Indosuez’s polyglot chief of Asia didn’t get to where he was today by having things easy.

Portrait of Tammy Strobel

LIFE ON THE MOVE Having been forced to adapt to new cultures in his youth, Shokur has developed an appreciation for complexities. 

If there’s one quality all successful people have in common, it’s adaptability. Being able to quickly respond and adjust to changes, favourable and, more often, unfavorable, is what keeps them ahead of the game. The loss of control and the discomfort of uncertainty makes it a difficult quality to master, but growing up in a war zone tends to hone that skill, one of the few upsides of that situation.

Omar Shokur, the new Asia CEO of Indosuez Wealth Management, had a pleasant enough early childhood. Though he was born in Afghanistan, Shokur’s diplomat father relocated the family to Italy for his work. “I grew up in Rome, eating pasta and playing football. I was a typical Italian kid, speaking only Italian,” he shares.

But when the Soviet-Afghan War broke out in 1979, his father was recalled. He returned, even as millions were fleeing the country, and took his two young sons. Shokur was just nine years old and his brother six, when they were uprooted from their temporary home. “Now that I have children of my own I understand why my father did it. He was scared for our safety, but he also knew that this would be my only chance to learn about where I really came from,” he says. “It was tough because I was old enough to understand the drastic change in environment. You never get used to living in a country at war, but you adapt because life goes on. I found new friends and new things to enjoy.” 

After six years, the number of disappearing (or dead) friends and neighbours was growing larger and the danger eventually became too great for Shokur’s family to risk staying any longer. They moved again, escaping to India before eventually settling in Geneva. Shokur was 14 years old and had to start all over again in a foreign land.

But he certainly leveraged on all that early globe-trotting. Today, Shokur speaks fluent English, French, Italian and Persian, with a working knowledge of Russian and Spanish. Having lived in several countries has also made it easy for him to bond with his company’s many international clients. “If you don’t have a passion for human relationships, you will never do well in the private banking sector,” he notes. “You might be able to sell things quickly, but it will all be short-term.” 

Now that Shokur is based in Singapore, his priority is to focus on understanding the regional landscape and thus work on growing profits sustainably. “It’s tempting to generalise and say that Asian clients are more active and investment-savvy than European ones, but I force myself to see the differences.

“Clients from Singapore, Malaysia and Indonesia all have their own needs so we have to understand each of those dynamics, investment platforms, processes, speeds and the people themselves,” he says. “We are a large European bank, but that doesn’t mean we’re just going to apply our French ways to the local market or even to copy and paste what local banks are doing. What we have to do is adapt.”