Life’s Work: An Interview With Syed Mohammad Kamal, Country Manager, MasterCard Bangladesh

Life’s Work: An Interview With Syed Mohammad Kamal, Country Manager, MasterCard Bangladesh

Country Manager of MasterCard, Bangladesh, Syed Mohammad Kamal, reflects on how his grandfather inspired him to seek difficulties in life, his early life in Chittagong and why our schools are important, his path to becoming what he is doing today, digital payment industry in Bangladesh, particularly card business and the role of MasterCard in the overall digital payment ecosystem of the country, and the importance of enjoying your work and having patience while pursuing a difficult goal.

Future Startup

I want to start at the beginning of your story. Where did you grow up? Tell us about yourself.

Syed Mohammad Kamal

I was born in Dhaka but brought up in Chittagong. We are originally from Jamalpur, my village is there, but my grandfather, who was a dominant influence in my life, used to work for the government and moved to Chittagong in 1948 and settled there. He was a very talented person and did very well in life. So I grew up in Chittagong and had my schooling there.

I attended Chittagong Collegiate School and then Chittagong Commerce College and did my graduation from Chittagong University. School was the best part of my childhood, I had so many good memories from those days. Chittagong Collegiate is a famous school, so to say, Professor Dr. Muhammad Yunus is our alma mater, and we just celebrated the 175th year of our school recently. Later on, I did an MBA from Royal Road University, Canada.

I spent a significant part of my career in FMCG industry, almost 14 years out of my 26 years of career, working at companies like ACI and Berger Paints Bangladesh. In fact, I started my career in FMCG industry. Afterward, I moved from FMCG to Financial Institution (FI).

I joined Western Union in 2005, a Fortune 500 company and global leader in international remittance. I stayed there for over 6 years and then I moved here, to MasterCard, as the Country Manager of MasterCard Bangladesh in 2013.

It taught me that you should seek difficulties in life. Everyone can do the things that are easy but there is no fun in doing easy things and joining the crowd. More importantly, joining the crowd would not make you any different from the crowd.

Future Startup

Any particular memory from your childhood that you often go back to.

Syed Mohammad Kamal

In college, we had both Statistics and Shorthand as extra courses and you could choose either one. Shorthand was comparatively easy and you could earn a good grade with little effort whereas Statistics was a difficult course but I was not sure about what to go for.

Then I went to my Grandfather and asked him what course I should take. He said ‘you can learn shorthand anytime you want but you can’t learn statistics’. So I took Statistics and did very well.

It taught me that you should seek difficulties in life. Everyone can do the things that are easy but there is no fun in doing easy things and joining the crowd. More importantly, joining the crowd would not make you any different from the crowd.

Future Startup

Every career goes through challenges and trails. We stumble and grow from our failures. Tell us about your journey and challenges and trials you faced in your career.

Syed Mohammad Kamal

FMCG is a difficult industry by nature. For instance, while working at ACI, we launched a couple of very successful products. We launched Mosquito Coil back then and became the market leader within a year. But we had to work really hard to make it happen.

My FMCG career was a great learning opportunity for me. I had to face many difficult clients and countless difficult situations during those days. At the same time, I came to know the country very well because I had to travel a lot. I traveled to every district and probably to every Thana. That gave me a huge exposure to our cultural and economic diversity and understanding about how to do things and go about things in Bangladesh.

Being said that, the interesting thing about any past challenge is that when you look back to those challenges they don’t look like challenges anymore instead they become precious experiences and invaluable learning opportunities. Looking back it is hard to call anything a challenge!

When I joined Western Union from Berger Paints Bangladesh, it was an entirely different ball game. An American Fortune 500 company having a very small footprint in the country, it was like a huge work. Moreover, from FMCG, I joined a financial organization of which I had very little knowledge about. I knew almost nothing about migrant population and money transfer. I had to figure things out from scratch. But I was very excited. That excitement paid off. When I joined the Western Union, we had only three bank partners and when I left after six years we had forty-six partners. We did a lot of things. We made partnerships with banks and other stakeholders, we launched mobile money and many other interesting initiatives.

