank you,” was his concise remark when the bank’s directorate confirmed his appointment as the new CEO. Sohn, who was at the time the bank’s executive vice president and group head for global affairs, had been serving as acting CEO in his predecessor Lee Kwang-goo’s absence.

Sohn’s discreet leadership, combined with his expertise in global banking business, was a timely choice for the bank at its watershed moment, observers said.

“Prioritizing internal communication and unity, Sohn started off a project to reach out to the bank’s employees face to face and to hear their opinion on business and welfare,” said an official of the bank.

“Since March this year, he has traveled some 4,500 kilometers, visited all of the 46 regional headquarters across the country and has met with over 1,000 employees.”

One of the outcomes of such communication efforts was an open screening system that allows corporate clients to present the technology and business feasibility during the credit evaluation process.

While enforcing its internal stability on one hand, the bank exerted maximum efforts into boosting its profitability ahead of the financial regulator’s approval for the holding company transition in November.

As of the third quarter this year, Woori Bank scored a net profit of 1.9 trillion won ($1.68 billion), up 38 percent from a year earlier.

While interest earnings and corporate loans maintained a reasonable growth pace, conspicuous expansion was observed in non-interest incomes, especially in the asset management commission sector which saw a 20.2 percent on-year rise.

Expectations also elevated on the business portfolio diversification as profits in its global business neared 150 billion won as of end-October, up 10.4 percent from the same period last year.

During the past three quarters, the bank’s global network expanded into 421 offices in 26 countries, with the total assets jumping some 57 percent to $23.1 billion from $14.7 billion, officials said.

But the most significant step for the bank was its corporate governance change into a financial holding company, a system which is to take effect in January next year, when the bank will be celebrating its 120th anniversary of business. Sohn is also to serve as group chairman during the initial stage.

“The conversion into a holding company is not the end but only a new beginning,” he said.

Expanding its business horizons beyond the banking sector, Woori Bank -- or Woori Financial Group, starting January -- aspires to rise into a top-level financial service provider, officials said.

“Our vision is to rise into a leading banking group, not only in terms of figures, but also by fulfilling our social responsibility,” an official said.

As part of its mid-term blueprint for inclusive banking, Woori Bank recently unveiled its plan to allocate some 2.7 trillion won to supporting innovative enterprises and small businesses.

By Bae Hyun-jung (