A cursory look at Dr. R. Seetharaman’s corporate profile is enough to understand why I was feeling a little intimidated when sitting opposite him for an interview in one of the meeting rooms at the Armani Hotel in Dubai. In his role as the Group Chief Executive Officer of Doha Bank, Dr. Seetharaman has been the recipient of several distinguished awards for his achievements in and contributions to the Middle East banking and business sectors- some of the more recent ones include the Gold Stevie Award for Executive of the Year in the banking category at the 2014 International Business Awards, the Asia Business Leadership Forum (ABLF) Business Economist Award at the ABLF Leadership Weekend 2014, and the Banking Innovator award at Entrepreneur Middle East’s very own 2014 Indian Innovator Awards. But while he may have many such laurels to boast of, I was glad to see that Dr. Seetharaman was not one to toot his own horn- on the contrary, he was quick to credit all of his wins to the collective efforts made by the Doha Bank team and enterprise. “The awards and the recognitions are only incidental,” he says. “It’s [thanks to] goal congruence- you set your objectives, but these objectives cannot be accomplished unless the organization where you [work at] accomplish equally.”
And Doha Bank has certainly been able to accomplish a lot- for instance, the bank’s financial results for the first quarter of 2015 saw its net profit hit QAR420 million, a rise of 5.2% when compared with its value of QAR399 million from the same period in 2014. The bank also announced a total equity of QAR10.7 billion at the end of March, with the return on average shareholders’ equity reaching 19.7%, which is reportedly one of the best in the industry. Now, while these numbers are certainly something to be proud about, Doha Bank isn’t sitting pretty on its achievements either- the bank is pushing ahead with a rather aggressive strategy for the future, with an aim to further solidify its position in the market. This includes its continued investments in innovation –Doha Bank’s recent launch of Tablet Banking, a digital account opening system that’s a first for banks in Qatar, is an indication of this- while also scaling up its international presence, as evidenced by the recent completion of its acquisition of HSBC Bank Oman’s operations in India. At the same time, the bank continues to build on its unwavering focus on the customers it serves- be it with innovative rewards schemes or new savings opportunities, it’s easy to see why Doha Bank is seen as one of the frontrunners in the region’s banking and finance sector.
Looking at Doha Bank today, it’s clear that the bank has come a long way from what it was when Dr. Seetharaman joined the establishment about 13 years ago. “Back in 2002, Doha Bank was not looking for a simple management- they were looking for transformation,” he remembers. “The board had envisioned clear-cut objectives, and they wanted to redefine the bank.” For Dr. Seetharaman, this task was something that he was especially interested in doing, given how the industry then was being influenced by the forces of technology, regulation and globalization. “The whole dynamics of the banking business model was changing,” he says. “Conventional banking was changing, and the new generation model was coming. And my experience was well suited to that- even though I was a qualified accountant by profession, my passion was more toward technology. In my earlier assignment as head of technology operations [at the Bank of Oman], I had experimented as such with customer-centric values that triggered improvement in the market share. So it was easy for me to come to Doha Bank with conviction and transform the institution, especially in a market that was just getting set… The supportive market, the vision of the board, and the experience we had were all converging to deliver on the journey.”
The changes Dr. Seetharaman brought about at Doha Bank touched upon a variety of spheres- these included everything from moving the bank away from a wholesale philosophy to cater to its retail market clients, to making it the frontrunner in Qatar (and the region as well) in terms of bringing about advanced web and mobile banking solutions for its customers. (“What all we have innovated, others have replicated,” Dr. Seetharaman notes.) The Group CEO also made it a priority to convert Doha Bank from being a Qatari bank to one with a more global presence. “Unless you go global, being a local bank, the opportunities are limited,” he explains. “We started redefining the strategic options for the bank- when the local market has become global, we have to go global… So apart from strengthening the local market operations and improving the retail, wholesale, corporate and overall operation efficiency of the bank, I started thinking about redefining its international presence.” With this target in mind, Dr. Seetharaman oversaw the process of Doha Bank expanding from its base in Qatar to other Gulf nations like the UAE and Kuwait, alongside the set-up of the bank’s representative offices in countries like Japan, Singapore, Turkey, South Korea, China and several others.
Of course, it’s one thing to have these visionary ideas, and it’s another thing altogether to actually have them put into practice. But Doha Bank excelled in that particular department, with Dr. Seetharaman noting that it is as important to have new ways of thinking, as it is to actually execute and deliver on those plans. “Irrespective of your considered vision, you have to produce the earnings,” he explains. “No shareholder is going to give you a free lunch, unless you have responsible returns coming in. So you have to produce maximum returns to shareholders, which we managed to achieve.” But how exactly did he manage to do that? “I conceptualized that you need not have to be the biggest to be the best,” Dr. Seetharaman says. “You can be small, but you can be the best. You can have a differentiated vision; you can have differentiated thinking on redefining the institution. And that’s how the transformation [of Doha Bank] was showcased.” What’s also important to note when tracking Doha Bank’s impressive growth is that it never stopped with this process of redeveloping and realigning itself with the changing dynamics of the market- as Dr. Seetharaman put it: “When you have to build the brand equity, you have to keep working at it. [We need] consistency and sustainable returns, more than anything else.”