The company grew by 17/18 times. There were plenty of challenges, working with regulators, and working in an environment of uneven competition. It was a difficult feat but I always enjoy challenges.

Being said that, working at MasterCard has been the most fulfilling journey for me. More so because, here, I’m representing Bangladesh where digital payment is taking a big leap; a lot of innovations can be done in this market. We have launched a few innovative products but the years to come will be even better for MasterCard because there will be material change in the card market and digital payment space.

Future Startup

You have over 25 years of experience in FMCG, Financial Institution & VAS and worked at like companies ACI, Berger Paints Bangladesh, Western Union and now Mastercard. What are the biggest lessons from all those years?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

In our country, people often fail because of over-trading. People usually want to get to their goals immediately. You should not do that. First of all, you should have patience because anything worth doing takes a long time to happen.

Dream big, if your goal is not a little bit far away you wouldn’t feel motivated to work for it. You will struggle, which is the fundamental nature of any journey, will go through the difficult time but if you continue working hard and do the right things, success will come.

Maintain your integrity. You have to be ethical about your work. If you maintain these things, life should get a lot easier.

Future Startup

Promoting cashless transactions and expanding financial inclusion and connecting more people with electronic forms of payment are a couple of areas Mastercard has been putting importance on. How do you see the state of digital payment in Bangladesh?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

We have a global vision which is to go beyond cash. Currently, two billion people are unbanked globally. MasterCard has taken on a vision that 500 million people out of that will be brought under financial inclusion by MasterCard. The entire organization is working towards that goal. Bangladesh is an important part of that journey. We are working relentlessly to bring more unbanked population under the financial umbrella.

In Bangladesh, around 6% of total transactions are done through digital channels. If you take out government payment, it is may be less than 2% which is very low, so to say. We can grow like that at a rate of 5% to 6% year on year, but that’s not going to change anything for anytime soon.

If you look at India, you will see what they have done in order to promote digital payments. They have launched massive demonetization move to reduce corruption and are encouraging people to use digital mode of payments.

Before 8th November 2016, when demonetization happened, in India there were only 1.5 million POS terminals, the government gave instruction to all ACQUIRERS and Banks that you have to deploy another 1.5 million POS in the next three months time. In two months time 1.3 million POS got deployed. At the same time, they have incentivized people to do digital transactions. In the current scenario, a vegetable seller and a small shop owner are accepting cards or digital mode of payment.

In Bangladesh, we have to think about something disruptive if we want to go big in digital payment. Two major actions should be taken for the overall market along with some additional measures for specific areas.

There are 40 million unique bank accounts in Bangladesh but there are only 8.5 million cards. Think about it, 8.5 million cards against 40 million accounts, this means existing bank account holders are not having cards. My suggestion would be that Government or the regulator can explore for a mandate that all the account holders should also have cards. If there is an account, there should be a card. This is one.

Then the government may think about giving incentives to encourage digital transactions. Subsidy is there for almost every sector, why not for digital payment? If Government offers some sort of incentive, say 5% cash back offer, it will move the ball.

In the current scenario, people are more comfortable with paying in cash because some merchants don’t accept card or charge an extra surcharge. If we are not fixing this friction then the digital transaction will always grow at 5% to 6% rate and it is never going to be the default mode of payment.

Let me give you an example, at MasterCard we usually run usage campaign. Usually, a debit card usage to a POS is about ten transactions a year. We ran a campaign with a goal to push the usage of debit card and the result was astonishing. People were using that debit card over 44 times in a period of three months because we incentivized for the number of transactions. We said, if you do this and if you meet these eligibility criteria you might get a chance to a foreign trip. And it worked. Banks and other stakeholders can take this example in consideration.

