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An Interview with Husaini Hussin, an ICDM board-ready talent. He talks about cybersecurity, CEO-board relationship and endurance cycling.

 

Could you tell us more about you? You started your career as an analyst programmer and now you are a chief executive officer. Could you share with us that journey? I was born and raised in the northern part of Seberang Perai, Pulau Pinang. I went to a boarding school in Jitra, Kedah. Before I turned 18, I left Malaysia for my first ever plane ride, to California, USA and got to experience my first earthquake that hit Southern California in October 1987. By the next fall, I was enrolled in the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor studying Actuarial Mathematics. Coming from a kampung, I wanted to see snow, so that influenced my decision in choosing that particular campus… and Michigan had plenty of snow to offer during its winters, but thankfully no episodes of earthquake!

Apart from Mathematics subjects, I also studied Economics, Finance, Investment, Accounting and Computer Science, in particular programming languages such as Basic, Cobol, Pascal and C. I spent two summers interning at one of the largest insurance companies in the US before graduating. Upon returning home, I had no idea what I wanted to do as Actuarial work, especially entry-level, was not that common then. So, I picked up the first offer that came my way and became an analyst programmer, where I had to learn another language – ABAP/4, on the job.

24 years later, I became the CEO of the Private Pension Administrator (PPA) Malaysia, the central administrator of the Private Retirement Schemes (PRS) which is under the regulatory purview of the Securities Commission Malaysia (SC). I joined the company when it was first started 4 years earlier as its COO; I was pretty much the pioneer team being the second employee of the company. All my previous learning, including from my Actuarial studies, and experience came in handy as I built and started-up the operations from ground zero.

 

The need to understand disruptive technology is one thing, but the more critical need is to understand cybersecurity

 

Your technology background is a much-needed competency for the boardroom. What are your thoughts on digital preparedness at board level? Would better board diversity in age help? It has been more common for boards to have finance and accounting and legal competencies, but now more and more boards have recognised the need to also include directors with technology and digital backgrounds, whom in most instances tend to be relatively younger. The need to understand disruptive technology is one thing, but the more critical need is to understand cybersecurity. Companies are inevitably connected to the internet because of the wide use of emails, web portals and increasingly in allowing employees to work remotely from home. Boards with the right composition could, therefore, provide oversight to their managements in all aspects including the digital frontier.

Since I became the CEO in 2016, PPA has introduced a number of digitalisation initiatives to enhance our service deliveries to our PRS members. The PPA board has a public interest director who was formerly the managing director of an international IT company, and he chairs the board subcommittee called the IT Steering Committee. With my tech background, I am able to stimulate discussions, propose and evaluate available options with the Committee, which can then help the board steer the company safely.

We are amid a nationwide Movement Control Order (MCO) to contain the spread of COVID-19. Businesses – big or small – are being forced to change the way they work, especially by adopting technology to deliver their services to ensure business continuity. Risk has become a new normal for business. At times like this, from your perspective, what can boards do to ensure their companies stay resilient? Well prepared and forward-thinking boards would have already ensured that their companies have a business continuity plan (BCP) in place to weather situations such as the current MCO, allowing business operations to continue mostly uninterrupted. At PPA for example, our call centre continues to operate as normal even though 100% of our staff are working from home. This was made possible through the SSL-VPN client connectivity which allows our staff to log in from home on their office-issued notebook computers and connect securely to the office’s VPN server over the internet.

 

…the CEO must be able to rely on the
board to support the company in achieving its targets, and the board must establish the proper governance parameters to allow the CEO and the company to operate efficiently.

 

One of the key factors contributing to the effectiveness of the board is CEO-board relationship. You are currently a CEO and you are looking to be a board member soon. What do you think are the key elements in building a productive working relationship between the CEO and the board? To begin with, both the CEO and the board must be transparent to each other. There must be synergy between the CEO and the board, namely the CEO must be able to rely on the board to support the company in achieving its targets, and the board must establish the proper governance parameters to allow the CEO and the company to operate efficiently. Additionally, the CEO and the board need to work together to set strategies, long term goals and on how the board should evaluate the initiatives set forth.

 

“I am the missing ingredient that a board needs, and I can be in it for the long haul.”

 

It is not easy to be a board director these days. It is an onerous role with increasing responsibilities and liabilities. We wonder what motivates you to take on this challenge. I have accepted that even being a CEO comes with a lot of responsibilities and liabilities. As someone who has the right know-how, having the integrity and the energy to do the right things, I have no issues with the challenge. I have demonstrated throughout my working journey that I relish in taking on new challenges. For example, while I had been very experienced in financial and accounting technology amassed while working in multinationals for 20 years, the current job requires me to stand in front of an audience to talk about retirement planning and PRS. To help prepare myself, I took up financial planning courses and became certified in both conventional and Islamic financial planning.

Being a board director is the next challenge for me. I have been working closely with my board since I joined the company 8 years ago. What I have are valuable – the experience in working with a progressive board, with the capital market regulator; strong technology background e.g. in cybersecurity and fintech; I learn fast and keep abreast of the changes in trends and technology. Not to sound cliché – I am the missing ingredient that a board needs, and I can be in it for the long haul.

What else should we know about you? As a side note, I am an endurance cyclist and I cycle long distance in my free time. The furthest I had done so far was 600km in 36 hours. Once the MCO has ended, I will continue my training for the next target – 1,300km cycling around Peninsular Malaysia in late October.

So yes, I am trained to be in it for the long haul!

Husaini Hussin is currently the Chief Executive Offer of the Private Pension Administrator (PPA) Malaysia. Under his leadership, PPA has introduced several digitalisation initiatives to enhance the service deliveries to PRS members. Husaini had previously spent 20 years in multinationals, such as Shell Malaysia and KPMG Consulting.

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