Prime Bank MD and CEO Rahel Ahmed On His Job, Banking Industry, Prime Bank’s Fintech Plans, Management and Life’s Lessons

Prime Bank MD and CEO Rahel Ahmed On His Job, Banking Industry, Prime Bank’s Fintech Plans, Management and Life’s Lessons

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Rahel Ahmed is the Managing Director of Prime Bank. Mr. Ahmed, in his 40s, is currently the youngest CEO in Dhaka’s Banking industry. Prior to joining Prime Bank, he worked at ANZ Grindlays Bank, Standard Chartered Bank, Emirates NBD Banking Group and First Gulf Bank in various senior roles. He joined Prime Banj in early 2015 as DMD and played an important role in leading the ‘Business Model Restructuring and Centralization’ initiative for Prime Bank.

In this insightful interview, Mr. Ahmed talks about his work at Prime Bank as the CEO, how he approaches his work and his style, and how he is working on a cultural and strategic shift at the Bank, the current state of banking industry in Bangladesh and how Prime Bank deals with growing competition in the market, the future of Banking in the age of digital and how Prime Bank is investing in technology to meet the demand of a changing market and Prime Bank’s fintech strategy, reflects on his management philosophy, lessons he has learned so far, and the importance of consistency in everything we do.

Future Startup

Could you please tell us about your work as the Managing Director and CEO of the Prime Bank? How do you approach your job?

Rahel Ahmed

Prime Bank has been in operation for almost three decades. Its top positions are filled by mostly senior bankers. You may know that I am currently the youngest CEO in the banking industry which is both a challenge and an opportunity. Culturally, we are not yet there where you would see past the age of a person and emphasize on her/his qualities only and accept a relatively young person as boss. My relatively young age was a challenge at first. There are senior people in the organization who now report to me, which was a challenge initially, and I had to break free of that. So far, I have been able to overcome the stigma and manage to validate my position.

Working closely in the business restructuring of Prime Bank in the past three years, a project which I led, has given me a clear understanding of all aspects of our bank – strengths, weaknesses, gaps, and everything. At the same time, as I mentioned, we are, the whole financial industry is going through a major shift globally as well as locally. There is a timeline. Digital movement has started a couple of years ago and we are seeing the early sign of it taking over in this part of the world. We are just a little bit behind the global march. This timeline is shortening day by day. The faster we catch up, the more successful we will be.

For me, the first priority is a shift in the strategy of the bank. Prime Bank has largely been a corporate banking-driven company in the past. Soon after I started working, we realized that we need to change our strategy and focus on retail and SME.

We have a distribution setup of 146 branches, we should leverage that. And we realized that the economy of Bangladesh is growing fast and we have a rapidly expanding middle class. You see the change in lifestyle everywhere – coffee shops, burger joints and what not. Ten years ago this was not even thought of and today it has become a norm.

Look at people sitting here, sipping coffee and spending a thousand bucks every sitting. This was not there. This tells us about the changing spending pattern of people. This is where big opportunities lie. This where retail comes in. And this is where digitization comes in. People are not carrying cash, people are carrying plastics. Tomorrow they will not be carrying plastics. They will be carrying smartphone and devices and make payment out of their devices. We are shifting our strategy towards retail and SME and towards the digitization.

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In the early days of my career, I used to be a micromanager. But since then I have tried to break out of that habit and learned to give freedom to those who work with me. Now, I focus on a number of key activities and delegate the rest. When you are in an important leadership position, you can’t essentially micromanage. Now, my style is empowering people, allowing them enough freedom and space to take initiatives and make decisions

Future Startup

There are 57 scheduled banks, 4 non-scheduled banks, and 31 FIs. Competition in the industry is intensifying. How do you think about the competition? And what’s your strategy to deal with the growing competition?

Rahel Ahmed

Given the size of our economy, it’s commonly held that Bangladesh doesn’t need this many banks. This is unfortunate that we have these many banks in the country which also one of the reasons behind all the challenges that the industry is going through.

I would answer the question a bit differently. I foresee that the banking industry is heading toward a major shake-up in the near future. When I say major shake-up, I mean that mergers among banks are inevitable. It is inevitable. What happened in Malaysia or in many other parts of the world is going to happen in Bangladesh as well. This can’t go on forever. You can slice a medium-size bread into, say, 5 pieces; but you can’t do 60. That’s exactly how the banking industry is treading currently. Consolidation is likely to happen going forward.

With the number of players in the market, competition has intensified over the past few years. For Prime Bank, we have been around very strongly for the last 23 years. We have been able to build a reputation in the corporate sector. We believe that we can gain a strong foothold in the SME and retail market as well where we are investing now. We have been a customer-focused organization and we will continue to play with our strength – offering great products and brilliant services to our customers.

