LeadSoft is one of the most prominent and leading software development companies in Bangladesh, offering custom software development, software products, offshore software development, professional outsourcing and software consultancy. Having its lineage in the global giant NCR, LeadSoft emerged as a forward looking company in the Bangladesh’s nascent software market in the 90s. since then it has become the leading local provider of Core Banking System to banks and non-banking financial institutions.
We spoke to the company’s cofounder and the current CEO and Managing Director Shaikh Abdul Wahid at LEADS Corporation’s office in Bangla Motor. A consummate professional, Mr. Wahid shared with Fintech how the company was formed, how’s that rooted in his long professional career and working from all over the world for NCR Corporation, his thoughts on how to make organisations efficient and much more.
FINTECH: Could you start by telling us about where you started your career and what led to this point?
S. A Wahid: I went to Dhaka College and graduated in business management in 1968. I then joined A Qasem & Co. Chartered Accountants with the objective to become a professional accountant. However, before I could attempt my second & final examination, during mid 1974, I got a call from one of my friend who was Manager, Finance & Administration of NCR Corporation in Bangladesh. He said that there is an opportunity in Arabian Gulf and if I wanted to go abroad then I must look into it. Now, at that time I did not have any interest to go outside. I thought I was comfortable in Bangladesh and I will remain in Bangladesh. But I agreed to see his manager anyway. The Manager was British and I don’t know why he was so impressed with me. He wrote a very strong recommendation to their ME/A Headquarters in Beirut. After few weeks I got the job. So, I moved to Bahrain to join NCR Gulf’s Headquarter.
At that time NCR had just moved its headquarters from Beirut to Bahrain. I was there for 12 years. I started as a senior accountant and became the Controller for that organization. And by the time I was leaving Bahrain I had all Gulf countries, Bangladesh, Pakistan and Afghanistan within the Gulf organization. I had hit a ceiling, so to speak, and I told my upper management that I needed something else. I was moved to Istanbul in 1986. Initially, I was responsible for Turkey and Saudi Arabia. But after few years, NCR decided to promote me as the Area Controller for Central and Eastern Europe area. My Austrian supervisor wanted me to move to Vienna, but I wanted to work staying in Istanbul. So, I took the new role without moving and did that for about six or seven years. In this role I was responsible for Turkey, Austria, Russia, Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, Slovenia, Croatia; in other words, the whole East European countries and Turkey & Austria.
At that time all my brothers and sisters were moving to the US and my green card also came through. But I didn’t want to move there just for the sake of moving. So, I was looking for a suitable position in NCR and finally during April 1999 I moved to Ft. Lauderdale, Florida to take over my new responsibility as Controller for Caribbean & Latin America (C&LA) area. In this position I was responsible for Argentina, Brazil, Chile, Colombia, Dominic Republic, Mexico, Peru and P. Rico. During 2004 NCR’s CFO called me and ask me to move to Dayton, OH (NCR’s HQ) to take over Americas Controller position. In this position I was responsible for USA, Canada and C&LA. During 2009 NCR had decided to move their HQ to Atlanta, GA. I was asked to move from Dayton to Atlanta and I did. For the first three years in Atlanta I continued in my Americas Controller’s role. During 2012 I was promoted to the position of Director, Global Operations.
I always thought that I would only work for 40 years, and I told my management six months before my 40th anniversary that I will retire from NCR. They thought I was crazy. They were really surprised and told me that I was too young to retire! But I have been back and forth to Bangladesh for the last 40 years. So, I went ahead and retired and came back to Bangladesh to spend some time with our mother, who was at that time 95 years. When my mother passed away, six months after I had come back, I thought of going back to the US. But my elder brother, Mr. Shaikh Abdul Aziz, who is very well known in the IT industry in Bangladesh, persuaded me to join our own Company, LEADS. So, I joined LEADS as MD & CEO and Mr. Aziz became the Chairman of the Company. I do maintain our house in Atlanta, GA and travel to USA few times a year.
FINTECH: Tell us about Leads. What was the original vision?
S. A Wahid: The vision is very clear for us. We want to be the best ICT partner where all of our stakeholders would love to be associated with us. Stakeholders include our associates, customers, partners, suppliers and the local community – everyone. In our reception area you can see that our vision, mission and core values displayed on the side walls. We want to make sure that people understand this is a serious company. It’s not one of those companies that are formed for making some quick bucks and disappears after few years. We are here for 25 years, and inshallah, we will remain here for long time.
