“It is an exciting time to be doing business in Myanmar”, says Nang Lang Kham, one of Myanmar’s brightest entrepreneurs and Executive Director of the Kanbawza Group (KBZ Group). “Over the last couple of years, the market has really begun to open up, presenting both challenges and opportunities for Myanmar’s companies.”
What is, on the face of it, an unchanging society of humble origins and one steeped in ancient tradition is, in reality, a nation capable of matching Southeast Asia’s strongest economies. Bolstered by newfound democratic freedom and a number of crucial economic reforms, the country has come to be seen as fertile ground for entrepreneurship (see Fig. 1 and Fig. 2) and host to all manner of up-and-coming talent.
Nang, in many ways, is the perfect embodiment of Myanmar’s emerging generation of business leaders, after working in a variety of positions at KBZ bank and having since made her way to the uppermost ranks of a key constituent of Myanmar’s national economy.
Charged with leading one of Myanmar’s leading conglomerates and overseeing an employee base of some 80,000 staff, Nang’s influence extends to industry leaders in the mining, banking, aviation, insurance, manufacturing, agriculture, real estate, trading, healthcare, tourism and hospitality sectors.
Senior management positions at KBZ held by women, 2009
Senior management positions at KBZ held by women, 2014
“We are already seeing major international companies coming into certain sectors of the market for the first time, and what started as a trickle will likely become a flood over the next few years,” says Nang, speaking to World Finance about the success and expansion of KBZ Group in the past years. “At KBZ Group, we welcome this change, as we believe a healthy competitive business environment will play a key role in supporting sustainable development in our country.”
Nang and KBZ
Born and bred in Myanmar, Nang chose to pursue undergraduate studies in Singapore and while there developed a passion for learning, going on to partake in various mentoring programmes. As a beneficiary of the prestigious Fortune/US State Department Global Women’s Mentoring Programme, Nang was mentored by Rosalind Brewer, the President and CEO of Sam’s Club, and a woman who was listed as the 39th most powerful woman in business by Fortune this year.
“I was really inspired by Roz and I am a big fan of mentoring programmes. I think learning is a life-long process and shared experience is invaluable. Throughout my life I have had key individuals who have shared their wisdom and experiences with me, including my father, who has guided me to become a leader,” says Nang. “In Myanmar, it is common for our generation to have mentors, people we look up to, aspire to – who shine guiding lights on our paths. Sharing experiences is part of our culture and tradition, and is vital for encouraging young talents. I try to be a good mentor to my team, but at the same time look to them as mentors. Many of them have experiences I can learn from and that is one of the benefits of having such a diverse workforce.”
For a country that is still very much in its infancy, in terms of economic and social development, it’s crucial that lessons are passed down from those leading the latest advances, in order for the country to learn from past mistakes and improve upon its prospects. It’s doubly important, therefore, that major economic players, such as KBZ Group, share what knowledge and wealth they’ve accumulated with a population still fresh from decades of social and political unrest. It is this willingness to communicate and take responsibility for the various communities in which it operates that has seen KBZ Group post impressive results year-on-year and build an outstanding reputation in the region and beyond.
KBZ has reached an impressive milestone and is fortunate enough to be celebrating its 20th year of sustained success in Myanmar. Established in 1994 by Aung Ko Win, a former school teacher from Shan State and Chairman of the group, the bank has been run as a family business ever since. On speaking to Nang, it’s clear that she’s both proud of the group’s heritage and excited about what prospects lie ahead. “The achievements of KBZ Group over the last 20 years have been truly remarkable, but we can’t afford to be complacent,” she says. “As our business environment is going through a significant transition, we need to make changes to take our organisation to a new level. However, this doesn’t mean that we turn our backs on our existing corporate culture and traditional values. We need to find a healthy balance, taking the best of what has made us so successful in the past, while adopting international best practices and systems.”
