In a long illustrious career Mr Nizam Chowdhury has been involved in many different leadership roles. He was elected President of Dhaka Cosmopolitan Jayces International for the period 1978-80. Later he was elected the Chairman of International Affairs of Jayces International in Bangladesh chapter for the period of 1982-1984.
The current chairman of NRB Global Bank, Nizam Chowdhury’s inherent leadership qualities are evidenced not only through his success, but also through his genuine passion for changing things for the better. One of the things he is most passionate about is Dhaka University, from where he graduated, and where he has recently enrolled as a PhD student. “There is no age limit in learning,” the 60 years old entrepreneur said.
Graduated in 1982 from the University of Dhaka, Nizam Chowdhury studied Islamic History and Culture for his undergraduate degree. “But political science and economics were also part of my study,” he particularly stressed.
Despite having the opportunity to study International Relations he was persuaded by a senior to take up Islamic History and Culture as it would be easier for him to pass and would leave him plenty of time to pursue his real passion: political activism.
Nizam Chowdhury spent a lot of his formative years at the Dhaka University campus, from 1978 to 1984. He felt an urge to help modernize his former campus when he came back to Bangladesh in 2011 after 28 years in the US. “I remember we used to sit in this seminar room at the Arts Building. It didn’t have proper seating arrangements then. I remember that it didn’t have enough books, racks and any modern facilities. So, I thought to myself that why shouldn’t I help modernize this seminar room. God has given me the financial strength to do so,” Mr Chowdhury said.
He thought the able alumni should donate to the university, as he saw happening at the American universities where his sons study. “It is possible here too. But no one takes the initiative,” he said.
Nizam Chowdhury and his hall mates from Surja Sen Hall, however, did take an initiative to renovate the hall. They planned a whopping Tk50 crore for the renovation. “When I was there I had a room to myself. But now seven or eight students live in those rooms. They sleep on the floor. It is really inhumane,” he said. The money has been pledged by all the biggest businessmen of the country, which Nizam Chowdhury and his friends planning facilitated.
The renovation of the seminar room in his department at the Arts Building has been financed by Nizam Chowdhury alone. “The VC came to inaugurate it. They put up a sign saying I renovated it, which I thought was really unnecessary. I didn’t want that. My intention was to give modern facilities to the students of my department. When I go there now it feels really lovely to see the students sitting comfortably in the air conditioned room. It’s also full of books now, and it has a big table across the room.”
Inspired by his examples, many prominent alumni from other departments are also starting to sponsor the renovation of their departments. A fellow alumnus just renovated the teachers’ room and the chairman’s room for the department. Others are also following suit. “Dr Sufi Ahmed, who was the Chairman of the department back then, and she is the wife of Barrister Ishtiaq Ahmed, renovated a classroom. A classmate of mine is now sponsoring the renovation of a classroom and the museum.”
The main inspiration for all of these initiatives, however, comes from the deep conviction that humans can achieve unimaginable transformation. Nizam Chowdhury related the story of how the son of a poor nanny from his childhood climbed up the ladder of success and how the grandson of that nanny came to work in NRB Global Bank. “I’m telling you this seemingly unimportant story from my village to make the point that transformation in human beings is an amazing thing. The village I came from had zero literacy, except in my household. But now 17 girls are doing their graduation from that same village. There are two PhDs from my family and it will be three when I finish my PhD.”
Bangladesh is changing because the people of the country are changing. That is why Bangladesh is among “the next eleven to watch,” Nizam Chowdhury enthusiastically went on. “We have had tremendous success in poverty alleviation. We have brought it down to 22 percent from 50 percent,” he said.
“We started with a 50 dollars per capita income. We are now at 1,666 dollars per capital today. We can now announce a national budget of Tk4,02,668 crore. But our main problem now is that we are not collecting all the revenue from the citizen. The system has not developed much,” Nizam Chowdhury lamented. “However, there has been tremendous progress after Nojib took charge,” he said referring to his friend Md Nojibur Rahman, the chairman of National Board of Revenue. Nizam Chowdhury does not believe that Bangladeshi people do not want to pay tax. To the contrary, he believes that people deem it prestigious to pay tax. “My partner Mr. Alamgir, the Chairman of the MAX Group paid 150 crore taka tax last year,” he said.
