Aurora Magazine

Promoting excellence in advertising

Lessons in Leadership

Published in May-Jun 2023

Leon Menezes reviews A Bank is Born by Nadeem Hussain
Photo: Tahir Jamal/White Star
Photo: Tahir Jamal/White Star

Pakistan has been a fertile ground for breeding top-flight banking professionals for a long time. Most of them had their start in the various multinational banks the country hosted, while others joined the profession straight out of college in the US or the UK. A local bank of a different mindset, and one that matched the foreign one was Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI), created by the redoubtable Agha Hasan Abedi. BCCI brought in and trained talent just like the big boys did, and even after its ignominious collapse, its star employees went on to bigger and better things in banking. It is against this backdrop that Nadeem Hussain tells his story.

Part autobiography and part case study in successful entrepreneurship, A Bank is Born makes for compelling reading for a wide range of readers. Readers who have been around for a while will remember many of the events and people mentioned; younger ones will benefit immensely from the experiences recounted in creating Tameer and Planet N.

Hussain had a distinguished career at Citibank, where he worked in several major financial centres around the world through progressively challenging assignments. The book narrates many of his growth and learning experiences and is presented in a conversational style.

Then came the inflection point that took him on a different path. In 1995, while attending a lecture on leadership in Hong Kong, he was introduced to a life-changing insight: “If you did not have a dream about objectives, how would you ever achieve them?” He then created a bucket list of 10 items. Spread over eight chapters, Hussain does a good job of looking back over the early years, his personal life, and how he set about to fulfil a few things on his bucket list. Two of those items – impacting people through micro-lending and writing his autobiography have been done. He still has a few to go.

In keeping with his reputation as a banker of standing, the foreword is written by the illustrious Dr Ishrat Husain, former governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, and has jacket notes by Syed Ali Raza and Dr Shamshad Akhtar, also former central bank governors.

The State Bank had been working on a microfinance sector development programme as part of Pakistan’s poverty reduction strategy. The Asian Development Bank and other multinational financial institutions were approached not so much for capital infusion, but to give confidence to potential investors, depositors and borrowers. So when Dr Ishrat was approached by Hussain in 2004 to set up a microfinance bank, he was delighted as he wanted more private sector participation. As it turned out, Dr Ishrat had to overcome the legitimate concerns of his more conservative colleagues as events began to unfold. In his foreword, he suggests the book can be used as case-study material for graduate students.

In fact, the opening chapter has the classic presentation style of a case study and hooks the reader into the world of global finance and security issues. Throughout the book, we are entertained by the many vignettes and anecdotes shared along with some that were not so pleasant to him personally. One was in Saudi Arabia where, as an expat, he had no standing against a local who crashed into his car. In fact, the policeman asked the offending driver if he should have Hussain deported. In another assignment in Bahrain, his work permit was not renewed as “Syed Nadeem Hussain” was seen as a Shia name.

The fascinating aspect of Hussain’s journey has been his ability to excel at multiple sports as well as academics. His schooling at Karachi Grammar, Lawrence College (Murree) and St Patrick’s High in Karachi saw him captain many teams and win several trophies. This combination of an active outdoor life combined with good grades served him well, as later, during his banking career, he made time for squash and tennis. Even today, he hits the golf ball a mile!

The chapters cover his early years, his journey and his assignments at Citibank, and he has dedicated one chapter to his wife, Sherry Rehman. In terms of what is called a ‘human interest story’, this engaging narrative talks about Rehman’s political journey as a confidante of Benazir Bhutto, the life-threatening occasions she experienced and her contributions in parliament and as Pakistan’s ambassador to Washington.

The Tameer Bank story from start to finish (in as much as it has been taken over by Telenor) is riveting. It is a story of blood and sweat, ingenuity, teamwork, creativity and perseverance. Hussain shares many of his management and leadership philosophies that helped him both previously and in his Tameer journey. Getting the right people, empowering them, helping them grow and when necessary, saying goodbye to those who did not perform. The bank developed via various iterations, all the while staying close to the segment it was set up for – the financially excluded. Balancing lending with recovery is never an easy task, and in many cases, the target group would be hard-pressed to pay. So, ensuring an equitable relationship was important as a social responsibility. That is what “staying true to your purpose” is all about.

The last chapter on Planet N is a great lesson on how to look for opportunities, assess their potential, and check for scalability. Among Hussain’s philosophies in building successful teams and companies is to make sure CEOs have “skin in the game”; either by putting in equity and/or becoming shareholders. This ensured everyone was pulling in the right direction. This chapter is loaded with information about Pakistan’s digital landscape – from demographics to coverage to opportunities. The opportunity for disruption to conventional ways of delivering financial products and services is critically analysed and valuable insights are shared. For example, traditional banks do not consider the cost of acquisition and how it relates to deposits as this is drowned out by marketing and advertising.

A Bank is Born is full of management and leadership lessons and, as mentioned earlier, would make for a valuable resource to students of business management and entrepreneurship. A gripe about the editing: since the style is conversational (stream of consciousness?), we see many unrelated topics in one paragraph and several items repeated. One paragraph was spread over two pages!

Overall, a good read!

PS: When I learned in the book that Hussain has a dog named ‘Leon’, I almost did not write the review…

A Bank is Born
By Nadeem Hussain
Published by Liberty Publishing
155 pp. Rs 1,595
ISBN: 9786277626082

Leon Menezes has been a senior corporate professional and Professor of Practice at IBA, Karachi.