20 Years in North America, 20 Years in Asia, and Now Africa

In 1995, Louise Vogler graduated with two Bachelor degrees in Chinese Studies and International Business respectively, and then left Canada for China. In fact, she had first landed in China in 1990 in Shanghai, under a Student Exchange Program between her university in Canada (University of Victoria) and Shanghai’s East China Normal University ECNU. From 1990 to 1991, she completed an intensive Chinese language program and at the same time she also met her “Mr. Right”, who was an African student from Zambia studying chemistry at ECNU. In 2000, they married in Shanghai and she gave birth to their child. 

Louise also started her working career in China. In September 1995, she left Canada for Guangzhou to work for the Canadian Consulate, representing her Province of British Columbia as a “trade liaison”. In 1999, she joined Standard Chartered Bank in Shanghai, and ever since then, her career life has been bound up with this leading international bank. Having rotated through a number of posts in Relationship Management, Transaction Banking and Credit Risk, she progressed from a Senior Credit Analyst when she joined in 1999 to Regional Credit Officer of Standard Chartered’s Wholesale Bank for Greater China. She worked mostly in Shanghai until 2015, when she was transferred to Africa.

After working and living in China for over 20 years, in 2015, Louise made a decision to move to South Africa to become Chief Credit Officer of Standard Chartered, Africa. Just as she came to China 20 years ago, Louise now embarked on her new journey in Africa. 

Leading African Teams with a Different Approach
Africa and Asia are very different in terms of history, culture, economic development, and social environment. Africa is also an extremely diverse continent, with an ancient civilization like the Egyptians to the north, to the nomadic Masai tribe in Kenya to the east, to the descendants of noble Ashanti kingdom of Ghana to the west.

However, despite the very different history and environment between Africa and Asia, on her first visit to Nigeria, Louise was surprised to feel as if she was still in Asia!  This is because Nigeria is Africa’s most populous country, and, importantly, Nigerians are as highly motivated and entrepreneurial as their Asian and Chinese counterparts. Just as the Chinese do, Nigerians often say “I can manage it”, “I’ll give it a try”, or “I can solve it”. “I love Nigeria”, Louise says, “Nigeria’s infrastructure is still under-developed, but you can feel local people are filled with an entrepreneurial passion and drive and desire to make their lives better.”

Nigeria is just one of the places Louise regularly visits in Africa. In the first two years after her arrival, Louise visited 12 out of 15 African countries where Standard Chartered Bank has a presence. “All these countries are very, very different”, she says.

Shortly after her arrival, Louise took on the same job duties as she had done in China, but she was faced with a challenge of ensuring that all her Africa team members followed the same rules, principles and working pattern … which was difficult to do with 15 different countries! Her dilemma was “how do I get everyone to apply the same rules in the same way, to the same quality standard?”

Louise didn’t simply transplant her past experience to Africa. “What we do in Asia may not apply to Africa,” She appreciated the creativity and vigor of her African colleagues. And so, when trying to standardize the entire business process, she kept motivating all team members so as to convince them that they could also create the best practice of Standard Chartered.  “Let’s aim for excellence in what we do, so that our group colleagues look to Africa for ‘best practice’”, Louise exhorted to her team.

Louise’s Africa team has now shared a lot of good practice within the bank. “This is so helpful in building up team confidence”, Louise says proudly. “Our group colleagues now look at Africa for “best practice” on many processes. All it takes is confidence and commitment to push for excellence.”

What has also caught her attention in Africa is how Standard Chartered, has delivered a huge boost to local social and economic development in many of the African countries in which it operates. The bank has a long history in Africa, with its operations dating back to the 1850’s during the British colonial period. In some countries, such as Ghana, SCB even served as the Central Bank. Because of this long history, Standard Chartered has an enviable market share in many of its African markets. Statistics show that the combined market share of banking assets of foreign banks in China is only around 1.5%, while Standard Chartered Bank has a 20% share in some African countries.

Standard Chartered remains a major financial advisor to many African countries, helping local governments with fundraising and hedging activities. After arriving in Africa, Louise was so impressed with the way SCB was welcomed by senior Ministers and government officials. “It is such an honour to be able to meet directly with the Central Bank Governor or Minister of Finance of this country or that country”, Louise says.  “Not many banks have that type of access.  And it offers SCB such a great opportunity to give sound financial advice to these countries, to help them manage their public finances for the benefit of their nations.”

A Simple Business Idea May Create Business Opportunities in Africa

Undoubtedly, Africa is an important player in the global political and economic arena, as well as a major stop along the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. China has also now become Africa’s largest trading partner as well as its largest source of foreign direct investment (FDI). Thanks to the Belt and Road Initiative, more and more Chinese companies and businessmen will venture into Africa to seek and create opportunities.

