Chal­lenger

AS CEO OF BANK AL ETI­HAD, NA­DIA AL SAEED HAS CHARTED AN AM­BI­TIOUS COURSE FOR THE JOR­DA­NIAN LENDER BY PUSH­ING IT IN NEW DI­REC­TIONS AS IT LOOKS TO CHAL­LENGE BIG­GER RI­VALS.

Forbes Middle East - - CONTENTS - BY SA­MUEL WEN­DEL

As CEO of Bank al Eti­had, Na­dia Al Saeed has charted an am­bi­tious course for the Jor­da­nian lender by push­ing it in new di­rec­tions as it looks to chal­lenge big­ger ri­vals.

These days, if you walk into one of Bank al Eti­had's branches in Jor­dan, you may find it half as busy as it used to be—but that's not be­cause the Am­man-head­quar­tered lender is los­ing cus­tomers. “Since we launched our mo­bile app, the foot­fall in our branches went down by around 50%,” says Na­dia Al Saeed, the bank's long-time CEO.

Many cus­tomers are in­stead bank­ing on­line, from manag­ing credit cards and pay­ing bills to set­ting up new ac­counts, all with­out step­ping foot in a branch lo­ca­tion. The lender—the fourth largest in Jor­dan by to­tal as­sets—has in­vested heav­ily in dig­i­tal bank­ing op­er­a­tions in the last two years. That in­cludes launch­ing a new app a year ago, which 85% of the bank's clients now use on a daily ba­sis. It's all part of Al Saeed's goal of es­tab­lish­ing Bank al Eti­had as Jor­dan's top dig­i­tal bank in the com­ing years.

The fo­cus on dig­i­tal bank­ing is the lat­est ex­am­ple of how Al Saeed is chart­ing an am­bi­tious course for Bank al Eti­had, push­ing the lender in new di­rec­tions as it looks to gain ground in Jor­dan's fi­nan­cial in­dus­try. So far, the moves have helped Bank al Eti­had grow in Jor­dan's crowded fi­nan­cial sec­tor and chal­leng­ing eco­nomic cli­mate. As­sets have grown by more than four times on a con­sol­i­dated ba­sis un­der Al Saeed, and it's mak­ing progress in mar­ket share. Bank al Eti­had has yet to re­port 2019 re­sults, but net prof­its in 2018 rose to $58 mil­lion, up 18% from a year prior. Mean­while, its mar­ket share in to­tal cus­tomer de­posits in Jor­dan reached 8.8% af­ter en­joy­ing a 12.6% an­nual growth rate in de­posits over the five years prior. “In terms of out­comes, we've grown in a big way,” says Al Saeed.

Since tak­ing over as CEO in 2008, Al Saeed has worked ag­gres­sively to di­ver­sify the lender, shift­ing fo­cus away from its roots as a small cor­po­rate bank founded in 1978. Cor­po­rate clients are still an im­por­tant part of its busi­ness, but Bank al Eti­had has also now es­tab­lished a pres­ence in re­tail bank­ing, with 49 branches and 119 ATMs across Jor­dan, while broad­en­ing its fo­cus to serve as an im­por­tant part­ner for small and medium-sized en­ter­prises (SMEs) and en­trepreneur­s. Al Saeed has also fo­cused on cater­ing to fe­male cus­tomers, an un­der­served mar­ket in Jor­dan, with women now rep­re­sent­ing 36% of Bank al Eti­had's clients.

“They're re­ally look­ing very holis­ti­cally at prod­uct de­vel­op­ment, which is very much in line with what we want to achieve as a de­vel­op­ment bank,” says Heike Harmgart, manag­ing di­rec­tor for the Euro­pean Bank for Re­con­struc­tion and De­vel­op­ment [EBRD] in the south­ern and east­ern Mediter­ranean re­gion. The EBRD has worked closely with Bank al Eti­had for years, in­clud­ing ex­tend­ing a $30 mil­lion sub­or­di­nated loan in 2019 to help with its growth plans and lend­ing ca­pac­ity, with a fo­cus on in­creas­ing fi­nance to smaller busi­nesses.

An­other key move by Bank al Eti­had came in 2017, when it fi­nal­ized the ac­qui­si­tion of a con­trol­ling stake in the Jor­dan Dubai Is­lamic Bank, which has since re­branded to Safwa Is­lamic Bank. It was a nat­u­ral move for Bank al Eti­had as it looks to ex­pand its foot­print, es­pe­cially since ge­o­graphic ex­pan­sion isn't easy due to in­sta­bil­ity in nearby mar­kets. “We knew that this was a good op­por­tu­nity,” says Al Saeed, who comes in at num­ber 50 on Forbes Mid­dle East's Power Busi­ness­women rank­ing.