Bangladesh is progressing, said Nizam Chowdhury, but there is a lack of systematic approach. The reason for that is the social norms, which in turn resulted from the debilitating British rule of 200 years. “The British changed our minds so that we don’t think like free people. We have become a nation of slaves. We still love their customs and practices,” he added.
The partition in 1947 was wrong, Nizam Chowdhury believes. But eventually Bangladesh did become an independent country as a good consequence of the partition. “But the person that gave us the liberty and independence was killed. That is a huge set back,” he said.
Nizam Chowdhury believes that truth is very important in understanding the history of a country. “If you try to hogwash the truth and tarnish real history then the nation will be doomed to become a regressive nation. The Americans still honour and celebrate George Washington. I think Bangabandhu will be regarded much highly after 200 years, which we have failed to do. We are only interested in his mistakes. But you must remember that he gave you an independent country and an identity. We are now a nation because of him.”
The sacrifice of Bangabandhu made everything possible, even the creation of the NRB Global Bank. Nizam Chowdhury submitted the proposal of ‘the Bangladesh NRB Bank Limited’ to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina. The idea of which he got from the ICICI Bank of India, which is the second largest bank in the country.
Nizam Chowdhury happened to see the Prime Minister right after the BDR massacre. “It wasn’t the right moment to talk about the bank, but the Prime Minister saw the proposal paper in my hand and asked what it was. I said it was inappropriate but she insisted and said it was alright,” the NRB Global chairman recalled.
The Prime Minister was, however, skeptical. “How you will run the bank from abroad?” she inquired, as Mr Chowdhury recalls. He asked her to look at the system and history of the ICICI Bank. He was called back the next day by the Prime Minister. She called Molla Wahiduzzaman, who is the chairman of Janata Bank now, and told him “When we will issue sanctions for banks we will give one bank to the NRB.”
But convincing the Prime Minister about the idea does not make the enormous job of opening up a new kind of bank automatic. Nizam Chowdhury conducted conferences on the concept, among other activities. Ultimately though, three NRB banks were given permission.
“All of this has been possible because I could conceive the idea. I had the idea when I was a consultant at Wells Fargo Bank in the US. I used to dream then that there will be a bank like Wells Fargo in Bangladesh. By the way, this bank is styled after Wells Fargo, we also have the yellow colour theme.”
Idea makes everything possible, thinks Nizam Chowdhury. “When I first saw your magazine (Fintech) I asked my secretary if this is a foreign magazine. he said that it wasn’t. So, your magazine may reach up there with publications like the Economist, Time magazine, or Bloomberg. You have to dream big.”
Nizam Chowdhury dreams about opening up a branch of NRB Global Bank in America. But the problem is that after 9/11 the whole system changed. Personal banking license is required to conduct banking business in America. The personal banking license, which Nizam Chowdhury had, has become a lot more difficult to get, and the business licenses are not currently being granted at all, particularly to Asian people.
“But that doesn’t mean I can’t open up a branch. There are thousands of community banks in America. Every year some go out of business. You can buy one of their licenses. But that’s not all you need. You need the permission of Bangladesh Bank.”
Nizam Chowdhury thinks that the main problem is the restrictions put in place that do not really foster a free market economy. The current policy allows for bringing in any amount of money from abroad but puts a cap on how much money could be taken out of the country. Nizam Chowdhury thinks this can’t be called a free market economy. Currently, permission from Bangladesh Bank is needed for taking more than 10 thousand dollars out of the country.
“That permission is actually unobtainable. Your money became the government’s money the moment you saved foreign currency locally. It is still your account but you can’t really take the money out.”
But Nizam Chowdhury is reluctant to talk about “the negative things.” He could not help but convey, however, that there are people in responsible positions who are very old fashioned and fear to venture into new paths. “You cannot build something new if you are afraid to take risk,” he said.
Nizam Chowdhury took risks and as a result he overcame many obstacles and finally succeeded in founding the bank. “Banks, insurance companies, financial institutions are not privately owned in essence. The minute you establish a bank, it becomes public property, even if it doesn’t go to the IPO.”
The reason banks are ultimately public property, Nizam Chowdhury said, is because the public deposit money in the bank and thereby become owners. He thinks a positive outlook makes all the difference in how you approach something and benefit from something. The forward looking business leader has great confidence in the youth. “60 percent of our employees are 24-29 year-olds. We will progress through them,” he said.
