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Personality Finance: Banking with Brinsden

By: Charlotte Lancaster Posted: July-08-2009 in
Sir John Brinsden
Charlotte Lancaster

"Good question - why was I given an Order of the British Empire?" John Brinsden's humble, self-effacing humour permeates the conversation as he reveals tales born from an extraordinary life of travel and accomplishment and the occasional G&T.

Born under the banner of the British Empire, articulated thoughts present John as a man educated as much by life and experience as school. With elegant colonial charm and modern-day realism, he remembers with fondness his early years following his father and the Royal Air Force around Malaya and Singapore inspiring his still present interest in world geography and history. Enrolled in Perse boarding school at the age of ten, John reveals with an indulgent absurdity the difficulties of returning to Cambridge, England: "In my first year, I was almost suicidal at the end of each holiday".

As the years passed, he out grew the 'smallest boy' rank embracing the harshness of public school often accredited with 'character building'. Teasingly insinuating that Perse was no other than an imperialist training camp, he recalls how it groomed boys to be colonial rulers through geography lessons taught from an out of date map painted 1/5 red. Deciding against joining an ailing navy, John instead chose to pursue a life in finance that would see him enjoy a career of relentless travel and success spanning from the US to Indonesia. Opting to join what was then called Chartered Bank, Brinsden dutifully fulfilled his role as bean counter and tea maker during the day while studying for his banking diploma at night. "There was no fast track system in those days, despite your academic background you started at the bottom of the ladder."

Brinsden's 38 year long career with Chartered Bank began in larger operations based in bigger cities such as Calcutta; however, it didn't take him or the company long to recognise that he was more suited to smaller more independent operations. "The bank accepted that I was uncomfortable and subversive, I admitted to being bored and lost in the hierarchy". After this mutual acknowledgement, John was sent to Bandung, Indonesia where he took an innovative step in developing Indonesian finance while laying the foundations for a flourishing career. "My hours, clothes and life were flexible. As long as I delivered a weekly report and came back with the gold each month, I was free to do what I knew best given the local context. It very much suited me." And the lucrative returns suited the bank.

John had secured himself as the man to set up new operations and was soon sent to Houston, Taiwan and Vietnam to continue this trend. During the five years he spent in the US, John became familiar with new banking theories and strategies emerging from the young financial giant and returned to Asia armed with American cutting edge concepts. "In Hong Kong they put me in six months quarantine" John jests, "the old, dusty bank was initially reluctant, 'next, you'll have us calling on customers making them think we need them' I was told."

Over the years, Brinsden has received much deserved praise for his work. In 1998, he was awarded an OBE for initiating a series of 'informal lunches' that led a suspicious Vietnam to agree to the establishment of a Foreign Chamber of Commerce, a major milestone in the development of Vietnamese-British relations. Previously, in 1996, he received recognition of a different sort: Michael Palin requested to feature him in his latest documentary. Describing the event as 'bloody hilarious', the surreal nature of the interview which involved a healthy combination of Bloody Mary's, marauding fans and Palin's momentary arrest for defacing government property seems appropriate for a Palin/Brinsden interaction.

Experimenting with the concept of retirement, Brinsden moved to Australia. However, a drunken night in the Cat House, Phnom Penh resulted in his recruitment as a remote consultant for ACLEDA Bank Plc. Officially moving to Phnom Penh in January 2000, Brinsden started a new chapter in his career which "suited me as I just got my first Australian tax bill." Since then, Brinsden has developed an NGO into a bank that now has regional ambitions. Humbly refusing to recognise his impact on the Cambodian financial sector he adds quietly, "this country has done more for me". Commenting on the pleasantness, warmth and congeniality of Cambodians, he describes how the single greatest change he has seen in Cambodia over the years has not been in the infrastructure but in the people. "The trauma of the Khmer Rouge left people locked in a fear that limited their thinking to the short-term. Slowly, the shadow of Pol Pot has lifted and the Cambodians are now thinking of and planning for the future. Everything follows from there."

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