Yet, Bank al Eti­had is still small com­pared to Jor­dan's two big­gest bank­ing play­ers, Arab Bank and the Hous­ing Bank. And there's plenty of com­pe­ti­tion in gen­eral, with more than two dozen banks work­ing to serve Jor­dan's pop­u­la­tion of roughly 9.7 mil­lion. “Jor­dan is re­ally over­banked for its pop­u­la­tion and for its eco­nomic ca­pa­bil­i­ties,” says Al Saeed.

Against that back­drop, the de­vel­op­ment of dig­i­tal ca­pa­bil­i­ties is now at the core of what Bank al Eti­had is do­ing, says Al Saeed. This, the think­ing goes, will al­low them to scale and chal­lenge ri­vals in a way that was im­pos­si­ble be­fore. Pre­vi­ously, banks had to fo­cus on branch ex­pan­sion to com­pete with big­ger play­ers, she says, but that's chang­ing as new tech­nolo­gies in­flu­ence cus­tomer ex­pec­ta­tions and create new ways to grow.

There's ev­i­dence to sup­port Al Saeed's ap­proach. Ex­act num­bers are not cur­rently avail­able, but Bank al Eti­had's app has at least 100,000 down­loads on An­droid alone—the same as Arab Bank and Hous­ing Bank—while the rest of its lo­cal ri­vals fall be­low that thresh­old, ac­cord­ing to statis­tics from the Google Play Store.

Bank al Eti­had's dig­i­tal bank­ing push is a work in progress, but Al Saeed is keen to por­tray the lender as a dis­rupter. She re­peat­edly refers to Bank al Eti­had as a “chal­lenger bank,” ref­er­enc­ing a fi­nan­cial in­dus­try buzz­word that de­scribes the wave of in­no­va­tive startup banks tak­ing on long-es­tab­lished lenders. “I think since the be­gin­ning we've been a chal­lenger bank,” says Al Saeed.

She has plenty of ex­pe­ri­ence to draw on. Al Saeed has now led Bank al Eti­had for more than a quar­ter of its ex­is­tence, firmly en­trench­ing her­self as a key player in Jor­dan's fi­nan­cial in­dus­try. But long be­fore be­com­ing

“I think since the be­gin­ning we’ve been a chal­lenger bank.”

CEO, she had al­ready es­tab­lished an im­pres­sive re­sume.

Al Saeed ac­tu­ally be­gan her ca­reer at Bank al Eti­had—then known as Union Bank—start­ing out as a re­la­tion­ship man­ager back when it was fo­cused on cor­po­rate bank­ing. Although born in Kuwait in 1965, she had grown up in Am­man and stud­ied eco­nom­ics and busi­ness ad­min­is­tra­tion at the Univer­sity of Jor­dan (later re­ceiv­ing an MBA from the Amer­i­can Univer­sity of Cairo in 1992).

While join­ing the bank, Al Saeed was still con­sid­er­ing other ca­reer paths; she si­mul­ta­ne­ously worked, briefly, for a startup in­cu­ba­tor. But still, she grad­u­ally worked her way up the ranks at Union Bank, even­tu­ally be­com­ing head of cor­po­rate bank­ing.

Then, her ca­reer took a turn. Al Saeed made the jump to the pub­lic sec­tor, serv­ing as sec­re­tary gen­eral for Jor­dan's Min­istry of In­for­ma­tion and Com­mu­ni­ca­tions Tech­nol­ogy. She made an im­pres­sion, lead­ing to her own ap­point­ment as ICT min­is­ter in 2004. Al Saeed looks back on her time in gov­ern­ment as a valu­able ex­pe­ri­ence. “It al­lowed me to see things from both sides,” she says. “It al­lowed me to see the big­ger pic­ture.”

Al Saeed served as ICT min­is­ter un­til 2006, af­ter which she be­came di­rec­tor of the Dead Sea In­sti­tute, a de­vel­op­ment think tank. She then re­turned to Bank al Eti­had as a strat­egy ad­vi­sor, work­ing with the global con­sult­ing firm McKin­sey for one year to de­velop a new growth strat­egy for the bank. A year later—and on the eve of the global fi­nan­cial cri­sis—she be­came its CEO.

As the newly minted CEO, she was im­me­di­ately tasked with lead­ing an ex­pan­sion into re­tail bank­ing. Cor­po­rate bank­ing on its own of­fered lim­ited growth prospects, with rel­a­tively few big cor­po­ra­tions in Jor­dan. Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Al Saeed over­saw the re­brand to Bank al Eti­had, rolling out the new name, slo­gan and cor­po­rate im­age in 2011.

