Profiles

Banking head honcho now works with villagers and ex-convicts

by Karen Tan // September 10, 2018, 3:18 pm

Alex family 1

Alex with his wife Channy and children on holiday Photo by Alex Tee

He speaks deliberately, his words measured, pausing often to weigh his thoughts.

At 39 going on 40, Alex Tee could have been at the proverbial epitome of his career in the heady world of banking and finance.

This is where the script changes.

Tide turned

Earlier this year he left his job as Managing Director and the Chief Executive of Bank of America, Singapore.

Tee did not just walk away from his job, he walked away from the banking industry altogether, leaving his high finance career well behind him.

“I really wanted the stewardship to start now … not when my best years are behind me.”

It’s a radical move in a world consumed by the money chase. For Tee, this about-turn began with a conversation about five years ago.

“Isaiah 61 distinguishes between prisoners and captives. I asked the Lord: ‘What’s the difference? Both need to be freed.’

“And the Lord said: ‘The captives are people like you who, because of that financial security, would not step out. And all the time, you know that this is not really life but you still continue clipping these fat, chunky financial coupons.’”

That set his mind thinking, but he put the conversation on the back burner.

Tee’s siblings together with their spouses and mum (centre back). Jimmy, on the extreme right, is the youngest and practising to be a surgeon. Without Tee’s season in banking, the family wouldn’t have had the means to put him through medical school.

Though it was shelved, it was never forgotten.

Tee came to Singapore as a pre-teen to further his education.

His father’s business was doing well in Banting, a small town about 45 minutes drive from the capital city of Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The family sent the eldest child down south to Singapore for a better start in life.

However, within a couple of years, his parent’s business failed and chalked up debts.

By then, Tee was awarded an Asean Scholarship, but the money situation remained tight, right up to university.

That episode left an indelible mark on Tee.

Setting the house in order

So leaving a successful financial career was no light decision – there were also present needs he was already committed to. 

As the eldest of five children, Tee helped to finance his younger siblings’ education and was also shouldering some of the  financial burden of his extended family.

At the same time, he was just starting a family of his own and there were provisions to be made.  

“What really touched me is Luke 9:23-24 – those who lose their life will gain it.” 

“I needed to acquire financial authority fairly quickly, I saw the whole season in banking as God’s providence, to open up this span of time to help me do so.”

That season of preparation also gave him time to have more conversations with the Lord about his work situation: “It’s the time of secret prayer that Jesus calls for, really growing deep and having a real joy to commune with the Lord. That place has granted me a lot of peace.”

Just when he was planning his exit, Tee got promoted to the position of Managing Director of Bank of America, Singapore. 

Poverty of purpose

However, his heart was set on obedience to His call.

“Using the Bible as reference, I recognised that even if I succeeded wildly and went on to head Asia, I would have succeeded at the wrong thing. I didn’t want to realise this only at 50 or 60 years old, when my best years are behind me. I really wanted the stewardship to start now.

“I no longer have that constant nagging sense that the work of these hands will not matter for eternity.”

“What also really got me to make the switch is the recognition that, in banking, there is an appearance of flourishing. Even though you are financially abundant, there may be a poverty of purpose. People who have been in it long enough may recognise that.” 

Even so, not many make the move. 

In the realm of high finance, taking risks and moving into new investment positions are daily assignments for bankers.

The irony is, when risk becomes a personal affair, many turn averse and rather not venture or wager. Perhaps, the smell of certain money and success is too intoxicating.

Tee (extreme right) and his team when the office moved to a spanking new building at OUE Bayfront.

Kingdom purposed

Tee, who had spent more than a decade climbing the ladder in high finance, gave it all away for a smaller investment portfolio.

Today, he is Chief Operating Officer at Garden Impact, an investment company which backs small enterprises that provide jobs mostly for the poor and the marginalised.

It focuses not only on the financial bottomline, but the well-being of the community as well.

“God’s heart is for the poor and people who cannot help themselves. These communities simply need to be connected to the value chains. Without somebody coming in to link them into those chains, they have very little hope.

“Our utmost wish and dream is to be able to fulfil the Great Commission (Matthew 28:16-20) by obeying the Great Commandment to love our neighbour (Matthew 22:36-40).”

Instead of hobnobbing with clients in swanky restaurants, Tee now meets entrepreneurs in sweaty, regional, far-flung places to help them scale up their operations and provide for communities with needs.

“Sacrifices, servanthood, the abundant life – if they are not embodied, there is a risk they remain abstract.”

Tee’s face lights up when he talks about the different projects he is working on: “I really love to create flourishing communities and see people succeed. If we talk about flourishing communities, that’s another way of saying ‘the abundant life’.” 

It is but early days yet for Tee and his career change of less than a year. His family has had to to live more simply on his current, more modest income. When asked if there was even a chance he’d consider returning to the high-octane world of finance – it was a resounding ‘No’ for an answer.

“No chance,” he says firmly.

“You are right that it is a radical shift. For example, the salary I am on now is sort of a rounding error compared to what I used to be on. But I no longer have that constant nagging sense that the work of these hands will not matter for eternity.

“If the Bible is the sole authority of how we must live our lives then I’m not going back. What really touched me is Luke 9:23-24 – those who try to save their life will lose it and those who lose their life will gain it.”

Putting faith to work

Tee is also part of the new breed of younger fathers realigning their lives and values to a higher purpose – not just for themselves, but the next generation as well.  

On holiday with his wife, Channy, and children, Eli, Emin and Ena.

“The biggest reason, and a lot of it, is modelling for the children. They need to know what daddy does. I love to bring home these conversations and tell them about the businesses that we invest in. I love to bring them along the journey; I think that’s the only way to develop empathy for people.

“Many values that we talk about – sacrifices, servanthood and the abundant life – if they are not embodied, there is always the risk that they just remain in their theological realm … abstract.

“My hope is that the Lord will use all of this – five loaves and two fish – and inspire others who are captive in the industry, battling that poverty of purpose, to simply walk out and seek a life that is really life.”

About the author

Karen Tan

Karen was a producer at Asia Business News (Singapore), Bloomberg News and CNBC Asia. She subsequently joined the Far East Organisation to oversee corporate social responsibility. Karen is now Associate Editor at Salt&Light.