Abrar A. Anwar joined the Standard Chartered Bangladesh in 2011 as Head of Corporate & Institutional Clients. Abrar has more than 25 years of experience in Corporate and Investment banking in Bangladesh, India and the UK. With an MBA from IBA, his achievements include setting up the first “Syndication & Structured Finance” business in Bangladesh (for the then ANZ Grindlays Bank), along with the successful closure of milestone transactions in the Energy & Power, Infrastructure, Telecom, Aviation, Domestic and Export-oriented industries. Before joining Standard Chartered Bangladesh, he was the Managing Director & Head of Global Corporate & Commercial Banking, Citibank NA, Bangladesh and Head of Specialist Finance & Advisory Services, ANZ Grindlays Bank. Recently posted as the CEO of Standard Chartered Bank, Malaysia, Abrar A. Anwar was the Chief Executive Officer of SCB, Bangladesh since January 2015. In an exclusive interview with ICE Business Times, he shared his experience as a banker, how he envisions the banking of tomorrow and why he wants to come back to Bangladesh. ”
“I realized that if only I can solely transform and bring these products to our markets, it will add new dimensions to our work. Therefore, I established investment banking and came up with many innovative solutions immediately on my return to Bangladesh.”
Tell us about your journey of switching from a science background to a business one.
I was a science student back in school and college. However, I took up commerce later and graduated in the year 1987. Afterwards, I completed MBA from Institute of Business Administration (IBA) started off with the banking profession in 1991 as a management trainee in ANZ Grindlays Bank. Probably, I preferred being a business professional rather than becoming an engineer or a doctor because of my father, who was a CEO of a multinational company, Reckitt & Benckiser had a greater influence on me back then. Although, I can now say it was indeed a turning point in my life.
How did, the aspiration of becoming a CEO someday, nurtured your personality as a whole?
Initially, when I entered the bank as a management trainee in 1991, I aspired to reach higher. It was one of my dreams to become the CEO of one of the most renowned banks in the country. I continuously worked on everything starting from my skills, organization adaptability and started taking up more challenges now and then. It enhanced my learning opportunities as well as demonstrated ways of operating in a changing environment. This is what made me took up the Investment Banking opportunities abroad and move outside Bangladesh to India and UK in 1997 and 1998 respectively. Afterwards, I came back and opened a corporate banking wing. Working in the global market added much to my learning, and I learned that there were a plethora of advanced products in the outer world, yet to be introduced in our country. I realized that if only I can solely transform and bring these products to our markets, it will add new dimensions to our work. Therefore, I established investment banking and came up with many innovative solutions immediately on my return to Bangladesh. The introduction of corporate investment, project financing, and merchandise exhibition in this country added much to my standing as I could contribute a little in changing the landscape of financial sector of this country through this.
Strategically our geographical position and also the growing population of the demographic dividends in our country makes it a quite lucrative market for investment. Where does Bangladesh stand in the future if these factors are to be considered?
I believe that our population is not a liability but an asset, provided we could drive that young generation into productive activities. Talking about the demographic dividend, 75% of our population is in the bracket of 35 years, and if we are to lean on this, Bangladesh has a vast potential. On the other hand, if industrial demand and the working capacity of the population are to be considered, this is where we have a comparative advantage. However, the biggest challenge now lies in the development of the skills of this massive population. Therefore, it is vital to invest in infrastructure development in the next 10 to 15 years to create viable employment opportunities. Ensuring an investment-friendly business climate–which encompasses many things such as a legislative environment, infrastructure, trained and skilled human resources-would enable Bangladesh to prosper in the long run.
To come to think of 10 million migrant working abroad and they are the backbone behind the 15 billion dollar remittance that is helping us build reserves on top of the export growth. If we look at the readymade garment industry, 82 % of the export pie, a figure of around 4 million women are behind this working practice. They are not only supporting the households but aiding the backward linkage of the industry as well. Thus, it can be said that all of this was possible for the lucrative demographic dividend that exists in our country. I would say that opportunities reside alongside challenges in our market so our strategy should aim to transfer the obstacles into opportunities.
If we are to talk about structured finance, the contribution of the stock market is very low in our country. We only have stocks and bonds but lack the derivative. How can we introduce such derivatives into the local market?
Only 15% to 16% of our GDP comes from the stock market whereas comparably the figure is 100 percent or two times the GDP in many other countries. This indicates that a lot of listed companies are now approaching the capital market for raising funds and that the demand for it is increasing. Capital market also plays an essential role in other emerging or more developed economies in the world. These economies are not bank led; as for large-scale investment we need the capital market, and banks can be considered for commercial market. Furthermore, new derivative and other things are yet to enter our market. Currently, if you look at the capital market, 20% of comes from the institutions and 80% from the retail. The entry of institutional players into the market will help it flourish and the analytics brought by them, then, will push the management or board of the companies to be well-governed. There is no doubt that we will soon reach an inflection point when mega projects will rush in, and most of the corporates will be looking for funds, for which capital market will be the solution.
