Who is Ashley Wilkins?

The primary focus of this Societe Generale banker is sustainable relationships, not slash-and-burn banking.
Ashley Wilkins is a rare breed of banker these days. He has been employed in the industry for more than 25 years, but has only worked for two bank groups in his career: NatWest and Societe Generale. He joined the latter in 1996.

ôIf you only work for two companies, and donÆt whiz around, you have to take a completely different approach to work. You have to think about sustainability,ö says Wilkins, who leads the bankÆs capital raising and financing operations in Asia. ôIf you make transgressions û or bad decisions û those bad decisions will come back to haunt you. So you canÆt make transgressions. You have to make decisions that are sustainable. You canÆt slash-and-burn.ö

Given Societe GeneraleÆs troubles earlier this year with its own rogue trader, this is refreshing. But itÆs not surprising from Wilkins. Whenever we have met we have talked about the longevity of banker/client relationships, be it his own, or when critiquing other deals. One of his first questions tends to be: Has the client returned to the bank for another deal? Surely, this really should be a criterion nearly as important as any league tables. It speaks of professionalism.

And Wilkins has maintained long-term relationships with clients. For example, he led the financing for Shell and PTT on the $1.5 billion Rayong Refinery deal in Thailand in 1993, and then advised them again on the restructuring deal for that refinery in 2004. He advised BP in its bid for the $6 billion west to east Natural Gas Pipeline in China in 2001, advised BP and Sinopec in their $3 billion petrochemical project in Shanghai in China in 2002, and then again advised BP (alongside Mitsubishi and CNOOC) on the Tangguh LNG deal, a $6 billion greenfield liquefied natural gas project in Indonesia.

His repeat client work isnÆt just with folks in the oil and gas, and power industries. He worked on AsiaÆs first limited recourse gaming project, the Wynn Resorts Macau deal, which Societe Generale led and closed in 2004. Wynn
returned to Wilkins the next year when Societe Generale led the expansion financing for this now $1 billion gaming project, which closed in September 2005, and again Wilkins worked with Wynn on a third financing deal for $1.55 billion that closed in June, 2007. As Macau grows, so too does the relationship casinos have with their banks.

ôThere were no such gaming projects deals done before that first Wynn one,ö says Wilkins. ôIÆd say thatÆs another example of a first. Indeed we were proud to support a sustainable, high-quality robust business such as this, which along with other developments in the industry has transformed Macau SAR and its governmentÆs revenues over the past five years.ö

ôAsia is a great place to do business, but it is also an easy place to lose money for incautious and/or new æjet freshÆ bankers ,ö notes Wilkins, pointing out that you not only have to take care of your clients you also need to know what deals not to take. Sometimes, the transactions youÆve walked away from are more telling of your integrity and skill than those youÆve executed.

See the world

Wilkins was born in England, but raised in Jersey, where he was surrounded by people that worked in the finance industry that dominates that small island. While he read philosophy and classics at Wolfson College at Cambridge University, it was a far more concrete world in which he wanted to work. ôI thought it was a great plan to join an internationally focused bank and see the world.ö

And he reckons it was a good decision. If he had things to do over again, heÆd take the same career path, though adds he might have spent more time trying to gain exposure to the asset management side of the business.

He is married to a former soloist at the English National Ballet and they have four children û three boys and one girl (who was adopted in Hong Kong in 2000 û Wilkins jokes that if they had tried to have a fourth child, they would have likely had another boy). But on a more serious note, he says they are his motivation for working and are who keep him grounded.

Grounded is a good trait to have during these volatile markets. But heÆs also humble. Indeed when we met for lunch we spent most of the interview talking about the latest news of bank failures and mergers, and which banks would emerge as the new powerhouse û and far less time talking about Wilkins. HeÆs not the sort to toot his own horn, or hype too much for the firm.

While discussing all the business that has disappeared, I did ask him to do some crystal ball reading: He sees the principal finance model as one that is ripe for further growth in the region during the next three to four years. Admittedly, as head of capital raising and financing, and as a banker whose previous role at Societe Generale was project finance and advisory and real estate operations in Asia, Wilkins may see the world through principal financing eyes. But itÆs not that heÆs overly bullish on the sector; he cautions that it will be all about picking the right partners, right deals and making sound choices. ôThe trick will be to get the balance of profit and pain right,ö says Wilkins, adding: ôBut isnÆt that always the trick?ö

This story first appeared in the November issue of FinanceAsia magazine.
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