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Agha Hasan Abedi: A banking legend of Pakistan - Muhammad Adnan Arshad - 03-30-2009

Agha Hasan Abedi

Foresight is a talent. Foresight with vision is leadership. Leaders fall short of prophecy, yet exercise this exquisite art of observing, feeling, knowing and doing about the needs of people surrounding them. Its only when you add humility to this visionary leadership that you get Agha Hasan Abedi.

Through a vision beyond boundaries one man single-handedly founded two banks of stature and global reach in one life span. Initiated the very concept of IT by founding FAST, over a quarter century ago when few in the country knew what it meant. Instituted four charitable foundations in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Zimbabwe and United Kingdom, which even today dish out over Rs 500 million annually.

Rubbed shoulders with the heads of states of many important countries including America, Russia and China and claimed their personal friendships, even though he came from a middle class family of no professional or political origin. He patronised an institute of global excellence like GIK University, not to mention the Rs 750 million grant.

It employed a large number of Pakistanis globally. Turned youthful graduates into bankers and power executives. Had the vision to focus the needs of a Third World foundation and global 2000 in the 1970s and 1980s. Put Pakistan on the map of corporate excellence. Dreamt of transforming Pakistan into a power of technology and advancement.

Remained solely responsible for feeding around 100,000 families for over 3 decades.

The continuum of knowledge remains incomplete without learning from the experience of great leaders who have embedded their names in golden words in history. I am trying to touch upon a Pakistani legend in the banking sector. My humble effort can only be equivalent to awe for the legend Agha Hasan Abedi for all the years that I have had the opportunity to work under his guidance. | Agha Hasan Abedi, born in 1922 in a middle class family in Lucknow, did his masters from Lucknow University in English literature; joined Habib Bank Ltd.

in Bombay as a selective service officer in 1946. He excelled in his assignments and attained senior positions very fast. His power of excellence remained thirsty, which led him to found a new bank by the name of United Bank Ltd in 1958. His charismatic personality obtained spontaneous acquiescence and obedience. Within five years of its inception, he brought United Bank in Pakistan at par with the largest private sector bank, claiming number two position in the country.

I am positive that there is hardly any professional person who has not heard great epics of the late Abedi. In fact, I can safely vouch that there must be senior bankers here whose inspiration were propelled by the name itself. I dont talk of mere inspiration Mr Abedi was an institution in himself. Not only being the founder and the president of a global bank is just one feat, but taking it to the height of excellence through his ideals and philosophy that reflect the epitome of leadership.

The Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) had its presence all over the globe in 73 countries in less than three decades; and even bagged the position of the 6th largest bank in the country network against the difficult competition of Citibank, Barclays Bank and other top banks of the world. At the helm of all these achievements was the magnificent leader Agha Hasan Abedi himself. Abedi was a man who immensely impressed the throngs of people who surrounded him and it is not surprising to hear bankers still quoting him on various occasions.

He brought a revolution in the banking sector not only in Pakistan but over the globe. His staff practiced management philosophy which provided opportunities for maximum initiatives, decision making and enterprise within the concept of "joint personality" and "real management" which, while creating in-built controls, inspired dedication to result oriented performance in the management team.

The mission statement always remained "submission to God, service to humanity, giving and success". Since I have had a chance to work in the institution created by Abedi, I can relate to his philosophy and how he developed the character of his institution. The philosophy defined all dimensions and domain of its vision and its quality of vision, with clean instincts and clear perception.

The joint personality concept was to learn to live in totality, with acceptance and responsibility and to feel the power of togetherness and how it energises each one. A spirit of mutual love and respect, permeated by moral pledge, was professed. The guardianship concept won the hearts of the BCCI family for internal flow of guidance and love. Moral and material are two sides of a coin, thus are inseparable.

Abedi believed in developing human resources to the full, supported with the moral and professional values and competence of the highest level. The state of art management development centres and the staff colleges of BCC in Bogota, New York, London, Cairo, Harare, Abu Dhabi, Karachi, Bombay, Dhaka and Hong Kong was a proof of his beliefs and he was always heard saying

"We do not want to make you into a machine-like traditional banker; we want you to grow as a man of knowledge, while also having technical knowledge. Although technical ability or technical knowledge, what ever you may call it is essential, development ability is the core of ability in banking". It was the management philosophy and encouragement of Abedi that led every employee to put in his best efforts to make the organisation grow to its full potential with an in-built feeling that each one was a stakeholder in the bank.