MasterCard holders get discounts in over 1500 outlets today and banks are also doing it at a certain level but nothing is happening collectively. Banks are doing it at on and off basis at a small scale. For us or banks it is infeasible to offer 5% discount nationwide year on year basis. We can’t do it but if the government supports us definitely we have that strength to leverage that. And then digital transactions will grow, no doubt about it.

Future Startup

Digital shopping is a growing trend in the country but cards or other digital forms of payments are not as dominant as cash on delivery [COD] as a mode of payment. What are the challenges?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

I was on a panel recently on e-commerce, the number came up there said around 15% of ecommerce transactions are done digitally. Out of that, a significant number is coming from MFS. If you take out MFS, I think cards are no more than 6-7%.

There is a chicken-egg situation here. First of all, there are not that many cards; we have about 9 million card users in Bangladesh. The second thing is about trust; people are not comfortable yet with giving the card details to the websites.

The regulator did a good job introducing two-factor authentication (2FA) system a few years back, but that did not improve the situation much. Up until very recently, you had to call your bank every time you make an online transaction through your card to open it. Good for us, those days are gone. 14/15 banks have already done 2FA and most of the banks are doing it and the majority of the cards will be chip-cards, EMV card soon. When your card is EMV card, it is internet ready and you would not have to call your bank and say I did a shopping and that.

When this mechanism comes into effect and the card number goes up, ecommerce transactions will grow as well. We are working very closely with ecommerce community. We are bringing in discount offers and other stuff. Being said that, a lot more work needs to be done but it can’t be only us or ecommerce companies or the banks, it should be all the stakeholders together.

I came across a report recently that claimed around 17% of our ecommerce users are students but if you look at the scenario students are almost entirely ignored from the digital transaction phenomena. I’m more than sure that this 17 % are not using cards. These people can’t have credit cards by regulation because they are not taxpayers. But we could bring them under digital payment ecosystem easily through a prepaid card because these are tech savvy people.

E-commerce companies are not comfortable with the COD thing. It is inconvenient and there are a lot of problems with this method of payment including fake order and increasing product returning rate. It is true that you would not be able to get rid of COD completely, it is not happening even in countries like India or China but we can definitely increase the percentage of digital transactions in the manifold through massive awareness campaigns and working together.

Future Startup

How much has MasterCard operation evolved in Bangladesh?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

MasterCard has been running in Bangladesh for 20 years now. We launched the first credit card in Bangladesh back in 1997, 01 January. We were the first credit card company at that point of time and other competitors came in later. After 03 months of that, we launched another card with National Bank which was the first private sector bank to launch a credit card in this market.

We are celebrating 20 years of our operations in Bangladesh but we have put up our office in 2013 in November, so we just completed three years of our office. I have joined Mastercard 9 months before the office got inaugurated.

In our business we have two metrics, one is BAU, business as usual, and another is innovation. Innovation-wise, financial inclusion is an important metric for us. BAU-wise, you have seen the number, 5-6% growth for the country, we are growing a bit more than the country growth.

In terms of innovation, we have launched some really innovative solutions in Bangladesh. We have recently launched our first payment gateway with Eastern Bank and another payment Gateway is coming up for ecommerce.

We have launched virtual card for corporate. We have launched many loyalty programs. One of the major ones we have launched is with Novo Air. We have launched first Islamic Credit Card into this market with Al-Arafah Islami Bank.

We have launched a couple of financial inclusion products. We have launched an agriculture card called A Card with the support of US Aid for the farmers. We have launched a card to give the subsidy to the vulnerable women with the Women Welfare Ministry and as well as WFP. The issuer for these two cards is Bank Asia.

We have launched a big remittance project with bKash and the Western Union. We are the technology provider to bring pull remittance from Western Union cloud to bKash wallet. These are the few remarkable projects we have launched in the last couple of years.

Over the past years, we have built up affinity, momentum, and partnerships and we have built up the confidence on the brand itself also. In the past four years at MasterCard, I have learned a lot about the digital payment that also enabled me to give back to the community.

As a company, we are very innovative and working on innovative solutions for the payment industry across the world and we are doing the same thing in Bangladesh.