A number of 58 banks exist in our country currently. Do you think the number of existing banks exceeds its market size?
Despite the exciting number of available banks, it is a matter of fact that a large part of the population is still unbanked. Thus, it is essential to address this unbanked population. Maybe there are many banks but which bank will survive in the long run depends on how efficiently they run their balance sheet and on the amount of workforce they can train, retain and motivate to contribute in a meaningful way to the banking sector.
“The exposure, empowerment, and freedom that employees get from this bank give them the opportunity to expand their thought horizon and enable them to innovate within their boundaries.”
What sort of challenges and risks are we exposed to in modern day banking and how have you tackled such problems as it occurred during your time as a CEO?
A lot of challenges reside in the banking sector which requires you to have a diversified workforce. The team under my guidance has helped me much to deal with adversities over time and tackled the challenges efficiently in respective areas of concentration. We have had specialists who helped out with technical things while I led their way.
One such challenge the industry faced is the obvious impact of the geopolitical situation in the country. For instance, the change in the geopolitical situation of Europe and US engagement in Bangladesh made it more externally exposed to risks. As an exchange regulated economy, so far we have not been exposed to the 2007-2008 financial crunch and Asian crisis of 2009.
Moreover, different kinds of risk exist in a bank internally among which the increase in Non-Performing Loan (NPL) is called the credit risk. Apart from the credit risk, there are many other risks like cyber security, money laundering, and terrorist financing or financial crimes.
What are your views on online banking and mobile banking?
Online banking, mobile banking or any other new concept needs to be regarded as an opportunity instead threat. Banks will exist alongside the technological advancements we invent or choose for our financial transactions. Tomorrow’s world will be data-driven and understanding data with proper analytics will help us fathom the consumer behavior. Since everything is heading towards automation and with the rise of concepts like Artifical intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT), we must be ready to adapt to the changes. I firmly believe that banks will remain at the core of the entire financial eco-system even though one-day paper money may become a thing of the past.
You are also representing ANZ Grindlays’s generation of leading bankers. What is the recipe for the bank’s production of so many successful bankers?
Banks are a people-centric business, and I believe one of the primary reasons behind our production of successful bankers is the way the human resources are nurtured here over time. The exposure, empowerment, and freedom that employees get from this bank give them the opportunity to expand their thought horizon and enable them to innovate within their boundaries. Furthermore, employees here are exposed to a challenging environment which helps them to tackle bottleneck situations and any other challenges thrown upon. Grindlays refers this to as adding value as it develops a drive in individuals, helping them to maximize their potentialities. Besides, such an environment also allows employees to grow leadership capabilities and thus, Grindlay makes the best use of the opportunities to produce leaders.
As we look back in time, what according to you led to the success of Standard Chartered Bank in Bangladesh under your influence?
As I look back, I think one of my most significant achievements is that I am leaving behind a top-notch team here. I was here for seven years out of which I have worked three years as a CEO. It is no doubt that Bangladesh franchise is one of the best franchises of our group and it feels great to recall how our challenges and performances have been recognized. My greatest satisfaction lies in the way we have successfully managed to satisfy our clients and maintained a right image as a universal bank over our years of operation in this country. We have served customers in all the sectors, be it retail or corporate. During my time as a CEO, our team has incessantly tried to engage the clients and customers with our offerings and prioritized the needs of our human resources. This, I think, is what led to the success of our bank over the last few years.
You have so far come up with a lot of new products and working practices in the banking industry. Is there any piece of advice from your side that the next generation can reflect upon?
One thing I have always believed is that nothing in this world is impossible, you just have to keep learning. Today’s young generation is exposed to a vast sphere of opportunities that weren’t available previously. With everything at their fingertips, the generation must learn to utilize the existing opportunities and develop themselves as much as possible. There is a high need of interpersonal skills to establish a network consisting of clients, customers, peers; anyone aspiring to become a high-achiever should master those skills.
Whom have you drawn inspiration from to go ahead with your banking career?
I have come across many leaders who have guided me on many occasions. If I am to name a few, ace bankers like Rumee Ali, Anis A Khan, Kazi Mahmood Sattar, and Shafiqul Alam are the people I look up to.
Do you want to come back to Bangladesh after finishing your job abroad?
Definitely. My roots are here, and I aspire to return as a more experienced person. All this is a part of my learning that I wish to utilize it, someday, in my own country.