At 38 years old, Dominic Ng is one of the youngest chief executives of a major Los Angeles-area bank. And it’s not just any bank: Ng is head of East West Bank, the nation’s largest Chinese American-owned bank, with $1.6 billion in assets.
Unlike many Asian executives, the Hong Kong native is known for his activism throughout L.A. looking to extend the bank’s reach beyond the traditional confines of L.A.’s Chinese community.
He pursues this outreach through his participation on the boards of various charities and local organizations, and by getting East West Bank involved in financing local development projects.
As a case in point, East West recently worked with the City of L.A. Housing Department and the California Tax Credit Allocation Committee to build Crescent Village, a 130-unit housing project in downtown Los Angeles. East West contributed $5.9 million in financing for the project, which contains housing for elderly and low-income people.
He came to the United States from Hong Kong in the 1970s to study as an undergraduate at the University of Houston, staying on in that city to work for accounting firm Deloitte & Touche and eventually transferring to the firm’s L.A. office. About five years ago, he moved over to East West Bank.
Question: Your approach seems different from the traditional Chinese management style. Why is that?
Answer: My philosophy is that in order to be successful, you have to pull on your strengths and minimize your weaknesses. The fact is, I don’t have all the gray hair and the 40 years of experience in the banking industry to tell anybody, “I know better than you do.”
So in a situation like mine, I have to say, “What is my strength?” Then I look at it and say, “I have to pull on my strength of being able to use a different way of motivating staff than the stereotypical autocrat.”
Not that I have a problem with the autocratic approach. I’m just not like that, and I won’t be able to be successful doing that. You’ve got to go with your personality. I know myself very well and what I’m good at.
Q: So what are you good at?
A: I think I’m pretty good as a people person. I think I’m a very reasonable, conceptual kind of person, and I think that if people spend some time with me in a comfortable environment, I’ll be able to convince them that they should follow my direction.
The downside to that is that sometimes it takes a lot longer (for me to do things). That means sometimes I have to work a lot longer hours, because I’m not the kind of person who can have a meeting with someone for 10 seconds and say, “This is it. Do it. Get out of here.”
I can’t do that. I can do better by spending half an hour explaining why I’m doing this, why it’s this way for me, good for the bank and good for that person, and that maybe will take a half hour instead of 30 seconds. That means I usually end up working late every night.
Q: You’ve been much more visible in the community and in the press than in the past. Why the change?
A: Today I’m sitting here being interviewed by you, and for the last 12 or 24 months I’ve been very receptive to being interviewed by journalists. But if you asked me five years ago when I first came to East West, I would have absolutely refused. The reason wasn’t because my philosophy has changed. I just had nothing to say five years ago. My job back then was to come in, turn the bank around and build up the commercial banking business.
But today it’s different. We’re pretty much done with all our restructuring, and we’re out to try and show we can also be one of the leaders in the community, and we want to go out and tell our story.
Q: Why is it important for you to be active in the community?
A: I’m thinking, “If we go out to the community, then maybe other Chinese banks will follow the lead, and eventually we’ll start becoming part of the mainstream and get the same recognition and we’ll not be treated differently. It appears to me that Asian Americans a lot of the time are still being looked upon as different.
I think the American mainstream is not going to be as aggressive in trying to look upon the needs and the issues of Asian Americans. The Asian Americans themselves have to be taking a more proactive position in terms of trying to bridge that gap. If we want to be one of the largest Chinese American banks in the country and be a leader of the community, we’d better do some of these things. I look at this as part of that responsibility.
Q: After growing up in Hong Kong and spending most of your adult life in the United States, what differences do you see between East and West?
A: In terms of resources, human resources in particular, I do feel that America is the best place. There are a lot more talented, well-educated, well-trained people in America, plus all the infrastructure needed for these people to excel, are all available. For example, we have the finest universities, we have the finest research centers, we probably have finest high-tech equipment that is needed. Compared with the rest of the world, we have the best resources.
Q: How does the style of business differ in East vs. West?
A: In terms of style of business, I would say I prefer the Hong Kong and Singaporean style vs. the Americans. They are less litigious and less bureaucratic and much more efficient, more focused on doing the right thing without a lot of hassle about regulations. Sometimes in the U.S., too many interest groups want too many things, and whatever we do ends up not getting done right. Hong Kong and Singapore are really the ideal places to do business. If you work hard you will get rewarded.
Q: Prior to heading East West Bank, you spent some time with Deloitte & Touche first in Houston then L.A. What kind of differences did you see between the two cities?
A: They’re quite different. L.A. is extremely entrepreneurial. Houston is predominantly big business. I enjoyed my experience in Houston because I learned a lot there through working with major clients. They were also very systematic in an organized way. But I learned a lot in L.A. in terms of entrepreneurship.
Q: You went from being a CPA at Deloitte & Touche to heading a $1 billion-in-assets bank in a relatively short time. Was that a big change for you?
A: Not really, because when I was at Deloitte & Touche I did a lot of work with financial institutions. Something like 80 percent of our clients were financial institutions, so it wasn’t like going to a bank without knowing the banking business. I was always going to the banks with a different viewpoint, more as a consultant role and more in a CPA role. It wasn’t an operator role, but then I have always had contacts and relationships with the operators, so it wasn’t like I didn’t know what the operators were doing.
Q: But how about the change in the number of people you were managing?
A: That was fairly different. At Deloitte & Touche I had to manage between three and 15 staff members for each engagement. But it was very different, because at a CPA firm it was a very homogeneous group of people. They were usually the young professionals, the hot shots coming out of UCLA and USC, pretty young and aggressive.
Now we have 400 people here at East West with very different backgrounds. I really enjoy that experience, because I personally like to deal with different kinds of personalities and educational backgrounds. The challenge for me is to see if you can manage all kinds of people and get their respect. Then you really have done a great job.
Q: Have you ever considered getting into politics?
A: Not at this point. There are two reasons. One, I think the current political environment is too cynical and not conducive to productive work. Secondly, I’m not wealthy enough to make a change. I really feel that in order to do the right thing in America, you really need to have people who are substantially wealthy. Then they can really focus on doing the right thing if they have the mindset. Dick Riordan, Ross Perot or Steve Forbes I think they have a high likelihood of doing the right thing for this country because they have less likelihood of a conflict.