Future Startup

What are the challenges for MasterCard in Bangladesh now? What are the challenges you anticipate in the future?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

I will not say these are the challenges for MasterCard alone, instead, these are challenges for the payment ecosystem as a whole. As I highlighted earlier, we have less number of cards and we need support for the regulators in order to push the number up. At the same time, the regulator may rethink for making credit card usage simple and easy for the users.

As a company, we always work hard to stay ahead of the curve and take innovation very seriously which often give us upside in the market. We are the only International Scheme having a full-fledged country office here in Bangladesh.

We are working closely with the regulators, customers, and stakeholders in order to move things forward. In many measures, we are already ahead of the market. That does mean that we are complacent, we are working hard to make more things happen and move the needle from point A to B.

I’m not a very smart worker but I work very hard. I’m a little bit workaholic, you may call. I start my day a little bit early. I usually come to the office at 9:30 at best although our office hour starts at 10:00. I come early so that I can plan my day and have some time to think.

Future Startup

There is a general talk about fin tech changing the financial industry globally. We have a couple of early signs i.e. companies like bKash are taking over the MFS and other areas of finance. What is your take on Fin Tech in Bangladesh?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

People these days often ask me that how do I see MFS and card companies working together. This is an interesting question. There are markets where MFS is quite popular but not in a competition with the card. We actually complement each other. We are not competing with the MFS but we do support them technically when it is required. In almost every country we work in, if there are MFS players, we work very closely with them.

We issue a companion card with your Wallet that can be used as a debit card for your wallet. We have done it with mPesa in Kenya, True Money in Thailand, we have done it with Telenor in Pakistan and we have done it in other countries including India.

We have also launched our Digital Wallet which is called MasterPass in many countries, we will bring it to Bangladesh as well. Our NFC technology namely MasterCard NFC is also very popular in many countries. We plan to bring that to Bangladesh as well.

Future Startup

What is your management philosophy?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

At ACI, I had to manage a team of almost 200 people. When I moved to Berger, it was again a team of 70-80 people. I have learned a lot about managing a big team from those organizations. Then when I moved to the Western Union, I was the single man army for some time. I was the only employee at least for a year and did not even have an office in Bangladesh. Think about it, I had no office and we had only three WU agents in Bangladesh and from there I had grown it to 46 agents. If you know your work, put in hours and have patience, things would work out eventually.

I moved to MasterCard four years back, again there was no office of MasterCard in Bangladesh. There was only one other person along with me. Today we are a growing team. MasterCard is operating in 210 countries but we don’t have offices in all the countries. Bangladesh is a focus country for MasterCard that’s why after India first office came into Bangladesh even before many other important markets in Southeast Asia.

Future Startup

Where do you see Bangladesh economy is going in the next couple of years?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

Our indicators are very good. Our GDP growth is stable, which is above 7%, our per capita income is above $1400, which is also very stable. Our inflation is within control. Our birth rate is within control. We have a huge young population. Opportunities are there. It is a 160 million people country. If political stability remains for some more time, nobody will be able to stop Bangladesh.

The government has taken some really good initiative over the past few years and I think we are moving in the right direction in terms of economy and the growth. For instance, we’re having a roundtable during BASIS Softexpo with Post office recently, and the ex-DG of the post office said: “in my 36 years of career I never sit like this with private entities.” The meeting was with ecommerce companies, payment partners, and other stakeholders. There are lots of interesting works going on it private-public partnership space. If we can continue like this, we will be able to go very far.

Apart from our business as usual, you will see a lot of innovations from us in the coming days. Our plan is quite simple: working closely with our stakeholders, regulators and contribute meaningfully to the overall digital payment ecosystem.

Future Startup

How do you work and manage your time?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

I get to do a lot of multitasking. First of all, my country management is my responsibility. I have to manage a team. We have local and global priorities, I get to manage and match and work accordingly. We have to work very closely with the regulators and manage expectations of different stakeholders and partners.

