Japan Megabanks Break Glass Ceiling for Foreign Managers

Japan’s biggest banks are breaking tradition by promoting foreigners to top management roles to retain and lure overseas talent as growth abroad buoys profit.

Among recent appointments: In July, Debra Hazelton became the first foreign general manager at Mizuho Financial Group Inc.’s Tokyo headquarters, where she leads a new department to manage global staff. Sumitomo Mitsui Financial Group Inc.’s lending arm promoted two foreigners to executive officer in April, and Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group Inc.’s banking unit appointed its first non-Japanese executive officer last year.

The so-called megabanks are giving foreign staff more responsibility as they expand overseas operations and hiring to spur earnings that are hampered by low interest rates and tepid loan demand at home. The three lenders now get about a third of their profit from abroad, where they increased loans and spent at least $14 billion on acquisitions over the past five years.

“Japanese megabanks will only get more dependent on overseas businesses,” said Yoshinobu Yamada, an analyst at Deutsche Bank AG in Tokyo. “They’re opening their doors for people hired overseas to get promoted anywhere in the organization.”

The practice of handing senior management roles to Japanese gave foreigners the impression of a “glass ceiling,” according to John Mullally, an associate director at recruiter Robert Walters Plc in Hong Kong. That’s beginning to change, he said.

“The Japanese megabanks are putting more non-Japanese staff in leadership positions” to attract foreign talent, Mullally said.

Reverse Trend

Hazelton joined Mizuho’s banking unit in Sydney in 2007 to become the lender’s first non-Japanese country head, following 20 years at Commonwealth Bank of Australia. Her move to Tokyo as the only foreigner among 30 general managers at the head office represents a reversal of a practice of dispatching Japanese nationals to manage operations abroad, she said.

“My specific appointment was kind of a symbol that we’re really looking at input from staff that have been hired outside Japan,” Hazelton said in an interview in July.

While Mizuho doesn’t keep count of staff by nationality, it had 7,745 employees outside Japan as of March, up from 6,745 two years ago, according to the company. They’re mostly non-Japanese and make up 14 percent of total staff.

Overseas headcount is likely to keep rising, though the bank doesn’t have a specific hiring target, according to Masako Shiono, a spokeswoman for the country’s third-biggest lender by market value. Mizuho is adding people in various areas related to corporate finance, Shiono said.

Past Attempts

“More and more of our revenue is coming from customers outside Japan,” requiring closer collaboration between staff at home and abroad, Hazelton said. “By giving the outside-Japan staff the opportunity to develop and grow their career within Mizuho, we’re hoping to retain them.”

Past attempts by the country’s financial firms to boost foreign leadership haven’t always worked out.

Nomura Holdings Inc.’s wholesale division chief Jesse Bhattal quit in 2012, two years after taking the post to stem an exodus of staff that Japan’s biggest brokerage inherited when it bought part of Lehman Brothers Holdings Inc. Executives including global markets head Tarun Jotwani also left that year.

Japan’s financial sector lags far behind other industries when it comes to globalization, according to Katsunobu Komizo, founder and president of Executive Search Partners Co., the country’s biggest banking recruitment firm. Foreign managers at Japanese lenders may struggle to win support from some less global-minded executives who don’t speak English and haven’t worked abroad, Komizo said.

Welcome Foreigners

“Those executives need to truly welcome foreigners” and the banks must create more roles like Hazelton’s for the initiative to succeed, Komizo said. “That’s the real glass ceiling that the Japanese banks will have to break.”

Mizuho, Mitsubishi UFJ and Sumitomo Mitsui have expanded credit abroad and accelerated takeovers since the global financial crisis and European debt turmoil hurt balance sheets of their peers around the world. Overseas loans at the three Tokyo-based companies rose at least 40 percent over the past three years, according to their data.

Profit Abroad

Mitsubishi UFJ’s lending unit earned 36 percent of its gross profit outside of Japan in the year ended March, up from 23 percent three years earlier, company data show. Sumitomo Mitsui got 33 percent of its banking profit from abroad last fiscal year, an increase from 23 percent in 2010. Mizuho obtained 29 percent of operating profit from overseas customers last year and aims for 33 percent in the year ending March 2016, according to an earnings presentation.

Falling interest rates in Japan have lowered loan margins at the nation’s banks to the slimmest in Asia. Japan’s benchmark 10-year bonds yielded 0.485 percent in Tokyo today, the lowest since April 2013.

“It’s natural for Japanese financial institutions expanding overseas to seek talent from abroad and even ask those foreign professionals to come to their Tokyo headquarters,” Nobuyuki Hirano, chairman of the Japanese Bankers Association and president of Mitsubishi UFJ, told reporters in July.

Bank of Tokyo-Mitsubishi UFJ Ltd., the main lending unit of Japan’s biggest bank, appointed Randall Chafetz last year as its first foreign executive officer. The firm has 67 executive officers, which are the highest-ranking managers that the board authorizes to make decisions and carry out business, and include the chief executive officer.

‘Important Signal’

Chafetz, 55, who oversees global corporate and investment banking in Tokyo, said his appointment “sends an incredibly important signal to the organization and to our stakeholders of the growing importance of our non-Japanese business.”

“It also shows to any of our employees that a long-term career and a senior executive position in the bank are a possibility,” said Chafetz, an American who joined Mitsubishi UFJ from UBS AG in 1998.

Overseas employees at the Japanese company’s lending arm now outnumber staff at home, following its $5 billion purchase of Thailand’s Bank of Ayudhya Pcl in 2013, according to Kazunobu Takahara, a spokesman for Mitsubishi UFJ. It now employs more than 40,000 people abroad out of its total 78,105.

Mitsubishi UFJ wants to hire college graduates outside of Japan who can work across borders, Takahara said.

Board Members

At Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corp., the main lending unit of Japan’s second-biggest lender, Rajeev Kannan of India has been working as general manager of project and export finance at its Tokyo headquarters for more than two years. He was the first foreigner to obtain the rank in Japan.

In April, Sumitomo Mitsui promoted two foreigners based outside Japan to executive officer, a position shared by two other non-Japanese and 75 Japanese. The bank formed a department to manage its 7,000 overseas staff in the same month, according to Tomoyuki Narita, a Tokyo-based spokesman for Sumitomo Mitsui.

As their business becomes more global, the lenders may eventually begin allowing foreign employees to sit on their boards, according to Deutsche Bank’s Yamada.

“It may be a matter of time,” he said. “Japanese banks will have to conduct executive meetings in English one day.”

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