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Euromoney, September 20 2018

Neal Cross brought a range of unusual experiences to his job as chief innovation officer at DBS, one of the world’s most impressive banks for digital ideas. His desire to disrupt and transform doesn’t stop at the bank – it extends to Sumatran orangutans.

If you’re going to interview a chief innovation officer, there may as well be something new and unusual about the location. So when Euromoney sits down with Neal Cross, credited with much of the drive behind DBS’s digital transformation, we do so not in the bank’s Singapore head office in the Marina Bay Financial Centre but in the Indonesian jungle.

There is just no point in meeting Cross anywhere ordinary, because he isn’t ordinary and this location is a perfect illustration of why not. In the open-fronted restaurant of the Hotel Orangutan in Bukit Lawang, an arduous four-hour drive from the Sumatran city of Medan, we talk against a backdrop of scooter throttles and the occasional German backpacker.

Before he joined DBS, Cross held a similar role at MasterCard Labs in Asia, tasked with driving innovation at the credit card company. As a theoretical exercise, he wanted to put together a universal problem-solving framework, and needed a case study to test it. Fascinated by endangered Sumatran orangutans, he decided to make their conservation his case study problem.

So he and his team set off for Bukit Lawang on the edge of the Gunung Leuser National Park, where the 6,000 surviving members of the species roam wild in the ever-shrinking forest that palm oil plantations have yet to encroach on. He got in touch with the imam of the village, Abdullah Togap, who also serves as a leading trekking guide.

“Part of the process was immersion,” Cross says, sipping on a Bintang beer. “We spent time talking to the tourists, local villagers, guides, making observations around orangutans, the forest, the palm oil; understanding all the stakeholders here.”

Noting that well-intentioned tourists do not bring in a lot of revenue or carry any lasting influence, they concluded that the single most effective solution they could come up with would be to build a boutique hotel targeted at wealthy executives and potential future leaders, people who have decision-making power in Asia – or will do – and therefore will shape corporate policy towards things like sustainable palm oil use and corporate social responsibility. Make them fall in love with orangutans, the team concluded, and tangible changes will start to happen.

It was just a training exercise, a way of testing a model. But two weeks later Abdullah phoned him asking when he was coming back to build the hotel. Cross, by now interviewing for the DBS role, explained that he was too far away to do it and too busy, and that building it had not actually been the idea. Abdullah, crestfallen, asked: “So you’re not coming to help?”

The conversation gnawed at Cross for weeks until one day he realized: well, if not me, then who? So he called Abdullah back and said: “Let’s get started.”

Getting from that moment to us sitting in Hotel Orangutan having an interview took years. Cross lives here most weekends and has made the trip from Singapore about 150 times. The project started by buying a tiny building used as a tourist office, then buying the land leading up a steep hill behind it and finding people to help.

“I thought I would start by buying a cement mixer, a chainsaw, a pick axe – boy toys,” says Cross. (Never one to be put off by anything new, Cross and Abdullah did all the architecture themselves, from the structure of the buildings to the interior design of the rooms.) “But Abdullah said: ‘No, the first thing you have to buy is a rice cooker. These people work for you now, you’ve got to feed them.’ That stuck with me as a philosophy: everyone gets fed.”

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Chris Wright
Chris Wright
Chris is a journalist specialising in business and financial journalism across Asia, Australia and the Middle East. He is Asia editor for Euromoney magazine and has written for publications including the Financial Times, Institutional Investor, Forbes, Asiamoney, the Australian Financial Review, Discovery Channel Magazine, Qantas: The Australian Way and BRW. He is the author of No More Worlds to Conquer, published by HarperCollins.

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