At the same time, as a Multinational, I’m also involved with FICCI, Foreign Investors’ Chamber of Commerce and Industry. I’m in FICCI Executive Committee. I’m with BASIS and co-chair the digital commerce standing committee. I’m with AmCham. Apart from my day to day work, I have to manage these responsibilities.

I’m not a very smart worker but I work very hard. I’m a little bit workaholic, you may call. I start my day a little bit early. I usually come to the office at 9:30 at best although our office hour starts at 10:00. I come early so that I can plan my day and have some time to think.

In Bangladesh, you need to do a lot of follow-ups. Things seldom happen smoothly. Follow-up often takes longer time. I get to prioritize often because there are so much to do and you have to do things that are really important otherwise it becomes tough to achieve the goals.

Future Startup

What are the plans for MasterCard in Bangladesh going forward?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

We are very focused on financial inclusion project and plan to launch a couple of projects jointly with the government to achieve our goal. We are focusing on digital payment and we are having a strong focus on remittance.

Apart from our business as usual, you will see a lot of innovations from us in the coming days. Our plan is quite simple: working closely with our stakeholders, regulators and contribute meaningfully to the overall digital payment ecosystem.

Future Startup

Our life often changes when we come across some sort of a catalyst. It can be a person, a book, or an event. Who has inspired your most in your life?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

My biggest motivation was my grandfather. He died 27 years ago but I’m still following his footsteps. He was a very ethical and passionate person and was very successful in life. He was my number one mentor.

In my professional life, my previous bosses are my mentors. I still maintain those relationships. When I have to take big decisions I often consult with almost all of my ex-bosses and take their feedback.

Future Startup

How do you pull yourself up when you feel down or come across a challenge?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

I think it is in my nature that I usually take challenges sportingly. When I come across a challenge, I don’t usually get depressed. I try to take a moment, get to a distance and evaluate and see the use cases in other industries or other parts of the world.

If I can’t find any use case then I start thinking about my strategy and spend time in designing a response to the challenge instead of getting depressed by it.

Dream big and don’t hesitate to take challenges. Don’t think about whether you would be able to do it or not. I took one of the biggest challenges of my career four years back when I decided to join MasterCard despite the fact that I had very limited knowledge about card business. And successfully running it for the last four years. Taking challenge always helps you to grow and bring new opportunities to your way.

Future Startup

How to be a good negotiator?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

You can’t be a good negotiator in a day. You have to practice. I always tell my colleagues before going to a negotiation to first negotiate with me and win. Sometimes you are naturally a good negotiator and other time you have to experience a good negotiation skill. You can’t be a good negotiator without having experience.

Being said that, negotiation does not mean that you have to win all the time, sometimes you have to be flexible and lose a battle to win the war. Sometimes I don’t say no directly but make sure that you know I’m not positive.

Future Startup

What advice would you give to people who are just starting out?

Syed Mohammad Kamal

You should enjoy your work. If you feel like not going to work in the morning, then you should rethink what you are doing. You are probably in the wrong place. The day you feel that I’m not enjoying my work, leave that job.

Dream big and don’t hesitate to take challenges. Don’t think about whether you would be able to do it or not. I took one of the biggest challenges of my career four years back when I decided to join MasterCard despite the fact that I had very limited knowledge about card business. And successfully running it for the last four years. Taking challenge always helps you to grow and bring new opportunities to your way.

When I joined Western Union from Berger Paints Bangladesh, it was an entirely different ball game. An American Fortune 500 company having a very small footprint in the country, it was like a huge work. Moreover, from FMCG, I joined a financial organization of which I had very little knowledge about. I knew almost nothing about migrant population and money transfer. I had to figure things out from scratch. But I was very excited. That excitement paid off. When I joined the Western Union, we had only three bank partners and when I left after six years we had forty-six partners. We did a lot of things. We made partnerships with banks and other stakeholders, we launched mobile money and many other interesting initiatives.Syed Mohammad Kamal

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Nezam Uddin contributed to this interview. Image by MasterCard

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