Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Published in May-Jun 2019

BCCI: The zenith of financial Zen

A crucible for personal and professional growth and reflection – whether or not you were a banker.

The drive from Nairobi to Mombasa is just under five hours – if the stunning vistas of the undulating tea and coffee plantations on either side of the downhill road don’t slow you down. It was 1976. I was with my father who had recently landed in Kenya to head the operations of the newly-founded Bank of Credit and Commerce International. Better known to the world as BCCI – a brand of astonishing growth and goodwill – marred too quickly and too swiftly by the geo-political tensions of world finance.

In hindsight, the transgressions that were committed by BCCI (which was under liquidation by 1991) are pale in comparison to the larceny of global financial institutions today. Within a decade, it was the seventh largest private bank in the world. But what made the bank great – astonishingly great that is – cannot be underestimated today or ever. Because its greatness was never part of its rocket-propelled growth, nor its unprecedented global presence, nor its odds-defying balance sheet that earned its profit and its reputation as the first bank for the Third World. No. It was something altogether unremarkable.

Its greatness lay in its thinking – in the words and phrases of its founder, Agha Hasan Abedi, who enveloped each and every member of the BCCI family into a striking and vivid philosophy of financial Zen. Any BCCI annual conference (always held in an achingly breathtaking part of the world, from Venice to Seychelles, was never about numbers. It was an audience with its founder, who spoke articulately and somewhat lengthily, about the poetry of finance and the greater purpose of a life in service. Whether that was service to the bank or service to a seamless array of interwoven spiritual and moral ideals remained immaterial. What mattered is that it was these latently explosive kernels of truths – varied and trenchant – that fuelled BCCI and everything within its ambit, with the hypnotic star power that continues to scintillate the imaginations of those individuals who were touched by its brand.

Here is Agha Hasan Abedi speaking about the nature of profit in his essay, Hope Is The Horizon, from an internally-circulated news magazine (circa 1987) that I was lucky to get my hands on after 30 years of first having read it:

“Our aim in BCC is controlled growth in terms of quality profits. To bring that about, we have to know where we stand now (and) where we are going in terms of both the inward and outward journey. That calls for a true sense of history, which is not the same as mere knowledge of the past; rather, it is an awareness of the nature of the process that leads from the beginning to the end of an event.”

He continues:

“History is a continuum and we have to be aware, both as individuals and as members of BCC, that we are products of history. We also have to ask ourselves: Can we make history? Can we become the guardians and custodians of BCC, of what it is and what it might become? And can there be any doubt about the answer to these two questions? Namely, that it should be the history of success. Such success will spring from complete faith and from complete confidence in our relationship with totality.”

When the founder of a bank can dedicate entire newsletters to espousing and amplifying key insights of his financial perspectives (which correlate minimally with an accountant’s expectations), you get a clearer understanding that BCCI was more than a bank. It was a crucible for personal and professional growth and reflection – whether or not you were a banker.


The open plan office arranged employees with imperial significance, such that even a junior officer enjoyed the kind of veneer he would otherwise have earned after working for years in another bank. And even though there was limited retail advertising, it was the BCCI collateral – from newsletters to souvenirs – that smacked of exclusivity, beauty and lasting value. If there were an auction today for BCCI mementoes, they would command rival bids.


And so, this cult-like fascination wasn’t an accident. It was bred – so that there was something enigmatic about a BCCI banker; a quality of class and calibre that effortlessly informed every part of his life. They each knew they were among the chosen ones – made more evident by the long lines behind them of career hungry young men who were just as ambitious to sample the famously-gilded lifestyles that rivalled the best of the best anywhere. That too, wasn’t an accident. It was all part of a strategic brand and identity system, lavishly orchestrated at a time when such terms were seen as occult and lay on the fringes of mainstream advertising. But BCCI inhaled the virtues of world-class branding and in turn, exhaled a financial prototype whose singular experience has yet to be imitated or challenged.

Which brings us back to Mombasa. Because the Nairobi branch was going to be inaugurated sooner rather than later, there was no time to import the special brand of Monaco brown granite that was the signature appeal of all BCCI branches. It was used for the exterior cladding and the internal flooring across the world to give BCCI its legendary, espresso-soaked visual personality. After all, a BCCI branch could be spotted from a mile away.

For instance, most BCCI branches were always at the corner of the world’s greatest junctions, across 78 cities. This kind of placement and visibility was a 24/7 standing advertisement. Add to this, a visual personality that broke away from the standard colour spectrum of commercial reds and blues to a neutrally-toned edifice that was marinated in espresso, ivory, hints of copper and rum-brown tinted glass – punctuated with exotic greenery – on a stretch of Monaco brown granite, both inside and outside the branch.

The open plan office arranged employees with imperial significance, such that even a junior officer enjoyed the kind of veneer he would otherwise have earned after working for years in another bank. And even though there was limited retail advertising, it was the BCCI collateral – from newsletters to souvenirs – that smacked of exclusivity, beauty and lasting value. If there were an auction today for BCCI mementoes, they would command rival bids.

Although Mombasa’s arabesque heritage and white sand beaches are a popular tourist attraction, my father was heading there for business. He had successfully located an Englishman (one of those colonials who continued to make Kenya their home even after its independence) who had made an investment like no other. He said he was able to imitate the look of the granite that needed to be sourced at less than half the price. So my father was going there, along with me, to view the product and place the order. Whether he knew it or not then, I find it remarkable that the country head of a bank would take the time to locate a supplier of innovation, drive hours to his workshop (which he wasn’t allowed to enter), so that the look of his brand is in keeping with the standards set by the bank’s visual custodians. One would be hard-pressed to find a similar example today.

The secret of manufacturing faux-granite has probably died with the old colonial. But the secret to great branding, before it became the global business that it is, was evident earlier than expected in the hallways of BCCI.

It begins with words. It speaks with vision. And it lasts with spirit.

Faraz Maqsood Hamidi is CE & CD, The D’Hamidi Partnership.