Measuring up to Triple-A
Published in Nov-Dec 2022
Expecting a somewhat reticent and perhaps older person to walk into the VIS conference room, I breathe a sigh of relief when a young woman with a warm smile enters. Dressed in a turquoise-green kameez with pink flowers, a white chiffon dupatta and shoulder-length hair half-tied up, she introduces herself as Faryal [Ahmad Faheem, Deputy CEO, VIS] and sits diagonally across from me.
After exchanging pleasantries and receiving our respective chais, she is curious to know why Aurora wants to profile her; she thinks that perhaps talking about herself and a credit rating company may not be of great interest to our readers. After refuting her belief, I ask her to explain what a credit rating company does, in the same way she would to a five-year-old. This is how she explains it.
“One Eid, my two kids collected a lot of eidi, so I asked them to whom they wanted to give the money for safekeeping – me, Baba or Dado – and why. They said, ‘you will use it and we won’t get it back and Baba will forget how much we gave him. But Dado will give it to us when we need it.’ At that point, I told them, you have just rated the three of us and chose Dado based on good reasons. Although we are not that bad, the fact is you don’t trust us.”
And that, simply put, concluded Faheem’s explanation about what credit ratings are. “Essentially, when someone invests in an organisation, what is the probability they will get it back?”
Translate this into her job and it means that firms like VIS rate other companies so that potential investors are aware of where they are putting their money into. As a result, as Deputy CEO, Faheem needs to constantly sharpen her interpersonal communication skills and be as intuitive as possible, because “When you meet a client, you need to evaluate how truthful they are; everyone wants to show their best side and get the highest rating possible.”
She adds that solid negotiation skills are also needed when explaining to a client why a particular credit rating has been given to them. I readily assume she has those skills given her pleasant personality and persuasive charm.
“If someone has built up a company from scratch you cannot tell them, sorry, we are giving you a low rating because you are running the company incorrectly. One has to be tactful, and not give away any methodologies regarding how their competitors are running their business. EQ is as important as IQ in this field.” After pausing to sip some tea, she confesses she often jokingly asks her father why he chose a business where they need to “fight with just about everybody.”
Her father set up VIS in Karachi in the early nineties when she was 10 years old. He initially worked out of a room in their house and collected data on various organisations by accumulating their balance sheets from the stock exchange.
She technically became VIS’ first employee when she was assigned the task of filing the balance sheets in alphabetical order. No surprises, she was that sibling in the family whom everyone thought would join the family business – she is also the eldest of three. She does admit, perhaps with a tinge of regret, that had it not been for credit ratings, she may have been an architect, because “anything related to construction, renovation or design” comes naturally to her.
However, she also clarifies that she was not forced into the family business; it happened automatically. “In families where both parents are doctors, dinner table conversation tends to revolve around medical matters. Our dinner table conversation was all about credit ratings, so I acquired a general appreciation and understanding of the business from a young age.”
Faheem joined VIS after completing her MBA from IBA and then a programme on risk management from Columbia University. However, after six months at VIS, her husband was posted to Turkey for three years (“it was like an extended honeymoon!”). In Turkey, she worked for a local rating agency.
The couple moved back to Pakistan in 2011 and she felt very comfortable in her environment at VIS; it was a space where she could bring her newborn (and later, second child too) to work, especially as she wanted to be a hands-on mom and work.
It was a “stressful and an uphill task,” as she had to juggle handling a baby (“including bringing his carry cot, nappy bag, food, etc.”) and working at the same time. However, she is a firm believer that her children are her primary responsibility so “I would be in my office with my kids crawling around me.” From the way she describes her mom-career journey, I can see she is both strong-willed and determined.
When she became Deputy CEO in 2015, her experiences as a working mom drove her to initiate policies that would make VIS more inclusive for women, including accommodating “any and every requirement from our female employees,” be it a half-day request, wanting to work from home or understanding what a working mom needs.
“Mom-requests can seem mundane (such as ‘my child is unwell I can’t come in’), but it is immensely stressful for a working mom... 50% of VIS’ analytical team consists of young women and moms and they have the flexibility to choose their hours; the work requires quiet time (writing/analysis) and can be done from anywhere.”
As Deputy CEO, one of her responsibilities is to grow the client base, and this involves “a lot of back and forth conversations trying to make businesses understand the importance of a rating (especially as rating agencies are not allowed to do any full-on marketing). She is proud of her success in this endeavour and since 2015, VIS’ client base has gone from 120 clients to 495. The flip side, however, is that the volume of work has increased and this required building efficiencies.
Under her leadership, VIS worked with IT to change company processes. They built and designed new systems specific to the company’s needs, so that now “the entire value chain, from the time a client approaches us to the time we issue the rating has been shortened from six weeks to 10 days.”
For the next five minutes, she expands on the various processes the company has implemented to meet their client’s requirements and I am left with no doubt that she is fully engaged in what she does.
Not surprisingly, her leadership capabilities also find a place at home. As the eldest child on both her mother’s and father’s side of the family, her grandparents and parents rely on her to deal with family matters. She enjoys the responsibilities as they also come “with a lot of leeways.” She will admit that her sons (11 and seven) and husband would describe her as “bossy”; something she completely disavows. She prefers to describe herself as “fun-loving” and always ready to take the initiative in planning family activities.
In this regard, in the last two years, the family have “explored Pakistan” from Karachi to Hunza and even further north. She believes it is important for her children to grow up exploring the country because the ability to “understand what other Pakistanis are like is a mindopening experience at this age.”
So how does Faheem chill? For her it is about keeping to a consistent routine – she is up at six in the morning and in bed by 10.30 at night – and gardening. Here she expresses her enthusiasm when she sees her vegetables and plants grow, although both her husband and mom think it a bit peculiar when they find her talking to her plants and her uncanny ability to know exactly where and when a plant or vegetable will have a growth surge.
Initially cautious at the beginning of our conversation, Faryal Ahmad Faheem has ended up opening up to reveal a young woman who is fully committed to her work and her family.
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