Project finance—the handling of loans for specific projects and business ventures—is a popular career choice among students who want to work in banking. From infrastructure for power stations and petrochemical plants to theme parks and other expensive undertakings, the scope of project finance only continues to expand. Teiko Kudo, who has been involved in project finance since its initial rise in Japan, first joined then Sumitomo Bank, Ltd. in 1987 as an inaugural female employee in an equal opportunity employment initiative at the bank. Her impressive track record led to her appointment as the first female executive officer of Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation (SMBC) in 2014.
―Can you tell us why you chose a career in banking and what it was like as a new employee at the time?
Students these days do a lot of research on employment opportunities and job responsibilities, but my generation didn't have as much information, so our reasons for applying to a company could be pretty vague. But if money is the lifeblood of the economy, I knew that finance was the heart that circulates it. And since I wanted to better understand the inner workings of society, I thought that by working at a bank I could learn a lot from my interactions with people in different industries.
I started at Sumitomo Bank, Ltd. in 1987, the year that the Equal Employment Opportunity Act for Men and Women was first enforced. As a new female employee under this new initiative, there were no female role models at any of the banks, so I didn’t know what to expect. I had a strong desire to build a career that would benefit society, but first I had to learn the basics.
―What was your job when you first joined the bank?
Initially I was assigned to a branch office. I did teller support, working behind the window moving cash and filling in forms. After two years, I was transferred to the International Business Division and entered the world of international finance. That had a big influence on the direction my career would take.
Initially, I was in charge of syndicated loans. My job was to introduce foreign loans to domestic investors. A group of banks, including Sumitomo, would finance these loans as a syndicate. Within these syndicated loans, there were some good examples of project finance, and they seemed interesting after hearing many different stories from the people involved.
I had always wanted to be more of a specialist than a generalist, so I was attracted to project finance because of its specialized nature. There are many large-scale projects, and the more experience you gain, the more you can demonstrate your strengths. As a young person, project finance was attractive to me because you can see the results of your work as power plants are built and roads are made.
It also stimulated my deep-felt desire to be of use to society. After being transferred to a more specialized department, I worked on a power plant project in a developing country. It was a difficult project, but when the power plant opened, I felt excited at the thought that there would now be light in an area where there was no electricity before. Living without electricity is inconvenient, uncertain, and stressful. I also felt a personal sense of accomplishment in helping solve this problem and gained a sense of satisfaction that I was contributing to society.
To be clear, project finance does not lend money to companies that have a solid financial base. Rather, it finances businesses being created from the ground up and receives repayment from the profits. We conduct thorough research, read vast amounts of English-language materials, and also negotiate with engineers and lawyers. It can be a challenge to consider all the different factors, to forecast profits, and to bring everything together to finalize a contract. But with more experience comes more expertise and a higher quality of work. So for me, it is extremely rewarding to have made this my career.
―You say you wanted to become a specialist, but when you think of banks you think of people climbing the corporate ladder.
Yes, that's true. Many of the young male employees at the time were generalist-oriented, and they often set their sights on becoming a branch manager as a first-step career goal. I, on the other hand, wasn’t interested in climbing the corporate ladder. I wanted to be a specialist whom the bank depended on and an expert in my field. When I discovered project finance, I felt I’d found something I wanted to specialize in. I feel very lucky to have found my specialization so early in my career.
―As SMBC’s first female executive, what is most important when it comes to work?
The first thing is to give your full attention to the task at hand, whatever it may be. For example, there are quite a few people who join the bank wanting specifically to do project finance, but no one starts out there. People are most often assigned to domestic sales. If you do well there, you can learn a lot and gain more opportunities. If you can properly do the job you are assigned to, then you will have more opportunities to do the job that you really want to do. Proactively working on the task at hand generates better results, and you learn more. You won’t learn much doing a job just because you have to, and you won’t be highly evaluated by your coworkers. It’s a vicious cycle.
But no matter the job, it is always important to enhance your communication skills. There are always new business innovations such as fintech and AI, but the fact that business happens through the connections between people will never change. In order to move things forward, it is important to understand the person you’re interacting with and be able to put yourself in their shoes. What is their position? What do they want to accomplish? What criteria do they use to make decisions? Once you understand this, you can develop a story that can speak to that person. At the same time, it is also important to get to know yourself to gain a better understanding. Being able to express yourself is central to good communication.
―Tell us a little more about your student life at Keio. We heard you were a member of the tennis club.