FINTECH: A number of your products are based on the financial and banking sector. Generally, this is an untapped market in the sense that banks typically rely on foreign software, particularly for the CBS. Why did you focus on this area?
S. A Wahid: We took this organisation from NCR back in August of 1992. NCR is an international company, they have presence in more than 200 countries. Back in 80’s NCR had decided to streamline their operations by converting low revenue generating countries from branch to distributor. Bangladesh falls within that category. I happened to be in Turkey at that time. And the Vice President, who was in charge of selling Bangladesh happened to be someone I knew very well. He actually asked me to take over NCR Bangladesh. I thought it was impossible because I didn’t have money and also I didn’t want to do it anyway because there would be conflict of interest. But he said that NCR didn’t want to give the organisation to just anybody and he said that “I want you to take it.” So, he got the legal clearance for me.
I then called my brother who was running his own business after leaving British American Tobacco Company. I told him that I wasn’t going to buy the organization if he didn’t join me. He was skeptical at first and came on board. So, we went to Dubai, negotiated with NCR and ended up taking this company.
When we took over, it was primarily hardware based Company. NCR was the first company to bring ATM in this country. They had ATMs, towers and few other types of hardware. They also had a mini branch banking application called “PC Bank”. But it was nothing like what we have right now. That’s how we started.
We figured out very soon that the hardware margin will continuously go down, because hardware will become a commodity. Right now, we can see that is true. So, we knew that if we wanted to grow we needed to be in the software area. So, we started investing in the software area and started developing our internal software, including a Core Banking System. In 1999 we decided to set up a separate company for software. LEADS Corporation has two subsidiaries. The corporation is the parent company. It owns LeadSoft that handles the software. It also owns Leads Training and Consulting. As we know NCR was very strong in the financial area. At that time they had their ATM in few Banks of that time. Since NCR was very strong in financial and we took over NCR’s business in Bangladesh, we continued supporting NCR customers. That is one of the reasons why we are strong in financial sectors.
FINTECH: Did you, at that point, anticipate how big software will get?
S. A Wahid: Yes, we knew. Otherwise we wouldn’t have formed a separate company and start investing and hiring new talent. Right now, this organisation has 270 people, out of that 160 people are only for the software. So, we knew it a long time back that the future is software. Hardware is a commodity, unless you package it with a complete solution. If you can’t provide a complete solution, you don’t make any money just selling boxes. So, we definitely knew that software was the future.
FINTECH: So, CBS needs a lot of time, investment and most importantly perhaps expert human resources. Evaluate Leads, do you have all those components? How do you rate your CBS product and what are its unique selling points?
S. A Wahid: Number one, in Bangladesh there aren’t many locally developed CBS like us. And nowadays foreign software is also coming into the country. We would say that our software, among the local software, is the best CBS as evidenced by 20+ installation in Banks and NBFI. This includes a foreign bank. Now the ‘core banking system’ is a huge thing for any bank, because the entire service of the bank depends on this application. We have 10 local and one international banks, and another nine non-banking financial institutions. So, we are talking about 20 banks and NBFIs using our application. Two more installation is on pipeline.
Now, you talked about resources. In this organisation we don’t have anybody below graduate. On top of that they have other degrees and certifications. So, we have very highly qualified and highly technical people, especially in the area of software. Software is not like any other product. Bangladesh Bank has jurisdiction on all the banks. So, to improve the effectiveness of the Bank’s performance, Bangladesh Bank, time to time, may come up with new requirement and then we help our clients to comply with Bangladesh Banks’s requirements.
As far as the difference between foreign and local CBS (core Banking system) is concern, I am confident that the local software is the best option for our customers based on the quality, cost and after sell services. You must have seen several discussions in local media, in respect of foreign and local CBS. There are few factors that we must know. First, any foreign CBS would cost at least six to seven times compared to a local CBS. Second, local CBS is fully compliant with Bangladesh Bank’s requirement. Third, local CBS are supported by local company and with their local resources. Therefore, it is easy for any customer to get quick and cost effective support. On the other hand, after sell service of foreign CBS depends on their structure which is usually time consuming and costly. Fourth, we must recognize that every year this country is producing so many young talent and these talents must see their future in Bangladesh. However, if we continue patronizing foreign CBS and other software, then I am afraid that we would see continuation of “brain drain”. This is an area all concern must take immediate actions.
FINTECH: Obviously, you are the leading company at this point…
S. A Wahid: We strongly believe and the statistics also tells us that we have the best local CBS. This fact is supported by the number of customers that are using our CBS.