This same balancing act between tradition and modernity can be seen when looking at the nation at large, as those in power look to rebuild and improve upon Myanmar’s social and economic constitution and attract parties from overseas.
Taking Myanmar’s unique values and combining them with international best practices is no mean feat, and so requires an unparalleled understanding of what it takes to succeed in an ever-evolving patchwork of a global economy. “In order to achieve the right balance, I believe diversity is essential,” says Nang. “As a business, we have always embraced diversity, which is reflected in our workforce. We strongly believe in equal opportunities and our staff hail from all of Myanmar’s national races. We try hard to achieve gender balance and also engage international expertise as needs demand.”
Women in business
This sense of diversity is something that has been inspired in no small part by Nang’s position at the helm, and it’s a quality that underpins much of the group’s greatest achievements in years past and present. No less than 65 percent of KBZ Bank’s employees are women, and, as of 2014, over 50 percent are in senior management roles, compared to just 27 percent in 2009. In response to a question put to her on women’s opportunities in business, Nang, an enthusiast of female empowerment, is forthright in her response. “Women make up half the population and have a hugely important role to play in Myanmar’s development,” she says. “There is no overt discrimination against women in Myanmar, although traditionally women have been brought up to be modest, humble and respectful to their male counterparts. And while there is nothing wrong with these attributes per se, I think it has inhibited women’s confidence to stand up for themselves in the business environment.”
Few reliable statistics exist on changing opportunities for women in Myanmar, though what can be said with a reasonable degree of certainty is that women are certainly more visible in prominent leadership positions today than they historically have been. Roles in the education and healthcare sectors in particular are mostly populated by women, and the country’s political sphere has welcomed a number of prominent women into its ranks. Pay for women, however, is far short of what it is for men, and there are still many steps to be taken before working conditions for women match up. “Certain professions are still heavily male dominated and there is some way to go before we achieve real gender balance,” says Nang. “The potential of women in business has not yet been fully realised and we still need to get more women into the boardroom making decisions.
“That being said, we do already have a good number of dynamic successful women entrepreneurs in many sectors and things are changing. The positive development we observe is that whereas previously women considered themselves primarily as housewives, today, more and more women are joining the labour force (see Fig. 3), indicating that people in Myanmar are changing their mindsets alongside changes to the country.”
KBZ’s focus on diversity extends to matters quite apart from gender. It pertains also to those with work experience in markets apart from Myanmar. It is this combination of local and global talent that has come to define much of the group’s competence when extending its influence overseas.
“The diversity of our workforce has also recently benefited from what I like to term as a reverse brain drain,” says Nang. “The exciting business opportunities in Myanmar have attracted the return of many highly skilled expatriate Myanmar with extensive international experience. When we combine this segment with Myanmar nationals who have studied abroad and those who have never left the country, we have a melting pot of talent that encompasses what’s best about Myanmar traditional business practices alongside the best in new ideas from around the globe. This helps us achieve global localisation or ‘glocalisation’, which I believe is essential for any company looking at the Myanmar market.”
Whereas globalisation in the past has often compromised local values in favour of a more global philosophy, glocalisation offers more-or-less the same business benefits of globalisation without doing away with the values that make any one particular nation unique. Without the will of those at KBZ to make this happen, it’s unlikely that the emphasis on national development would remain. With Nang at the helm and a wealth of international experience on hand, the group stands as a prime example in how best to preserve local traditions and build an international reputation – nurturing rather than neglecting local traditions.
“Our vision for the future of KBZ Group is to create a world-class company that complies with international standards while retaining the values of a family business,” says Nang. “This will be achieved through capacity building efforts, community aid programmes that help our country, dedication to transparency and integrity, and a desire to see the best of Myanmar’s traditions flourish in a free market economy.” By pursuing an intelligent and sustainable growth strategy, KBZ hopes to represent Myanmar both at home and in the ASEAN region as a model company and a responsible corporate citizen. “We are growing together with the people and the country.”