In addition to seeing the young generation as the future, Nizam Chowdhury thinks it’s very important to learn to live as world citizens. “A young Bangladeshi inventor from one of Joy’s [Sajeeb Wazed] groups created a device that will guide blind people like guide dogs. It’s not in the market yet, but it was made by a Bangladeshi youth,” he said.
Things are changing and Nizam Chowdhury is certain that they are changing for the better. “The people who took zakat (mandatory alms) from me ten years ago, now pay their own zakat,” he said. “I used to go to college riding on my ‘Becko’ bicycle. Now one of my sons drives a BMW to his university and the other drives a Mercedes. That is an enormous change. But also it was made possible by the American system. You don’t have to pay anything other than a small down payment. We don’t have that system here.”
Even though he is not a wealthy person, said Nizam Chowdhury, he could use the credit system in America to his benefit. The NRB Global chairman took initiatives to introduce similar services in Bangladesh by creating 17 products for the NRBs.
Living in American certainly provided Nizam Chowdhury with a unique perspective. “I am very inquisitive. I read two hours every day, that is a routine of mine. I think any written material has something in it that can be learned.”
Saying that learning never holds people back, he mentioned how Indians now occupy 80 percent positions in the IT sector in America. “Technology gives you so much power. It is unbelievable.”
One of the main reasons he started the NRB Global Bank, Nizam Chowdhury says, is not for making profit but to help provide the push for the economic leap Bangladesh is prepared to make. “Banks will create entrepreneurs. I tell people to not shy away from coming up with small business plans. If it makes sense and you can show it will yield reasonable profit with which you can live a happy life, then you will get the loan. You won’t need collateral at NRB Global Bank.”
“Bangladesh is like an aeroplane that is about to take off. It hasn’t flown yet, but its nose is upward and it just needs a little thrust now.”
When asked about his own personal struggle Nizam Chowdhury only expressed gratitude for his life. He said that he has been fortunate to not have struggled very much in his personal life. “I belonged to a family of five sisters and three brothers; and was raised up with comfort and luxury. I didn’t have to face any problem with my education either.”
He found a job only 13 days after the completion of his graduation. “My salary was Tk30 thousand with a car and house. It was huge at that time. I worked there for 4 years and started my own business after that. After sometimes I went to USA and never did an odd job.”
After working in banks for a while he opened up his own company ‘Trade Balance USA Corporation’. That company got him started in business. The business is still running and his younger brother Zakaria Chowdhury looks after it.
The NRB Global started with a team of 20 people, Nizam Chowdhury informed. He also opened up a power company ‘Max Power’ and another called ‘Kushiara’ in Sylhet. In the last 4/5 years Mr Chowdhury started a bank, an insurance company and two power plants. “Not bad,” he smilingly said, “but I am just the initiator.”
When asked what is the meaning of the NRB Global Bank’s slogan “Great Experience”, he said that it simply means whenever a customer will deal with the bank, starting from visiting the branch to completing a transaction, he will have a great experience. Simple enough, but the secret is, Nizam Chowdhury said, that your staff have to have the right expertise to provide that ‘great experience.’
“When I see people queuing up at banks and waiting a long time that bothers me. Why they have to wait in line to withdraw their own money? It’s not like there are no queues in America. But managers quickly direct the customers to the appropriate counters and shorten the queue. But here the people behind the counters are not even bothering to look at the customers.”
One of NRB Global Bank’s vision is, of course, to serve the non-resident Bangladeshis. “The expert Bangladeshis are driving the economy forward with 32 billion dollars input in the economy but when they ask for a loan in the country they are told that they do not have a credit line,” said Nizam Chowdhury. “But we said that we will give you the loan,” he added.
Another target, Nizam Chowdhury said, is to help bring all the unbanked population in banking. 43% people in Bangladesh are unbanked. NRB Global has outreach programs to help people open bank accounts. “We are doing school banking. We are going to various institutions and carrying out ‘open house’. At any given time, there are 54 to 57 thousand crore taka worth of unaccounted money in Bangladesh. People are keeping this money hidden. If this money gets deposited in the banks, then it can help investors, which in turn will create jobs.”
Bank is ultimately for the benefit of the people, Nizam Chowdhury thinks. In order to realise the Prime Minister’s 2020 vision there has to be new jobs, which only new investments can create.
In addition to help the people of the country through this bank, Nizam Chowdhury’s personal goal is to help people as much as possible. “I don’t have a lot of money. But I think I can motivate people to do something great and the power of that is no less than a million dollars grant,” he happily declared.