FINTECH: Why do you think other companies haven’t been able to follow in your footsteps?
S. A Wahid: I cannot make any comment about other companies. I guess it all depends on their strategy and long range plan. However, if we are talking about our CBS and how we got here, then I can tell you that from the beginning we had a plan to invest heavily in the Software area, therefore, we continued building on the strengths that we had acquired from NCR. For us it is an on-going process to keep all of our software, including CBS, updated with the latest technology.
FINTECH: This leads neatly to the next question. What do you think are the challenges in Bangladesh’s IT sector?
S. A Wahid: OK, so, this is going to be very personal. The way I was trained by NCR Corporation and what I see in Bangladesh is completely different. Although I have limited exposure in Bangladesh, I have a feeling that most of the professionals do not want to take the ownership. Most of the companies in Bangladesh are owner driven. Owners takes the decision and the people has to follow. This way we cannot develop the future leaders. Fortunately in LEADS we do things differently. Our leaders are empowered with appropriate authorities and they take majority of the decisions based on pre-established procedures.
This company is not dependent on Wahid or Aziz. It doesn’t make any difference if we are in Bangladesh or abroad. Our people are empowered so they know exactly when they need to contact me.
The fact that so many foreigners are in the middle to higher management level in Bangladesh, tells me that we need to change our approach towards our own associates. Accordingly, if we want to address this issue then we need to start from middle management. I believe that we have enough talent in this Country but we are not able to create appropriate environment to develop these talents. We need to recognize that these new graduates are highly ambitious and we need to help them to achieve their dream.
I see many Bangladeshi are in the USA working in various positions and growing. Therefore, it is not that we have shortage of skills. We do have the skills and we just need to know how to create right environment so that these young talents grow professionally. Bangladesh has the potential to become one of the most technologically advance county. But we need to fix the management level. The drive has to come from the top management. We need to change our mindset. It is OK if some or all of my direct report know more than me. Unfortunately this is not what we think. In my organization I have always hired people who are more intelligent than me, they did the work and I got the credit. I had used this simple approach in all of my forty years with NCR Corporation and have never failed.
In LEADS we have various “associates engagement” programs. We go beyond associates and engage their families through various company sponsored programs. I personally write birthday card for all of our associates and I give the cards to them in person. Think about the effect this simple gesture has on them and their families. When we have family events at the office or outdoor, we have children coming and enjoying magic show and play various games and off-course enjoy good foods. The kids love to come back to the office because they think that their parents are going to the office and having fun!
The reason I bring this up is just to say that we need to change our mentality in this country.
FINTECH: Banks and NBFIs are sitting on huge amount of data. Do you think they are capitalizing this to design better products and services?
S. A Wahid: No, and the reason is very simple. The data mining or the Big Data concept has not yet picked up in this country. In the USA and Western World they know the value of the data. Therefore, they do not just collect the data, they analyze and come up with tailored service for their customers. This is a big opportunity that some of our data owners in Bangladesh are missing. LEADS represents the biggest Data Warehousing Company and we have the capability and resources to help our customers.
FINTECH: There is a perception that we are not there yet, and companies don’t need Big Data yet. It will be necessary in future.
S. A Wahid: But you need some basic analytical tools. I understand that Big Data may be too big right now. But we have millions of data in the banks. Are we analyzing these data and trying to understand our customers? May be yes, may be no. I do not know. But my position is simple; we need to start from somewhere. I am sure that the MD’s and CEO’s of big Bangladeshi Companies are talking to their counterparts in other parts of the World and they know how the other companies are using this priceless information to improve their business performance.
FINTECH: What is your opinion about software ITES export? Do you believe we can compete there with India and others? How?
S. A Wahid: This is an area where I have personal interest. During my time with NCR I was responsible for Global Operation. In this role I was responsible for managing our outsourced business relationship with Accenture. So I have seen both sides. In one hand I have seen from NCR side on the other hand I have been in Bangalore few times and have seen from Accenture side. Personally, I believe that we will not be like Bangalore overnight but we have the skills set and infrastructure to become a World class BPO country.
Right now in Bangladesh there are several companies who are developing software and providing related services to Europe and America. However, most of the major software development works, our companies are receiving, are not direct from the end user. We need to change this model and go direct to the end users. The ICT has taken up various initiatives whereby the ICT appointed consultants are putting our local companies face to face with the end users in America, Asia and Europe. I hope these initiatives will bring positive results for Bangladeshi Companies.
FINTECH: Thanks very much for talking to us.
S. A Wahid: You are welcome.