Dr. Seetharaman’s continued focus on ensuring Doha Bank saw sustainable success helped the bank perform consistently not just in the “boom” years from 2002-2007, but also during the global financial crisis of 2008, and from there, onward to its current market situation today. “The graph never looks descending,” he notes. “It’s not up and down either- it’s stable, functional and sustained. It’s an ascending trend. But to maintain that, you need to look at innovation time and again. Innovation is always the essence of the success of leadership. It does not mean [just the use of] technology- that’s just one portion of it. Your strategic options are also innovative solutions.” This, again, is the explanation for Doha Bank’s entry into emerging markets like China and India- after all, if you have to lend or invest, you have to look at markets where there are opportunities. “That’s the way forward,” Dr. Seetharaman explains. “The strategy is to understand the dynamics of changes in global trade, global investments, global banking, and then, start changing the business models, policies, procedures and processes to produce the [desired] outcome.”
One such global trend that Doha Bank has focused its attention on has been the increased importance of the SME sector and its role in the overall development of the MENA region. “SMEs are the backbone [of economies] the world over,” Dr. Seetharaman says. “Even in 1930, when the collapse of the American system happened, the small and medium- sized entrepreneurs gave the sustainability needed for economic momentum. Big operations can produce jobs and they can produce huge performance, but at the times when they crumble, the balancing force is the SME industry. It’s globally recognized- whether it is Japan, Australia or even the UAE, or whether it’s in terms of workforce or GDP, a significant portion of sustainable economic progression comes from small and medium-sized enterprises.” Dr. Seetharaman says Doha Bank recognized the significance and potential of this sector in Qatar way back in 2005, which was when the bank took what he calls “a measurable risk” and built Tatweer, a specialized banking solution catered to the needs of SMEs. The program has, since its inception, financed “thousands of entrepreneurs” over the years, and it continues to be one of the bank’s major draws for customers in this particular category, given the way it has been tailored to their needs.
“It’s difficult to conceptualize the challenges which are akin to SMEs,” Dr. Seetharaman says. “Because each entrepreneur has got their own strengths and weaknesses, the business models are not standardized either.” As a result, the need, according to him, is to educate these customers, and help them set the discipline required in terms of accounting, legal, financial and other allied structures in their respective companies. That’s basically the route Doha Bank has chosen for its interactions with its SME customers- not only does it help from a financial point of view, the bank also makes an effort in helping startup companies succeed in their respective enterprises. “At the end of the day, we have to work with them,” Dr. Seetharaman says. “We have knowledge sharing sessions, we support them in terms of infrastructure provision, whether it is accounting or technology or telecommunication… After all, their success is our success. You don’t want the businessman to lose, because then, you will lose your money as well. And this is why working with [SMEs] as partners is very important- we are not moneylenders alone. We have to work as partners in their evolution and success, so that we too can grow with them.”
But what of the (fairly) common complaint heard from the entrepreneurial community of the region that banks here are, well, simply not considerate to their cause? Dr. Seetharaman acknowledges this, but notes that the fault for this doesn’t always lie with the banks and their policies. “There are many entrepreneurs who have the vision- they have the ideas, [but] they are not organized; they are not disciplined,” he says. “No banker will give you money unless they look at the credit capacity, the repaying capacity, visibly- the bookkeeping has to be there, financial accounting should be there. If you are single-entry bookkeeping, how can we lend you money? So that’s why we have to work with them. From a governance perspective, we have to set them into the right discipline.” At this point, Dr. Seetharaman goes into spelling out some words of wisdom for entrepreneurs. “You have to treat the organization away from your personal whims,” he says. “You have to necessarily look at the organization independently to setting policies, procedures, process, accounting, legal structure- all these things are required. Only then, a good financial institution will lend you money. After all, they are not here to take the public’s money and throw it [away]- they are here to make sure they get back their money.”
Dr. Seetharaman’s words are a good indication of Doha Bank’s modus operandi when it comes to dealing with SME customers who come to the bank looking for funding. Besides offering specialized funding solutions for SMEs, Doha Bank has also been setting up alliances with other like-minded entities in Qatar and in the region to both encourage and facilitate the further growth of the SME sector. One such initiative has been Doha Bank’s partnership with Qatar Development Bank for the latter’s Al Dhameen program, which supports new and existing projects in Qatar’s SME sector by providing them with a variety of financing options by guaranteeing bank lending. To say that the program has had a significant impact on the country’s SME space would probably be an understatement- in 2014 alone, Al Dhameen guaranteed more than 69 clients with a total value of QAR174 million. In addition, entrepreneurs in Qatar can also find support from the likes of organizations like Qatar Business Incubation Centre (QBIC), Entrepreneurs Qatar and others, all of which are indicative of the more favorable nature of the business landscape in the country right now. “The environment has changed,” Dr. Seetharaman says. “It has come a long way,” he says. “It’s quite friendly to new entrepreneurs.”
As for Dr. Seetharaman himself, he has been a champion for entrepreneurs in the region for quite some time now. So when I asked him if he had any advice for ‘treps looking to make it big, he was quick to answer with a rundown of tips, one after the other. “I always believe innovation is a must,” he says. “Creative values are important- that’s an excitement for any business. Sustainability is what entrepreneurs should be looking at- the vision should be long-term always. Focus on building a reputationthe success of entrepreneurship is all about a conscious, progressive measurement of your goodwill. Once you have goodwill, the rest follows through. And you cannot build goodwill without transparency, commitment and innovation. You can’t sustain anything unless you have value streaming responsive to all stakeholders. So, if I have to advise entrepreneurs, I’d say, be innovative, be creative, be transparent. Sustain your values- have a committed, responsible value creation for all the stakeholders… And as entrepreneurs, you have to have shared values and shared leadership: it’s not I. It’s We.”