Abedi always referred to his success as the success of the organisation and considered himself as only a part of the big picture. The humble individual that he was associated success with hard work. His advice to young professionals who joined his league was

"The source of all factors that play a part in the success of any operation is the ability to discover realities. You have to break through the barriers of traditions and environment, which are not in tune with the reality of your life, and make you ignorant of your own bio-reality.

The less you mortgage yourself to the ego, the more you are able to disentangle yourself from the web of inhibitions and complexes and the more you relate to your actions to realities, the nearer you are to success. Unless you tackle your greatest enemies ego and time, squarely you will never succeed."

Management conferences of Geneva, Vienna, Luxemburg and London of 1980s, attended by almost 500 professionals at each occasion, including top auditors like Price Waterhouse and Earnst Whinney1, a few American congressmen, visionary ex-finance ministers and ex-ambassadors, were the true learning arenas of real management in two days session.

The motivation of the staff in those conferences was evolved through deliberations on the floor on "Vision, quality of vision, and quality of commitment, desire, love, moral and material, joint personality, power of togetherness" in addition to core banking discussions.

The discussion of these concepts in the large meeting of professional managers and top bankers was not understood at that point in time by the world bankers and critics of Abedi but discovered later through deep American management research in the late 1990s and declared that "love" is the most important factor in the motivation of employees against all benefits, perks, positions, bonuses and gratuities, including stock options.

Abedi was a dynamic personality, who on the one hand took up the reigns of the bank and took it to the peak of brilliance and on the other hand was a tycoon who contributed to the economy of Pakistan and a diplomat, a roaming ambassador who rubbed shoulders with the elite of the world. His close association with the world leaders like Jimmy Carter, Deng Xiao Ping, Michael Gorbachov, Indira Gandhi, Shaikh Zyaid and many others brought recognition to the financial vista of Pakistan and uplifted Pakistani talent in the eyes of the global community.

He was a living example of "People Management" and harboured on establishing relationships on this principal. Abedi used to say "What is really difficult is dealing with man and that you can learn only by dealing with them". All the past Heads of States of Pakistan since the early 70s could be counted as his close friends. The ruler of UAE particularly of Abu Dhabi and Dubai treated Abedi with utmost respect and sought his advice and assistance on personal and state finances.

Opening up a BCCI branch in India and China was a high mark in public relations and a great tribute to his personal contribution. During 1987 BCCI organised A Third World Advertising Congress in China and to the great astonishment and pride of all; The Great Hall of People of China was made available for the conference. I remember the days of my career when Abedi was the role model of every young banker entering the financial arena.

Those who didnt know him were impressed by his professional achievements and those who had the opportunity to work under his leadership, or to meet him, were impressed not only by the thorough professional that he was, but also by the fine aspect of his personality. He was one of the few bankers who had anticipated the nationalisation of banks by ZAB and started planning for an independent overseas bank within the Arab capital.

He witnessed nationalisation as anticipated and faced undue criticism from the Government of Pakistan while he was the founding president of United Bank Ltd, yet he was never wary of Pakistan. Infact, he proved to be a compassionate patriot who offered his services to the Country at times of dire need.

There was more to his personality than what one can say. Where Abedi took the role of a great leader, he also played the part of a mentor for his staff, an inspiration to the entire financial sector, and envy to competitors, awe to the peers and addition to the list of great leaders.

Abedi brought a marketing revolution in banking and introduced new marketing culture. Opened the closed doors of western banking disciplines and brought the bank to the doorsteps of the customers. New banking products, which were not known to the financial markets of third world in 1970s and 1980s were introduced with exemplary service and a lot of mileage was covered which created a threat to western banking, finding it difficult to compete.

The IMP (internal market place) & EMP (external market place) products generated volumes of business, internally and externally at each location in addition to the credit cards and traveller cheques sales which captured the market business to the extent of over 80% at a few locations and generated large profit volumes and fund float.

