By the time this interview comes out in print in the beginning of November, Abrar A Anwar, the Chief Executive Officer (CEO) of Standard Chartered, Bangladesh has already become the CEO of Standard Chartered, Malaysia. He is supposed to join the Malaysian operation of the UK based multination bank from November 1. In the mid-October, the Fintech team went to his Gulshan office and talked with this charismatic personality about his achievements and vision. Here is an excerpt of that interview for our readers.
FINTECH: At the beginning of October, during a program of MBA Association, Shehzad Munim, Managing Director of BAT Bangladesh said Bangladesh still hasn’t been able to export CEOs to other countries like Indian and Srilanka do. Did you have your appointment letter for your new assignment in Malaysia in the pocket while he said that?
A.A Anwar: (laughing). Yes, I was unofficially informed about my new assignment by that time. Standard Chartered had already given the approval but the official declaration hadn’t been made as the final approval was due from the Central Bank of Malaysia. But I knew about it.
FINTECH: I am not sure about this fact-but this is for the first time a Bangladeshi has been made the CEO of a large country office of a multinational bank, isn’t it? Nasrin Sattar was made the CEO of Standard Chartered (SC) Afganisthan but the SC’s operation there was way smaller than Bangladesh.
A.A Anwar: I think so. There hasn’t been any other incidence of appointing an incumbent Bangladeshi CEO as the CEO of any major country’s operation for the banks.
FINTECH: So, how do you feel about this?
A.A Anwar: Obviously good. Malaysia is a major operation for Standard Chartered. It’s a 142 year old operation there. And they have got all sorts of banking there. Like Bangladesh, they have retail banking, corporate banking and Islamic banking. There are also multiple subsidiaries. SC Malaysia has almost 3,000 people and another 3,000 in the outsourcing hubs. So when the regional CEO told me that they wanted me to run their Malaysian operation, I thought after running the operation here for three years, I have earned enough confidence and experience to run the operation there. Besides, it was a great opportunity for me. Normally, when these types of opportunity come, you take it unless there are other issues. So I took it.
I am very happy to take the challenge. I know it’s a challenging market. It’s one of the core markets of the SC and a highly competitive one. There are international operators and there are regional operators. Their local banks are also very strong. But I am excited to take up the challenge because unless I test my ability, I will not know whether I am capable enough to run the operation of a major bank in a market outside of my own comfort zone.
FINTECH: Do you think you have been able to set a trend of exporting CEOs from Bangladesh?
A.A Anwar: I think there are other bankers here in Bangladesh who also possesses the capacity to run a bank in a big and competitive market like Malaysia. We have hugely talented CEOs and high ranking executives here who could run the global operations of a bank. Probably, the timing and opportunity haven’t come for them yet but I believe it will come for them soon. So, yes I am confident that Bangladesh will be able to become a CEO exporting nation in near future.
FINTECH: When did you start your banking career? Can you shed some light on your journey of becoming a CEO of a country franchise of a multinational bank?
A.A Anwar: I started my banking career in 1991 as a Management Trainee with the ANZ Grindlays Bank. I was first posted in Chittagong. There I did my rotations in operations and customer services and eventually became a Branch Manager in 1992. I was in that position for a year and then I moved to Corporate Banking in 1993. I became a Corporate Account Manager in the same year. By the end of 1994, I got transferred to Dhaka from Chittagong as a Unit Head of Corporate Banking.
In 1996, I went to India and then to UK. For the next two years, I got trained in structured finance and investment banking in those two countries. I was learning all those things because the bank wanted me to come back to Bangladesh and introduce structured finance and investment banking here. At that time, those were new in Bangladesh. So, I came back and introduced structured finance and project finance units in the bank. In the following years, I had helped shaping those units of the ANZ Grindlays.
In 2000, ANZ Grindlays was acquired by Standard Chartered. At that time, I was given an offer from the Citi Bank NA to grow their corporate banking business. I took the offer and joined the bank. I rode with them for almost ten years as a Managing Director and Head of Corporate and Commercial Banking. During that time, I was able to make the bank’s corporate portfolio grow from $5-$6 million to $70 million. It was an exciting journey for me. I have learned a lot there.