Louise is well aware of the business environment and characteristics of the Chinese market. And after more than two years of intense travelling in Africa, Louise has familiarized herself with this amazing continent. For instance, she has found “Nigerians are very creative, very resilient, very entrepreneurial and have a positive working attitude, all of which is essential to start-up success. And if you visit Zambia, most Zambians have access to a good education and are efficient and hard-working, which should be taken into consideration if you plan to build a plant in Africa.”

She says Africa presents many good business opportunities for Chinese investors. She is impressed with the success of Chinese businessmen in Africa. They have built their own business network and Chinese communities in some African countries. For another, Chinese people abroad often lend a helping hand to their compatriots, which can remove many obstacles for Chinese companies planning to launch new projects there.

But that doesn’t mean Chinese people have nothing to worry about when doing business in Africa. United as they are, Chinese businessmen may not communicate sufficiently with local communities, which may have a negative impact on company operations. As Louise suggests, while seeking support from local Chinese people, Chinese companies in Africa should stay flexible enough to adapt to local culture in order to gain a solid foothold.

She also points out that people’s basic needs have yet to be fully fulfilled in most parts of Africa, which are still at the initial stage of development. Therefore, a simple business idea may create a successful business opportunity in Africa. In addition, companies that have benefited from those opportunities should give back by helping boost local consumers’ spending power. It should be a two-way process.

Louise’s suggestions for Chinese companies in Africa:

1. Seek help from the local Chinese chamber of commerce – for instance, Jilin Chamber of Commerce opened an office in Zambia in 2017;

2. Stay open and flexible to market changes;

3. Tap into business opportunities in line with local conditions, instead of copying the experience from other regions;

4. Engage with the local community to become immersed into African culture. 

Continuous Learning and a New Journey with Family
After coming to China from Canada in 1995, Louise worked as a trade specialist in the Consulate General of Canada in Guangzhou. In Aug 2017, she was appointed as the Regional Chief Credit Officer for Africa & Middle East and Global Financial Institutions Risk at Standard Chartered Bank. Over the past 22 years, by virtue of passion, loyalty, and a commitment to continuous learning, she has made her name as an approachable leader with keen insights and compassionate leadership.

For Louise, continuous learning can bring lifelong benefits. That’s why she signed up for CEIBS Global EMBA programme in 2010. As she notes, one of the greatest gains from CEIBS was “a boost to my leadership skills”. “In my leadership course with Dr. Katherine Xin, students were divided into teams of three, and each member had his/her own leadership training plan. Over one and a half years, my team members and I monitored each other and gave feedback. I think we benefited a lot from this interaction.”

Louise’s studies at CEIBS reinforced her understanding of China. It was during this period when Louise became Chief Credit Officer of Standard Chartered Bank in China. With a curiosity to learn and appreciate different cultures, she tries to build strong, productive relationships with her colleagues and clients everywhere she works. Thanks to her experience of working in different cultures for most of her adult life, she has settled into her job in Africa relatively quickly. She is now very excited to start learning more about the very diverse countries and cultures of the Middle East in her new role as Regional Chief Credit Officer, Africa & Middle East.

It is never easy for you to leave a place where you have lived for 20 years, to separate yourself from all your close colleagues, friends and schoolmates, and to set your foot onto new soil. Thanks to her supportive family, Louise set out on her new journey in Africa and now Middle East with relative ease.

Louise now works from Zambia, and her husband has returned to Africa to develop his own business. “My husband offered me strong support when I studied at CEIBS. He always found time in his busy schedule to take care of our son so that I could concentrate on my study and work. Now, it is my turn to support him as he starts a new business.” Meanwhile, their son, in an African senior high school, is preparing for his college application in Canada.

Louise often gets asked about how safe it is to work in Africa, and whether she feels comfortable to travel by herself to all these countries. There is often a lot of news about terrorist attacks or other safety-related incidents in this or that African country. Louise stated with conviction “what you hear on the news is always worse than the reality.  The stereotypes you hear about Africa are never true. Yes you need to be careful about your security and safety in Africa, but you need to worry about the same things everywhere in the world. Africa is really no worse than any other part of the world, as long as you take the right precautions.”

Speaking of her son, Louise says, “He has grown up in China and will go back to Canada for college education after his high school in Africa. He is lucky enough to have been exposed to diverse cultures and different languages at such a young age. I believe all these will be valuable assets to him.” When talking about her future career path, she says she will have more choices after her son goes to university. She may consider returning to China and Asia again. But what matters most right now is that her whole family can stay together and that she makes the most of learning about the fascinating countries of Africa and the Middle East.