The best furnished premises of the banks at the best locations, equipped with state of art technology were introduced by Abedi in those days in the third world countries to provide the best services for the customers, no less than the first world environment and even better.

In the changed unique management style, the cabinised senior executives and bankers including him, were brought on open floors to sit and interact with their colleagues to lead them with the joint personality and participative management concept.

Abedis credo of "giving and service to humanity" for business relationship and social interaction is little known - so is his very tangible contribution to charity Abedi said. "The spirit of charity is tarnished and evaporates should any other, beside the resilient, get to know about it".

SOME OF HIS ENTHUSIASTIC VENTURES IN THE REALM OF CHARITY CAN NOW BE MENTIONED BCCI staff was granted a specific gratuity every year meant for the colleague to specially seek the needy, give this amount and feel the joy of giving. BCCI Fast foundation to promote technical education in computer sciences through injection of huge endowment funds produced degree colleges in Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi. BCCI foundation now known as Infaq is not only serving the poor and the poverty-stricken but also the cash-starved health and educational institutions.

Thousand of individuals, ordinary people in adversity, writers, artists, sick and needy are provided succour. Sindh Institute of Urology and Transplantation (SIUT), National Institute of Cardio Vascular Diseases Karachi, GIK Engineering University Topi N.W.F.P, Shaukat Khanum Cancer Hospital Lahore, Lady Duffirin Hospital and Sir Syed University Karachi are a few known major beneficiary institutions.

The foundation had all along been funded with the endowment from BCCI operating profits in Pakistan, which instead of being repatriated overseas were dedicated to charity by Mr Abedi. The foundation never takes any donation from anybody even now.

His vision beyond the boundaries extended beyond the grasp of foreseeable time, but it was the magnitude of his desire to transform that vision into pragmatic reality to be put to use for the betterment of the country, the people, the purpose and the deprived that called for more than a lifetime.

I cannot say that I have presented to you Abedi as the person he was, because there are volumes to quote to his dynamic personality. You would all agree that any man who can achieve all that he did was surely not just another man. He was a man full of capabilities that knew his potentials and utilised the gifts of his abilities.

I summarise it as "His routine was to dream and his schedule to achieve them. His desire was to change the way we think. His passion was to have us standing with our heads high. His commitment was to give us excellence, competence, health, education, science and technology and self-reliance. His achievement was he did all the above".

I conclude my presentation with an official statement of Lord Justice Bingham of UK released in 1992 "He aimed to create an international bank which would not simply be a national bank expanded overseas, but a world-wide organisation at home everywhere and bring its services in particular to the less-developed countries of the world, where such facilities were least readily available.

There was nobility in his ideal which, by his ambitions, energy and flare he did much to realise. The vices, which brought BCCI down, should not obscure the virtues it showed in some places and which inspired its creations". Lord Bingham attributed the banks failure to the banks treasury losses claiming them on, "Incompetence and errors of unsophisticated immature venturing into highly technical and sophisticated markets".

Robert Lee Pemberton - the erstwhile Governor of the Bank of England had also given a similar statement despite his negative role against the BCCI as the then Governor in 1991. Abedi suffered a massive stroke in early 1988, had a heart transplant, and was rendered incapable of any work.

In this capacity he lived for almost six years and died on 04th August 1994 in Karachi leaving behind a widow and the only daughter in the family and millions of admirers and followers and a new generation of bankers over the globe called "BCCI products" to carry the flag of passion with unmatched quality of commitment and professionalism to deliver the legacy of Abedi to future generations.

Mujhe Ghuroob na Jano Jo main ufaq Pe Naheen Bikhar gaya Hoon Undheron main Kehkeshan ki Tarah

- freaky0views - 01-08-2010

this is the finest piece of writing i have ever gone through on Agha sahab's majestic personality. he was indeed a global leader whose management style and love with the people will always be remembered.

thanks al lot for sharing this inspirational article about someone whose existance inspired the globe.

- Muhammad Adnan Arshad - 02-02-2010

thanks freaky0views !! -)

- pauliangenius - 02-14-2010

I first praise your efforts to shed light on an innovative person who set the basis of modern day banking in Pakistan.He certainly is a personality to remember especially among all people related to the commercial sector.

- Sufyanaamir - 12-07-2010

A truly justified post for a commendable personality....good work