On speaking to Nang, sustainable development emerges as a recurring theme, and it’s clear that the executive director has a passion for her country and KBZ’s responsibility to make a contribution to the long-term development of Myanmar. This same philosophy is reflected in KBZ’s motto, which reads ‘Strength of Myanmar’, and rings true throughout the entirety of the company’s contributions to national economic and social development.
Again, representative of this philosophy is Nang’s position as co-founder and chair of the Brighter Future Myanmar, KBZ’s community initiative arm that supports disaster relief, youth development, health and education, microfinance and women’s empowerment. Nang is also the leading light in driving forward KBZ Group’s corporate social responsibility (CSR) initiatives as well as the company’s contributions to the various communities in which it operates.
“I was brought up in a family that was always conscious of its responsibility to the community in which we were raised,” says Nang. “We were taught to take part in community initiatives. It is part of our family values and also of our corporate family’s values. When I explain to people that KBZ is a family business, it means a lot more than being a family-owned business. We consider our employees, communities and the Myanmar people to all be part of our extended family whom we nurture and support. We are extremely fortunate that the KBZ team shares our passion in this respect and regularly volunteers to contribute to our social initiatives.”
Myanmar has previously been a highly dysfunctional economy and one starved of the potential it is so clearly capable of fulfilling. Nonetheless, by focusing on the country’s worst-hit communities, as well as those scarred by conflict in the years gone by, KBZ is fulfilling an important role in Myanmar’s domestic reconciliation efforts and stands as a benchmark for others to aspire.
KBZ’s responsibility does not stop with those in underserved communities, but applies also to those in its workforce, as the group again strives to emphasise its reputation as an upstanding corporate citizen. “CSR extends beyond philanthropy and we are seeing an increasing awareness of the importance of responsible corporate behavior in Myanmar,” says Nang. “This includes providing essential services for our people, providing jobs, paying taxes, committing to anti-corruption, organisational transparency, human rights, health and safety and the protection of the environment. At KBZ, we place a high value on all of these issues.” Determined to create a healthy and conducive environment for the entirety of its workforce, KBZ’s ambition is to ensure its employees flourish in each of their respective fields and go on to do impressive things in their lives and careers.
Culture of responsibility
KBZ’s efforts to uphold a culture of responsibility can also be seen in its code of conduct, which is made up of several core strands and is critical in all of the group’s key decisions. In an attempt to stamp out misdemeanours of any sort, KBZ has a zero tolerance policy on corruption and actively supports any employees witness to instances of corruption to report it to management. The promise represents only one facet of the group’s code and – in a very general sense – the group promises to perform its duties with integrity, accountability and openness, and expects much the same from its employees.
Lauded for its outstanding principles of corporate governance, KBZ Group’s management quality, treatment of stakeholders, transparency and organisational structure is second-to-none in Myanmar, and equal even to some of the world’s largest multinationals. This year, KBZ Group was recognised by President Thein Sein for paying the most tax in Myanmar and later recognised as the most transparent of Myanmar’s leading 60 companies (see Fig. 4), according to a website study carried out by the Myanmar Centre for Responsible Business, a European- funded NGO.
Although Myanmar’s history of social and political unrest may seem a distant memory to some, the country still has some way to go before it adequately compensates for decades of economic isolation and oppressive leadership. Granted, the government has made impressive headway thus far by introducing sound principles of governance to the country and freeing its population from a dearth of economic opportunities, yet there remains a way to go before the state completes its transformation. Myanmar, for all intents and purposes, is a country in flux, and one in need of corporate leadership perhaps more so than many of its neighbouring south-east Asian nations.
Talking with Nang, however, it’s hard not to be impressed by her infectious enthusiasm and dedication to the future of Myanmar. It’s no coincidence that she is in many ways a product of Myanmar’s progress, and from what she has achieved so far in her career, it’s sensible to assume that under her leadership, KBZ Group will continue to make path-breaking advances in Myanmar and play a major part in the country’s bright future.