IT WAS IN 2015, WHEN BANKS IN THE RE­GION at­tempted to weather a slow­down in the global econ­omy that Stan­dard Char­tered’s Re­gional Man­age­ment Team for Africa and Mid­dle East led by Su­nil Kaushal de­cided “se­cur­ing the foun­da­tions” was the need of the hour. “There were a lot of ques­tions around our cap­i­tal lev­els and whether our port­fo­lio was of the right qual­ity and ad­e­quately pro­vided. And we needed to ad­dress that,” he says.

As Stan­dard Char­tered con­sol­i­dated its op­er­a­tions across the world to de­liver a cost ef­fi­ciency pro­gram of USD 2.9bn by 2018, Kaushal was pro­moted to the top job in the re­gion in July the same year. A thirty-year vet­eran of the in­dus­try, he is now one of the bank’s four global heads, over­see­ing all of Africa and the Mid­dle East in­clud­ing Pakistan, and re­spon­si­ble for lead­ing a re­mark­able turn­around in the emerg­ing mar­ket lender’s op­er­a­tions in the re­gion.

“When we look back over the last cou­ple years, Stan­dard Char­tered is a very dif­fer­ent bank now in terms of the over­all risk pro­file. The qual­ity of our port­fo­lio, cap­i­tal lev­els and liq­uid­ity are now very strong, and there and there’s a strong foun­da­tion in the con­duct, com­pli­ance and con­trol cul­ture, where pre­vi­ously these ur­gent is­sues were bog­ging down the bank. It’s a big change,” he says. Stan­dard Char­tered’s suc­cess story is ev­i­dent in its fig­ures: The bank posted $3.0bn of profit be­fore tax, a 175 per­cent in­crease from 2016 and re­stored is­su­ing div­i­dends first sus­pended in 2015 when it posted its first an­nual loss in a quar­ter cen­tury. The Africa and Mid­dle East re­gion, of which the UAE is a part, posted prof­its be­fore tax of $642 mil­lion, which rep­re­sent a 49 per­cent jump from the pre­vi­ous year. Since 2015, the year when Kaushal was ap­pointed, Stan­dard Char­tered’s prof­its in the Africa and Mid­dle East re­gion have grown by over 325 per­cent.

The turn­around is the re­sult of a “laser sharp fo­cus on manag­ing the cost base and mak­ing room for in­vest­ments”. Those in­vest­ments have dou­bled since 2014, ac­cord­ing to Kaushal, and have pre­pared the bank to ben­e­fit from en­cour­ag­ing struc­tural growth trends in the re­gion: a grow­ing young pop­u­la­tion, and mas­sive in­fra­struc­ture de­vel­op­ment.

“This is very im­por­tant,” says Kaushal. “When oil was at $110, there was a lot of liq­uid­ity slosh­ing with lo­cal banks which were able to sat­isfy in­vest­ment de­mands in the lo­cal econ­omy. But when oil prices crashed, the de­mand for cap­i­tal con­tin­ued,” he says. Un­able to tap into lo­cal banks, that de­mand looked to the debt-cap­i­tal mar­kets to be sat­is­fied. GCC gov­ern­ments raised $38.9 bil­lion in debt cap­i­tal in 2016; a fig­ure that was sur­passed with $57.4 bil­lion in is­suances in just the first half of 2017.

“It’s an out­ra­geous amount of money. In­stead of hav­ing lo­cal banks go­ing out into the in­ter­na­tional mar­kets to raise funds and fi­nance projects, why not have in­ter­na­tional banks them­selves par­tic­i­pate lo­cally?” he says. Stan­dard Char­tered re­lied on that very phe­nom­e­non in a de­vel­op­ment that has “paid off very well, says Kaushal. “Through cater­ing to sov­er­eign funds, Tier 1 banks and larger cor­po­rates, our share and prof­its among all in­ter­na­tional banks in the re­gion has been one of the high­est.”

The re­gion is go­ing through a struc- tu­ral change, ac­cord­ing to Kaushal. “Gen­er­ally, in the short term, re­forms might slow down ac­tiv­ity. But if you take the longer term, when you’re a bank such as us that has been around for over 150 years, you’ll see that these re­forms are go­ing to make the econ­omy more sus­tain­able. A broader rev­enue base, with fund­ing on com­mer­cial terms in projects that are vi­able and par­tic­i­pa­tion from both gov­ern­ments and the pri­vate sec­tor are all en­cour­ag­ing signs for growth. And you have to see, we’re only just be­gin­ning to scratch the sur­face of pri­vate sec­tor par­tic­i­pa­tion in the econ­omy,” says Kaushal.

Still, Kaushal re­mains mod­est when dis­cussing the bank’s im­proved for­tunes, as­sert­ing that the bank has done well, in­stead of tremen­dously well, and is best poised to do bet­ter. “We are see­ing a re­turn of topline growth. But we’re not look­ing for run­away growth. We have to be re­al­is­tic,” he says. “Banks are a mir­ror im­age of the un­der­ly­ing economies, and the economies are grow­ing just up­wards of one per­cent.”

Kaushal’s at­ti­tude es­pouses be­ing re­verse averse and es­chews brash from brash op­ti­mism, but it also be­lies an en­thu­si­asm for a new dig­i­tal world and fu­ture where in­clu­sive­ness isn’t bi­nary that could al­most see him be­ing de­scribed as a mil­len­nial at heart. That he prefers “ex­pe­ri­ences over shop­ping,” par­el­lels how he has trou­ble hid­ing his en­thu­si­asm when speak­ing about Stan­dard Char­tered’s first fully dig­i­tal bank in Cote D’Ivoire in Africa.

This low-cost project, he says, will soon help Stan­dard Char­ter else­where. “We will be able to roll out across the Mid­dle East and Africa soon,” he says. “It is a very ex­cit­ing propo­si­tion.”

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