Along with the re­tail push, the bank eyed un­der­served seg­ments in the Jor­da­nian mar­ket, where Al Saeed saw an op­por­tu­nity to de­velop fi­nan­cial prod­ucts and ser­vices aimed at women. Although Jor­dan has a highly-ed­u­cated fe­male pop­u­la­tion, the eco­nomic con­tri­bu­tion of women in the coun­try is low. “That in it­self is a great op­por­tu­nity,” says Al Saeed. Ac­cess to fi­nan­cial ser­vices is a prob­lem in gen­eral; only 27% of women in Jor­dan have ac­cess to a bank ac­count, com­pared to 53% of men, ac­cord­ing to a USAID re­port.

As a re­sult, in 2014 Bank al Eti­had launched Shorouq, a first of its kind fi­nan­cial in­clu­sion pro­gram of­fer­ing spe­cial­ized prod­ucts and ser­vices for women. It in­cludes ev­ery­thing from sav­ings ac­counts and startup loans to net­work­ing events aimed at women. “We are the go-to bank in terms of women bank­ing,” says Al Saeed.

Si­mul­ta­ne­ously, Al Saeed has led an ef­fort to work with lo­cal SMEs and en­trepreneur­s. These firms strug­gle to ac­cess fi­nance, de­spite ac­count­ing for 95% of ac­tive busi­nesses in Jor­dan and pro­vid­ing 70% of pri­vate sec­tor em­ploy­ment, ac­cord­ing to the EBRD. The Lon­don-based in­sti­tu­tion has been a key part­ner here, in­clud­ing pro­vid­ing a $20 mil­lion credit line to Bank al Eti­had in 2015 in­tended for lend­ing to mi­cro, small and medium-sized en­ter­prises. Bank al Eti­had has also launched a pro­gram to co-in­vest in en­trepreneur­s by part­ner­ing with the In­no­va­tive Star­tups and SMEs Fund, tar­get­ing in­vest­ments av­er­ag­ing be­tween $100,000 to $500,000.

The CEO has worked to di­ver­sify her team, put­ting an em­pha­sis on hir­ing fe­male em­ploy­ees. To­day, 45% of her em­ploy­ees are women, in­clud­ing her top deputy. “I think that the cul­ture of the bank, it has al­ways been 100% merit-based and trans­par­ent and one that of­fers equal op­por­tu­nity to ev­ery­one,” says Al Saeed.

Mean­while, as new tech­nolo­gies be­gan to in­flu­ence the bank­ing in­dus­try glob­ally, Al Saeed took note. “Banks need to un­der­stand that they have new com­pe­ti­tion,” says Al Saeed, point­ing to how big global tech­nol­ogy firms and tele­coms are en­croach­ing on the fi­nan­cial in­dus­try.

On her watch, Bank al Eti­had has been proac­tive in em­brac­ing in­no­va­tions in Jor­dan. In 2015, it took part in a $5 mil­lion fund­ing round into the Jor­da­nian fi­nan­cial tech­nol­ogy startup Mad­fooatCom, along with Cairo Am­man Bank and the Cap­i­tal Bank of Jor­dan. Mad­fooatCom op­er­ates an on­line billing plat­form, which plays an im­por­tant role in fa­cil­i­tat­ing elec­tronic bill pay­ments in Jor­dan.

The same year, Bank al Eti­had in­vested in Li­wwa, a Jor­da­nian peer-to-peer lend­ing plat­form, in a fund­ing round along­side re­gional ven­ture cap­i­tal­ists. Ahmed Moor, Li­wwa's CEO, says as a share­holder Bank al Eti­had has gone out of its way to sup­port his busi­ness, which he co-founded in 2013. “Na­dia's lead­er­ship comes through at all lev­els,” says Moor. “Their open­ness to new ideas, the speed at which they move, it's re­ally been a re­ward­ing ex­pe­ri­ence for the past few years.”

Bank al Eti­had also brought in Amer Abu­laila, a co-founder of the Jor­da­nian e-com­merce firm MarkaVIP, as its Chief Tech­nol­ogy Of­fi­cer in 2016 (many of the bank's Jor­da­nian com­peti­tors don't even list a CTO po­si­tion on their cor­po­rate web­sites). Still, the bank's ri­vals aren't ig­nor­ing dig­i­tal bank­ing and new tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ments. Case in point, in 2018 Arab Bank cre­ated a startup ac­cel­er­a­tor fo­cused on fi­nan­cial tech­nol­ogy de­vel­op­ment.

It won't be easy, but Al Saeed is bank­ing on her team de­vel­op­ing dig­i­tal ca­pa­bil­i­ties that can serve as a launch­pad for suc­cess­ful new prod­ucts and im­proved cus­tomer ser­vice—and in the process, hope­fully, give Bank al Eti­had an edge. The app is just the be­gin­ning, says Al Saeed. “The way you grow, the way you scale, is to­tally dif­fer­ent than be­fore.”

Na­dia Al Saeed, CEO of Bank al Eti­had

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