Risk professionals have to deal with serious threats, but few have been on the frontline of a war against insurgents.

Head of strategy and enterprise risk management at Singaporean multi-modal mass transit operator SMRT Corporation, Ryan Tan, is not your typical risk manager. Tan served an eight-month stint in the International Security Assistance Force in Afghanistan while he was a member of the Singapore Armed Forces between 2005 and 2011.

“I have had what some might call an interesting career path,” says Tan.

“I started out in the military as an officer in the Singapore Armed Forces. I had a multitude of operational and strategic roles which culminated in my deployment to Afghanistan.”

So what exactly did Tan do while in Afghanistan? “That’s classified,” Tan politely tells StrategicRISK.

Safe to say, Tan’s role with SMRT is much less perilous and not quite so classified. Created in 2000 as a result of an industry overhaul to form multi-modal public-transport operators, SMRT Corporation operates rail, bus, taxi and other public-transport services in Singapore. With an annual turnover of approximately S$1.1 billion, and total assets worth more than S$1.8 billion, SMRT is a significant player in Singapore’s transportation and infrastructural landscape.

Tan made his move into risk in January 2013 when he assumed his role at SMRT, but many years earlier he took advantage of the Singaporean scholarship system, with the armed forces funding a four-year study stint in the USA. Tan attended Dartmouth College for his bachelors in economics and government, and then Columbia University for his masters in quantitative methods. He then completed six years in the army before heading into the corporate world in 2011.

Tan became a consultant at management consulting firm Bain & Company in September 2011, a role he notes saw him working across a range of business projects.

On his move to SMRT, Tan says that he thought being the head of strategy and enterprise risk would be “a good fit for me in terms of what I had done before, and it would make good use of my accumulative experiences both operationally and strategically across different industries”.

“Moving into risk for me was a lot about how I felt I would value add to the company,” he says.

“I came from a management consulting background, where you deal with numerous different issues on various levels with a wide range of industries.

“However, as part of a company’s management team, you are really dealing with working as part of a team to build and grow a business, even whilst day-to-day operations continue to be run.”

‘A lot could go right or wrong’

Tan said the volume of challenges at SMRT, and the risks that are created, are exacerbated by the nature of the company’s business and operating environment. SMRT transports around three million passengers a day.

“That is a lot of people, and a lot could go right or wrong,” says Tan.

One of the most interesting aspects of Tan’s role is that he oversees both the strategy and risk functions.

“On the strategy side, I report to the CEO and support the senior management as part of the senior management team myself,” he explains.

“I also run the company’s investment committee, which is focused on looking at the risks and opportunities of new businesses, and well as a portfolio view of our existing businesses.”

Tan also runs the enterprise risk management team. “This involves the conceptualisation and successful execution of strategic and tactical risk management at all levels of the company,” he says.

“I also am the secretariat to the board risk committee, and assist the management to put forth the group’s enterprise risks to the board.

“Overall, I will look at all the different risks which might impact different departments. While I have a dual role, my day-to-day role focuses on dealing with a wide range of issues, from an operational risk management issue, or pushing a strategic idea across the company which will impact all levels of risk management.”

Tan explains that while most corporations will usually employ two separate people for his one role – a chief strategy officer and a head of enterprise risk – he enjoys his unique role.

“For me, this is in line with how risk combines with corporate strategy,” he says.

“Strategy is about looking forward and anticipating the high-level challenges and what opportunities there are for the company given the evolving operational environment and organisational constraints that are present.

“Modern day risk management goes beyond traditional hazard risk – enterprise risk, as the name implies, is supposed to focus not just on the downside and what could happen, but also the opportunity and upside to be achieved.

“The two roles, overseeing strategy and risk, fit well together as it brings together different perspectives in which the sum of parts is greater than the value of the pieces in individual silos.”

Tan says his role highlights why the role of a modern risk manager role is so exciting and diverse.

“The modern risk manager role possesses multiple dimensions,” he says.

“It is about adding value beyond merely pointing out what is wrong, or does not work. The modern risk manager needs to identify not only what could be better, but must work constructively and collaboratively with individuals within and across business units so that they can connect the dots, and add value for the company.

“The second aspect for the modern risk manager, alongside looking back and at the current situation, is they must also look forward. It requires a different perspective and some independent thinking, which may be something that is challenging and requires a certain unique mindset to achieve.

“The last aspect is that in risk management nowadays, in order to deliver results and add value, you really need to work with people, both from the top down and the bottom up. My job has these multiple dimensions, and that is what energises me.”


A view over Asia

Looking more broadly at the risk management landscape across Asia, Tan says he believes that different companies are at different points in their risk maturity.

“Risk management often starts and ends with the appointed of a head of risk,” he says.

“A common approach for a lot of smaller companies is to ask: ‘what can go wrong?’ They will then identify controls to put in place. But what more companies are moving towards nowadays is ‘how do I think of risk on a number of different levels?’ So you think about what challenges there might be in the future and not just the present, and across business units and not just in silos. Then, you work across boundaries and business units to design and implement sophisticated or simple control measures, as need be, in a structured manner within a larger overall risk management roadmap. That is where the risk industry is at in Asia right now.”

However, Tan says what we are seeing increasingly in corporations, especially the bigger ones, is “using risk management to not only track, identify and monitor opportunities, but also as a tool to best focus efforts which create the best possible yield”.

“For me, risk management in Asia is moving towards being a vital function which is part of every important conversation that senior management and boards have,” he says.

When it comes to the prominent issue of risk managers becoming increasingly relevant to their organisations, according to Tan there are a few aspects which be utilised to achieve this aim.

“First, risk managers need to have what I call a ‘helicopter view’,” he says.

“They need to be able to zoom out and look at the bigger picture and be able to zoom back in with ease so as to look at the details and deeper aspects of each particular situation.

“Second, risk managers need to work with a variety of people from a range of backgrounds in different organisations. For example, in Asia there are a variety of different cultures. A risk manager needs to be able to work across and bridge these cultural nuances.

“Third, risk managers need to be able to draw on their insights quite rapidly, using their experiences today and in the past and extrapolate these into the future to be best prepared for what will likely occur.”

So what does the future hold for Tan? “I would like to continue to be involved in risk in some way,” he says.

“I believe in the value of risk managers as a tool in terms of a focused effort of looking at a business, mitigating against risks, evaluating potential investment and business diversification opportunities.

“Risk is indeed very useful and relevant, and I certainly want to continue to be involved in risk in some form.”