Going forward technology is going to play a strong role in how banking service is being delivered. We are and will work hard to stay ahead in terms of technology going forward. We are zeroing in on innovation. We have a digital banking team within the bank who are constantly looking for ways to innovate in order to improve our service and making our customers happy. We are restructuring many of our business processes, we are revamping our IT infrastructure and we will continue to do more to address the changes in the market.

Future Startup

You mentioned about technology and digitization being one of your priorities, in a more granular level, what are a few things you are doing in terms of digitization at PBL?

Rahel Ahmed

As I told you earlier, we are looking into each and every aspect of the bank where we can introduce automation and digitization and improve productivity, customers experience and so on.

Our goal is to make every touch point simple and convenient for our customers. Be it a retail customer, SME or corporate client, we want to make lives of customers easier and digital has a role to play in doing so. As we move forward, you will see more activities from us in this space.

For me, the first priority is a shift in the strategy of the bank. Prime Bank has largely been a corporate banking-driven company in the past. Soon after I started working, we realized that we need to change our strategy and focus on retail and SME.

Rahel Ahmed

Rahel Ahmed

Future Startup

How do you see finTech developments in the country? We have a couple of early signs i.e. companies like bKash are taking over the MFS and other smaller areas of the financial industry. Broadly speaking, your business has two parts – one is backend and other is the distribution which you do through branches and other distribution channels. Now bKash and other fin-tech products are offering that a user can conduct their transaction using their phone which means eventually when these services reach to a point where they can provide extended banking support, particularly on the distribution end, people would not see a need for going to a branch for doing banking. How do you see these developments?

Rahel Ahmed

The discussion about the future of banks has been going on for a while. It continues to draw a lot of attention globally. In fact, there is truth to it. But I don’t buy the idea that bank will cease to exist at some point. Banking as a service has to evolve. There is no doubt about it. That is the case for almost every business. You either evolve or disappear. Similarly, banking has to evolve and respond to the changes in the market, but that does not mean that banks are counting their last days.

As a business, we have a lot of advantages. We have customers. Customers trust us. We have distribution channels and so on. One thing I do agree that banks have to invest in technology. In fact, we are best positioned to take advantage of fintech. We can collaborate with fintech companies. We already have started investing in fintech ourselves and we will do more as we go. If we get that right, I think banking is only going to get better in the coming days.

Future Startup

What’s your management philosophy?

Rahel Ahmed

In the early days of my career, I used to be a micromanager. But since then I have tried to break out of that habit and learned to give freedom to those who work with me. Now, I focus on a number of key activities and delegate the rest. When you are in an important leadership position, you can’t essentially micromanage.

My style is empowering people, allowing them enough freedom and space to take initiatives and make decisions. When you bring people up and give them responsibility with authority, they, in most cases, deliver.

Future Startup

Three advice you would give to your 20-year old self.

Rahel Ahmed

As I mentioned earlier, invest in building meaningful connections with people, as many people as possible. I learned the importance of having a network early in my career and have always invested in every opportunity to make a new connection.

Never give up. There will be tough times, relentless challenges and obstacles but be steadfast towards your goal and keep adding a small progress every day.

There is no alternative to consistent hard work. Whatever it is that you are trying to achieve, keep at it for a long time. Day in, day out. Success is the result of boring hard work for a sustained period of time. Remember, often things get better after the most difficult times.

As a business, we have a lot of advantages. We have customers. Customers trust us. We have distribution channels and so on. One thing I do agree that banks have to invest in technology. In fact, we are best positioned to take advantage of fintech. We can collaborate with fintech companies. We already have started investing in fintech ourselves and we will do more as we go. If we get that right, I think banking is only going to get better in the coming days.

Future Startup

What do you think about life?

Rahel Ahmed

Life is short which means we should try to make the best use of our time here. If you are a believer, this is a gift from the almighty and an opportunity to prove our worth. Since our time is finite, we should make every moment count by doing the right thing, and contributing to making things better.

We should be meticulous about what we pursue in life. Although it sounds very regular, aspiring to be a good human being is an extremely useful ambition. Pursue goodness. At the end of the day, we get what we give. Our action generates the hell and heaven for us, both in this life and the life hereafter.

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There is no alternative to consistent hard work. Whatever it is that you are trying to achieve, keep at it for a long time. Day in, day out. Success is the result of boring hard work for a sustained period of time. Remember, often things get better after the most difficult times.

Interview by Ruhul Kader, Transcription by Rahatil Ashekan

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