When I graduated from Ferris Girls’ Senior High School and entered the Faculty of Economics, there were only four girls in a class of forty, including myself. I could never get used to that atmosphere, so I always stuck close to the other girls in my class. For all my curiosity, I was quite a chicken. I was also afraid of not having a place to belong, so I remember feeling so relieved when I joined the tennis club, which one of my high school classmates from Ferris had already joined. At the time, tennis practice was from 9:00 AM to 3:00 PM every day. And with cleanup, we’d always finish around 5:00 PM. If I had known just how hard it would be, I may have been less eager to join, but it was the tennis club that taught me the elation of giving something your best effort and the satisfaction that comes from endurance.
On the side of the court was a monument etched with the words of Prof. Shinzo Koizumi: “Practice makes the impossible possible.” In both work and play, practice and great effort are the only ways to achieve your goals. But even with practice, only a select few will ever become the best tennis players in the world. The same goes for work. Only a few people in society can ever win first prize. But without practice or effort, you’ll never stand a chance, no matter what your goal may be. To this day, I still hold Prof. Koizumi's words dear to my heart.
I spent my college days playing tennis at a time when Japan’s economy was booming, on the brink of the bubble. College girls were all the rage, too, from TV presenters to fashion models. Every day I would see girls on campus all dolled up, holding brand-name bags. Meanwhile, we female athletes were tan and didn’t wear make-up, so we were as far from glamorous as you could get. But we found our own ways of having fun. The tennis club didn’t have any indoor courts yet, so if it rained practice was canceled. But even if it rained in the morning, we would practice as soon as the rain stopped. So everyone had to be on standby until around 11:00 AM. A lot of the boys would go play mahjong while they waited, but the girls would have potlucks and chat in the clubroom. We just had mindless conversations, but thinking back I remember just how much fun I used to have. My teammates have all chosen different paths in life—some are housewives while others continue to work—but we all continue to be close friends who can talk to each other about anything.
I was a part of the theoretical economics seminar, led by now Professor Emeritus Masao Fukuoka. I was worried whether I would be able to handle the academic workload while belonging to the Keio University Athletic Association, but I wanted to make the most of my college experience so I joined the seminar. I can’t say that I contributed much in the way of research, but I am grateful for the many things I learned there. The graduate student who looked after us undergraduates at the time was Shinichi Suda, who is currently a professor at the Faculty of Economics. Just the other day I had a great time at a reunion with both Prof. Fukuoka and Prof. Suda. I have fond memories of summer camp at the Keio lodge in Saku, Nagano.
―Could you say a few final words to current students?
Japan faces a variety of emerging problems ahead of the rest of the world like low birthrates and rapid aging. One challenge we face is making sustainable systems where the agriculture and health sectors are no longer dependent on government subsidies and social security. On the other hand, as the world population continues to grow, the time may come when there is competition for food resources. I now lead a team that works on growing businesses and client growth strategies as well as solutions to social issues through collaborative efforts among government, industry, and academia. Banks play a big role in creating a sustainable society, which is one reason why I believe working for one can be a rewarding career choice.
Earlier I mentioned that communication skills are important, but communication really is the key to both life and work. Its importance is not limited to working at a bank. I think that many other Keio alumni would agree that we gained immense communication skills during our time at university. And when I moved to Hong Kong for work, I was invited to join the Hong Kong Mita-kai. It can oftentimes be lonely living abroad and you may stay at home more, but because of the Mita-kai, I went to Christmas parties and other great events for which I am very grateful. There again, I felt the power of Keio alumni communication skills. I think that connecting over social media is great, but I would really like to see Keio students develop their communication skills by connecting directly with people in their classes, seminars, and student clubs. This ability to communicate will undoubtedly become a great asset for them in the future.
―Thank you for your time.
Managing Executive Officer, Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation
After graduating from the Faculty of Economics in 1987, Teiko Kudo joined Sumitomo Bank, Ltd. as the first female cohort hired in line with the then-new Equal Employment Opportunity Act for Men and Women. After two years at a branch office, she moved to the International Business Division of the bank in 1989. She began working in derivatives at a subsidiary in Hong Kong in 1996, and in 1999 she was appointed as the general manager of the Project Finance Department of the International Business Division. After her service as the Financial Group Chief of the Structured Finance Department from 2006, she became Director of the Environmental Solutions Division in 2009. In 2012, she became the head of the Growth Industry Cluster Department. In 2014, she became Sumitomo Mitsui Banking Corporation’s first female executive officer and has served as Managing Executive Officer since April 2017.
Photo: Kimiharu Sato (except 2nd photo)