In January 2011, I joined the SC as the head of corporate banking. I was given the duty of doubling their size of corporate banking. I worked in that capacity for the next four years. With the team and support that I got from everyone in the bank, I would say it was a hugely successful tenure for me. We had been able to achieve more than our target and most importantly we had been able to make a good impact in the market.
In 2015, I was given the opportunity to lead the bank. I succeeded my predecessor Jim McCabe (who became the CEO of Standard Chartered Srilanka after Bangladesh) and became the CEO of SC’s Bangladesh operation. I have been in that position since then. From the beginning of the next month, I will join the Malaysia operation of SC as its CEO.
FINTECH: What was the size of the loan portfolio when you joined SC and what is the size now ?
A.A Anwar: The loan portfolio was around Tk 8,000 crore when I joined SC in 2011. Now it is Tk 22,000 crore. So it has almost tripled in the last seven years. Profitability wise, we are in the number one position for the last three years in spite of all the margin compressions in the market. This shows the resilience of the franchise. We have been able to serve our customers to their satisfaction and at the same time, we have been able to bring profitability for our shareholders. These are the two things that a bank wants to achieve most.
FINTECH: How did you make this bank such a profitable franchise? What magic you do have up in your sleeves?
A.A Anwar: I believe profit is a by-product. Our first preference is always to be relevant and helpful to our customers, stakeholders and to the community. Whether we are a good corporate citizen or whether we are making positive contributions-these things are of utmost importance to us. We always aspire to be the most human bank. By human bank- I mean first treating our own employee with compassion.
In SC, if an employee doesn’t perform, we don’t sack him immediately. We try to identify his/her fault and then try to work with that. Only after leaving no stone unturned, we take harsh decision against any of our employee. We have also just launched flexible working facilities. Now our employees can work from home if needed.
After our own employees, come our customers and stakeholders. We always like to step in their shoes and try to think from their perspectives. We have developed a culture of constantly questioning ourselves-am I delivering the best services or am I empathetic to their requirement? That’s why we call ourselves a human bank. Our purpose statement is-driving commerce and prosperity through our unique diversity and we really try to fulfil that purpose.
But above all, I believe an able, happy and diverse human resource help us to be in the position where we are now and that’s our secret.
FINTECH: How important to have diversity in an organization like bank?
A.A Anwar: It is very important. We have diversity in inclusion. We want to have an organization that is diverse in gender and in educational and professional backgrounds. We culminate the diversity in thought process.
I have always been advocating for having diversity in our workforce. I always tell the talent acquisition team that shouldn’t just go for MBAs and business graduates while recruiting new workforce in the bank. I have nothing against them. I am an MBA. I am just saying that because I want diversity in my workforce. I want to sit in a room with the diverse background so that each of us can think differently and look into a solution to a problem from different perspectives.
Just imagine, if you sit in a table with 20 people from diverse backgrounds and are trying to find a solution to a problem, then you have the chance of getting more perspectives. Of course, there are banking and financial specifications on which you have to possess knowledge, but those come automatically with in-house training and experience. So I believe, a human resource with diversified backgrounds is a plus point for any bank. My motto is to -train them, empower them and enable them to work.
You have to understand that at the end of the day, a bank is not some buildings rather it’s the people inside the building who are ready to give you the services that you need and want. Banking is a service industry and people-to-people communication matter most here. It is very important that you have the right kind of people here.
FINTECH: Are you completely satisfied with what you have achieved here in SC Bangladesh?
A.A Anwar: I would say that it is a journey and not a destination. We can always improve. Of course there are lots of things that we have achieved and personally, I am proud of that. But there is truly no glass ceiling for us.
FINTECH: What is your personal mantra of success?
