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Demystifying Corporate Banking In Bangladesh With Shahbaj Talat, SVP, Corporate & Institutional Banking, Prime Bank

Shahbaj Talat is an SVP and the Team Head of Corporate and Institutional Banking at Prime Bank, one of the leading private commercial banks in Bangladesh. Prior to joining Prime Bank in 2017, Talat held numerous important roles at some of the leading financial companies in the country including IPDC, City Bank, BRAC Bank in various important positions.

In this fascinating interview, we talk about his journey to what he is doing today, his work at Prime Bank, the state and future of corporate banking, how corporate banking works at Prime Bank, Prime’s plan for the division, the challenges for Prime Bank’s corporate banking business, and its ambition going forward, why empowering people is the best form of management, we discuss his management philosophy, why leadership is all about putting people first, and much more. I hope you enjoy the interview as much as we did.

Ruhul Kader

Please tell us about your background, where did you study and when and how did you start your career?

Shahbaj Talat

I came from a humble middle-class background. I was born and bred in Dhaka old town. I started my formal education at a tiny English medium school there called Little Scholar's Tutorial. I studied there till class 7.

I got into Wari High School where I studied till SSC and afterward got enrolled at Dhaka College. While studying at Dhaka College, I developed a deep curiosity and fascination for DU and decided I have to study at DU. After HSC I had only one mission and that was mission Dhaka University. It helped. I got into the Department of Finance at Dhaka University and completed my Bachelor's degree (BBA) from there.

Initially, I struggled to cope with my studies. I did not take the study seriously and was enjoying my new found freedom to the fullest. Consequently, my results suffered. One of my friends, who later on became my life partner, came to my rescue and inspired me to take life seriously. It was her encouragement, guidance, and support that led me to focus on my studies. I did excellent results later on.

After graduation, I decided not to pursue an MBA rather join the corporate world. We had to do an internship as part of our curriculum, I joined HSBC bank for my internship but I left it after a few days because I did not find the role interesting as it was more of a clerical job. Fortunately, I got another opportunity at IPDC Bangladesh Ltd which was a specialized institute dealing with large-scale infrastructure funding and project financing at that time. I started my career there and learned a lot about corporate and project financing. I had some great mentors and teammates there who helped me tremendously and gave me relentless support during that early phase of my career.

After working full time for two years at IPDC I learned about project funding and large-scale financing but I was lacking in terms of trade finance which IPDC was not doing being an NBFI. By that time, I grew a passion for finance and related profession and wanted to learn more and eventually build a career in the industry in the long run. I decided to learn more about trade finance and started to explore opportunities, mostly in banks because the corporate banking space seemed fascinating to me.

After a while, I got an opportunity at City Bank. At that time, City Bank was transforming from a branch based banking to a centralized banking system. I thought that joining there would allow me to learn about this process as well. It was a great decision. I was at City Bank for two and a half years and the learning experience moved me five years ahead. I had the opportunity to get exposed to so much in those two years that it helped me to develop a deeper understanding of a lot of critical aspects of banking as well as develop my leadership capacity.

After two and a half years, I got an offer from BRAC Bank, which was an emerging bank at that time and the role they offered was quite attractive. I was asked to become the Unit Head for Corporate Banking. Once again, taking this opportunity at BRAC Bank was another fruitful decision which I continued for almost seven and a half years.

In 2017, I joined Prime Bank and have been working here till now. That’s my journey so far.

I lead a 10 member team including Senior Relationship Manager, Relationship Manager, Assistant Relationship Manager. My role in the team is more of a mentor. I guide the team, help them plan and design the strategy, and eventually achieve the goals.

Ruhul

Could you please tell us about your work at Prime Bank as a Senior Vice President and the Team Head of Corporate and Institutional Banking?

Shahbaj Talat

My formal designation is Senior Vice President & Team Head which requires supervising a team under corporate and institutional banking. At Prime Bank, we segment our clients into a few categories. Corporate & Institutional Banking deals with clients who have an annual turnover of $100 million and above.

We have clients from almost all the sectors, manufacturing to service to the telco, infrastructure, government bodies, financial sectors and so on. When we serve a corporate client under the corporate banking, we cater to all their banking and financial services need. We cater to their lending requirement, provide cash management solution, facilitate trade finance, employee payroll service, custodian service and so on. These clients also require a lot of bank guarantee facilities and we provide that as well. Any kind of banking solution they require, my team ensures that they get it.

I lead a 10 member team including Senior Relationship Manager, Relationship Manager, Assistant Relationship Manager. My role in the team is more of a mentor. I guide the team, help them plan and design the strategy, and eventually achieve the goals.

Ruhul

How do you approach your work? Different people approach their work differently, some prefer control, others like to empower their team and let them do the work and play the role of a facilitator instead? What is your style?

Shahbaj Talat

First thing I do is I learn about the individuals and their capacity. Since I manage a small team of ten people, I learn who is capable of what and then I empower them accordingly.

