Published in May-Jun 2023
MAMUN M. ADIL: You received the Banker of the Year 2022 award at the Global Islamic Finance Awards (GIFA). On what basis was the award given?
SYED AMIR ALI: I did not enter for this year’s award or even the Emerging Banking Personality Award, which I received in 2019. These awards are based on GIFA’s own research, and the parameters they used to determine the award this year included social responsibility, commitment to Islamic banking and finance, Sharia authenticity, innovation, the number of products and their quality and contribution to the Islamic banking industry.
MMA: Talks are currently underway concerning the JS Group acquiring shares in BankIslami, amounting to over 51%. What is the status of this acquisition and how will it impact both organisations?
SAA: BankIslami was established in 2004 and began operations in 2006. Among the original shareholders were JS Group, the Ranadri family (a South Africa-based business group) and Dubai Bank (which later merged with Emirates NBD). The three groups entered into a shareholder agreement. Dubai Bank relinquished their shares to JS earlier, and recently the Ranadri family expressed their intention to sell their shares. According to the shareholder agreement, JS has the first rights to purchase those shares. However, if JS does acquire them, their shareholding would exceed 50% and this necessitated a public offer, which they made. JS Bank and BankIslami are two separate entities and they will continue to operate as separate banks, although there may be certain areas where they can collaborate if it brings value to both institutions.
MMA: In your opinion, what does digital transformation entail?
SAA: For most organisations, digital transformation is a journey without a visible endpoint. It is a journey we are all on, and what matters is how efficiently and quickly we move. Digital transformation has to do with a mindset, but that cannot work alone; you need basic necessities, such as infrastructure or hardware. BankIslami has already done a couple of things that required a change in mindset and we have delivered on them.
MMA: Such as?
SAA: We introduced One Touch Banking in 2019. This is a technology-driven solution that allows our customers to conduct all their transactions at a branch counter or an ATM without the need for a cheque, paperwork or cards. All they need is to remember their CNIC number (they don’t need to carry it) and their thumb impression.
MMA: What differentiates One Touch Banking Service from the services other banks provide?
SAA: I don’t think that any other bank is providing a similar service; in fact, no other bank does. A few banks have installed biometric devices on their ATMs – and which do not work at times. Our system is different because it stores biometric hashes (encrypted codes) to function. One Touch Banking is one of our USPs, because it allows people who are not necessarily literate to become account holders and carry out transactions.
MMA: What features has BankIslami introduced that are not mandated by the State Bank of Pakistan?
SAA: We recently set up 24/7 digital service centres. They house a machine capable of conducting all the transactions customers make at a branch, such as transferring large sums of money or paying bills. A human virtual teller helps customers use the machine, and our employees are also available at designated times to assist. Our digital centre in Khadda Market (Karachi) was established in October 2022, and the one in Gulberg 3 (Lahore) is recent. What is interesting about these centres is their layout. They are trendy and futuristic, with a coffee shop that provides free coffee and internet access to everyone; even non-BankIslami customers can use them as free, air-conditioned working spaces. The idea is to provide a superior banking experience. Our auto financing is also pretty much digitised, and decisions to approve or disapprove loans are made digitally within 24 hours. If a loan is not approved, our employees will look into why. As a result, our market share in auto finance – and housing finance – is phenomenal.
MMA: What digitisation processes have been introduced internally?
SAA: We are currently rolling out the implementation of Microsoft SharePoint to enable secure digital approvals for various processes. Instead of using traditional email, memos are generated within the software and they define the approval chain, specifying the individuals who need to review and approve them. The chain can be modified as it progresses and each person can add comments, approve or disapprove, and make necessary changes. A few years ago, we moved our HR performance appraisal cycle to a digital platform, eliminating the need for paperwork and manual processes. Piece by piece, we are transferring each process to a digital platform. We put a lot of emphasis on information security. I would go as far as to say that we are among the top three best banks in Pakistan in terms of very effective information security posture [an organisation’s overall state of cybersecurity readiness]. We have achieved this by investing in technology and developing our employees. We restrict internet access to ensure security and everything is whitelisted and controlled. We have firewalls and use AI for internet-facing web applications, which is an advanced solution that monitors behaviours, so that if an employee is trying to access another department’s server, the machine will block him or her. In fact, CTN 360, a company that globally rates all financial institutions in terms of cybersecurity readiness, has given us a score of 100 out of 100 and we are the first bank to do so in the world.
MMA: Why is this digital investment important for BankIslami?
SAA: My theory is that unless all your staff are digitally proficient, they cannot digitise their customers’ journey.
MMA: How often do you advertise your products?
SAA: We advertise many of our products and services, but only after they have matured. We recently released a campaign featuring Moin Khan for our One Touch Banking Service. I believe in advertising and think that ‘Jo dikhta nahi hai vo bikta nahi hai’ (you can sell what you can see). So we spend a lot of time and money on ATL and BTL activities including sales blitzes, rallies, customer appreciation days, events at universities, conferences and events such as Karachi Eat.
MMA: How do you see the next five years panning out?
SAA: Our strategy plan, which covers three years (until 2024), has specific goals and these include increasing our deposits to Rs 600 billion; they currently amount to Rs 415 billion. Within the next five years, we want to hit the trillion-rupee mark and have a parallel, yet equally efficient digital banking network. We understand that growing our deposits is a function of three things. Firstly, the technology should be stable, efficient and user friendly. Secondly, employees should be passionate about their jobs and believe in ‘saving humanity from Riba’ [our slogan]. Thirdly, the field force should be a large enough to reach the maximum number of customers; banking is about relationship management – which is why we want to have a presence in all the important cities in Pakistan. Currently, we are present in over 380 cities and within the next five years we want this number to increase to over 700 or 800.
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