A.A Anwar: In my twenty six year career, I have never felt that I am working. When you have passion for your work, you will never get fatigue. I have passion for my work, so I never get tired. I believe in an equation-frustration is equal to expectation minus reality. So if you have low expectation, it will not be able to frustrate you. But that doesn’t necessarily mean that you wouldn’t aim or hope high. You should, but try to keep a balance. Another mantra that I believe is-f you help your team members, at the end of the day, they will deliver you.
FINTECH: Your specialty lies in corporate banking and investment banking. In Bangladesh, why we can’t see the emergence of large investment banks like Morgan Stanly or Goldman Sachs?
A.A Anwar: Actually the names that you mentioned, they are all watching and monitoring Bangladesh. They are working on specific transactions. But they are not here yet because there are some regulatory barriers. Besides, investment banking will flourish when there will be demand for that. For example, Bangladesh is now getting into that league of big money. Just think, ten years ago there was no billion dollar project in Bangladesh. But now we have those. The country is not shy about taking large infrastructure projects. So, I believe it is a matter of time that we will see major investment bank deals happening in Bangladesh. As opportunities are emerging now, you will see their presence in future.
FINTECH: You have always worked in the foreign multinational banks. So what is your opinion about the local commercial banks?
A.A Anwar: There are of course some quality differences I would say. First of all-in multinational banks, we have the advantage of experience. I mean, look at the Standard Chartered Bank, it has hundreds of years of experience whereas the oldest private commercial bank here has 34 years of so. We have got all the exposure of learning from our global operations. We are time tested and we have learned from our diversified markets. Besides, we have the advantage of having exposure to more diversified financial products and we can conceptualize and introduce those products from one market to another.
Suppose we can introduce a successful retail product from our Singapore operation into our Bangladeshi market. That’s why we are the innovators and trendsetter here. SC brought the first ATM machine as well as the internet banking facility here. It also brought first export credit facility, first project finance, first debit and credit card. Our policy, risk mitigation and risk management structure are also good.
The local commercial banks have started doing these too. A lot of people from our bank have gone to other banks and they are successfully running those. Former SC employees are now running 18 banks as of this moment. So, SC has not only worked for the economy of the country but also has produced leadership in the financial sector.
The challenges local commercial banks now have are-bad loans, money laundering, terrorist financing and cyber security threat-and they need to overcome those.
FINTECH: Do you think the local commercial banks have the capacity to expand the operation outside of Bangladesh?
A.A Anwar: I think there is no point for local Bangladeshi banks to move outside of the country. Because this is a growing market and banks have a lot to do here. First, they can work for more financial inclusion as larger part of the population is still unbanked. Then they can focus more on retail banking because the retail banking is still in its nascent stage here.
FINTECH: So you believe the retail banking hasn’t flourished fully here?
A.A Anwar: Of course not. Let me tell you something. If the per capita income reaches up to $2000 mark, then an economic boom happens. This is because of the people’s increased purchase capacity. The demand drives the manufacturing industry to spring up. If you look at India, you will understand what I mean.
Now when the economy reaches in that stage, the retail banking flourishes. Different retail banking products help people to purchase their desire goods. Credit card demands grows too which results the growth of the market of the consumer goods. Now, in Bangladesh, we have only 1.2 million credit cards. In comparison with the population that we have, this is next to nothing.
And the most important retail market-the mortgage market- isn’t explored here at all. No economy has flourished without a strong housing market. We have huge potential here. From SC, we were on the process of introducing innovative mortgage market. We gave a proposal to Bangladesh Bank and the Ministry of Finance for creating a specific fund for mortgage. It can be under zero coupon bond schemes so that the fund can be raised with low cost and could be given for a long term with low interest rate. The idea was to reduce the gap between the house rent and mortgage payment. As long as it doesn’t happen, the mortgage market will not grow. Our inflation is high-6%-6.5%. So the real interest rate becomes more than 10%. No one will be interested to pay such high interest rate for mortgage.
FINTECH: Last question. What specific achievement of yours you are really proud of?
A.A Anwar: I brought the investment banking here. You can call me the pioneer of investment banking in Bangladesh.
FINTECH: Thank you very much for your time.
A.A Anwar: Thank you too. It was a pleasure. ■