I'm not the kind of person who muddles in every aspect of my team’s work. I delegate assignments and give them due authority. However, I try to ensure routine follow-up and updates so that I get to know who is doing what, how we are doing in terms of achieving our goals and so on. I intervene when I see that my people are getting distracted or struggling. I help them to be on the right track.

Ruhul

Business-wise, how big is your corporate and institutional banking business?

Shahbaj Talat

From Prime Bank perspective, it is around 60% of our total portfolio. The entire corporate and institutional banking business is looked after by 4 team heads and I'm one of them. You may say I look after 30% of the corporate and institutional banking business at Prime Bank.

Ruhul

How has been the growth?

Shahbaj Talat

We work hard to ensure the best possible service to our existing clients and grow our business with them. Maintaining our business with existing clients and growing with them has been a major strategic priority for us.

We also focus on booking new relationships with Top Tier Corporates of the country. There are new entrepreneurs and businesses coming up all the time. We always keep a tab on companies that are graduating from small corporates to big corporates and when we feel like we need to onboard someone we do that.

First thing I do is I learn about the individuals and their capacity. Since I manage a small team of ten people, I learn who is capable of what and then I empower them accordingly. I'm not the kind of person who muddles in every aspect of my team’s work. I delegate assignments and give them due authority. However, I try to ensure routine follow-up and updates so that I get to know who is doing what, how we are doing in terms of achieving our goals and so on.

Ruhul

If you take corporate and institutional banking separately, how big is the market? And how do you see the market grow in the coming years?

Shahbaj Talat

Corporate banking business differs from other banking services. Since we work with big corporates, they want dedicated and prompt services. They also want advisory and innovative banking solutions, which we try to cater from corporate banking platform.

At the core of corporate banking is the idea that clients get utmost priority and attention. Corporate banking clients get dedicated relationship managers who are available to support them on a 24/7/365 basis. It is a one-stop solution platform for corporate clients where they can get any banking solution they may need starting from their core business need, credit card for their personal needs to utility bill payment to anything. A corporate client just knocks the relationship manager when they need something and it is done. This is from the service point.

From the risk point of view, since a relationship manager work closely with the client, banks can get a better understanding of the state and health of the business of the client and take measures accordingly. From the efficiency perspective, it makes sense from how it operates and the return it generates for banks compared to branch based loan manager-driven business model.

If you look at the business scenario in Bangladesh, a lot of exciting things are happening. New businesses are entering the market every day. It means the opportunity to serve these businesses with banking solutions are endless.

Right now Brac Bank, Eastern Bank, City Bank, Prime Bank, and Mutual Trust Bank, among the local banks are doing direct corporate banking. But an increasing number of banks are eyeing the segment because the opportunity is pretty big and the business has huge potential here.

Ruhul

How is the competition in the space and how do you deal with competition from Prime Bank?

Shahbaj Talat

Banking is a competitive space now. We all are after the good clients and the list of these good clients is short. Each player has their own strength and strategy.

Prime Bank has a robust distribution network. Our trade finance and trade solution is very strong. We have an extremely good team of relationship managers. They have excellent market knowledge which helps us to stay ahead of the competition. We just don't lend our clients, we work hard to give our clients an optimal solution and help them grow their business.

Ruhul

How do your marketing and communication work for corporate banking? How do you reach out to your customers?

Shahbaj Talat

This is a relationship-driven business. Relationship managers cultivate these relationships for months. For instance, from the beginning of my career, I have worked hard to build relationships with existing and potential clients. So we invest in building the relationship through various means. You have to keep your eyes and ears open and see who are the potential clients and work to build the relationship with the decision-makers in those places.

At the core of corporate banking is the idea that clients get utmost priority and attention. Corporate banking clients get dedicated relationship managers who are available to support them on a 24/7/365 basis. It is a one-stop solution platform for corporate clients where they can get any banking solution they may need starting from their core business need, credit card for their personal need to utility bill payment to anything.

Ruhul

How do you build these relationships?

Shahbaj Talat

To answer the question I have to go a little back to my university life. At University, we had to do a final term paper and presentation at end of each semester involving visiting corporates, collecting information and presenting the findings in the presentation. Each time I would take the easy part, visiting the corporate while my other group mates would consider it the toughest. In one such visit, I met one of our seniors working for a prominent company at that time.

During the meeting, he gave me a piece of life-changing advice. He told me that the real purpose of this assignment is not what you are doing, it is rather an opportunity to build connection and meet with people who are already in the job market and who could guide you and help you later. If you could use this opportunity and build some relationship, it would help you to get the right job and find a good mentor. That advice changed my life.

From there onwards I never waited for any project or assignment, I would regularly go and meet our seniors working in different companies. By the time I graduated, I already had a good network. Linkedin was not a popular platform back then but I managed to build an offline Linkedin for myself. I learned this relationship building things from there and never stopped taking that initiative.

After that, I joined IPDC and I use to meet people and clients who were not essentially from my department or my clients. This is how I kept on interacting with people throughout my career. So there is no formula that you can use. You meet people, stay in touch and invest in these relationships.

That's what I tell every new joinee in my team that building a lasting connection with people and prospective customers is the biggest business development job you can do any day. That's how we basically build the relationship with our customers.

Ruhul

What does yours to do list look like on a daily basis?

Shahbaj Talat

The list is pretty long. I usually start my day with a half an hour meeting with my team to understand their plan, goals, problems, strategy, targets, and so on. Then I try to make a few calls to my clients to understand whether they have any issue or need my help. I try to visit one or two clients every day. At the end of the day, I run a review of the day and reflect on what could have been better.

Apart from my daily responsibilities, I sit in a couple of committees in the company, which also takes up some of my time.

Ruhul

What are the challenges for Prime's Corporate and Institutional Banking business?

Shahbaj Talat

In order to serve our corporate clients well, we have done a lot. We have changed many things within the bank and we have remodeled our operating system. These changes have enabled us to serve our clients better and our clients are happy with our services. But we understand that there is always room to do even more. There are more to do in terms of service innovation and process and we are working on those areas.

Keeping up with the changes and coming up with new products and services - these are some of the key challenges. That being said, there will always be challenges. The entire point of business is solving these challenges continuously.

I tell every new joinee in my team that building a lasting connection with people and prospective customers is the biggest business development job you can do any day. That's how we basically build the relationship with our customers.

Ruhul

NPL is an issue for the overall banking industry, is it an issue for corporate banking as well?

Shahbaj Talat

NPL is a challenge for everyone and every segment. It is a challenge for us as well. But we have taken some very prudent measures. We don't believe in name lending. Before working with a client, we see their business fundamentals, cash flow, and other important aspects.

At the same time, we don't work in the silos anymore. We stay beside our clients so that we could get a better understanding of their business and take measures accordingly. We help our clients to do better. This is how we are trying to keep our overall book quality better. I would say we are one of the best in the industry in terms of NPL.

Whatever work you are doing, stick to it, do it with patience and integrity. Everything takes time. There will always be challenges and difficulties but if you remain committed to your work, you are likely to reach your destination.

Ruhul

What are the goals for corporate and institutional banking for 2019?

Shahbaj Talat

We want to have the best quality portfolio in corporate banking. The second goal would be to provide the best possible solution for our clients where we could give them end to end solutions. If we could provide a combination of all the banking solutions from the corporate banking platform that would be wonderful.

That's the goal for the next couple of years.

A lot of big infrastructure projects are going on these days. To minimize the financing risk of these projects we are doing a lot of structured finance and syndication deals where instead of taking the entire risk ourselves we are sharing it with other banks and financing partners which allows risk to be shared and we also get the expertise of other partners.

This is one area where Prime Bank is playing an important role. We are also putting a lot of importance on human resource, particularly the technology side of it so that we could meet the challenges of the coming years.

Ruhul

What are the some of the lessons you have learned?

Shahbaj Talat

Whatever work you are doing, stick to it, do it with patience and integrity. Everything takes time. There will always be challenges and difficulties but if you remain committed to your work, you are likely to reach your destination.

Have a plan. The peril of not having a plan is that you are likely to sleepwalk. If you don't know what you are targeting, you will be doing guesswork on a journey to nowhere.

Invest in yourself. Become the person who would attract the success that you want to achieve.

Networking is a critical aspect for your success. People bring in all the connections in our life. Find people, meet people and build lasting connections with the ones you like.

Be determined and start with a target/ long-term goal in your mind. If you don’t know what you want to achieve it is always a difficult journey.

Ruhul

3 advise you would like to give to your younger self?

Shahbaj Talat

While at university, study hard because the world is not what you think and if you study it does come to use in many ways. Knowledge is the backbone of any human being. Build your foundation when you have the chance as you may not get this chance again and again, the university is the best place to build your knowledge base. So spend your time wisely.

Theory is important. Over the many years of education, an individual develops critical thinking, literacy in various field. But Theory is not enough. The future will thrive on the youth leadership. Get ready for it.

Learning is an ongoing process in life and it extends way beyond the classroom. True leaders never stop learning. So make learning a habit.

Ruhul

What do you think about life?

Shahbaj Talat

Life is a gift from the Almighty. We should be humble and grateful and work for ourselves, our families and society and the overall betterment of humanity.

We want to have the best quality portfolio in the corporate banking. The second goal would be to provide the best possible solution for our clients where we could give them end to end solutions. If we could provide a combination of all the banking solutions from the corporate banking platform that would be wonderful.

Ruhul Kader is a technology and business analyst based in Dhaka, Bangladesh. He is also the co-founder and CEO of Future Startup and author of Rethinking Failure: A short guide to living an entrepreneurial life. He writes about internet business, strategy, technology, technology policy, and society. He can be reached at [email protected]

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