Naresh quit his assistant vice-president (AVP) position in Citibank to head up retail in a new bank being set up in Dubai.
On his first morning at work, he was greeted by the vice-chairman (VC), who was in charge of the bank project.
“Congratulations and welcome, Naresh. You are employee no. 2 but, as of now, you are no.1 because the CEO has not joined as yet. Come, let me show you our new building.”
The VC took Naresh to a bare patch of land where excavators and shovels had started digging a giant hole in the ground.
“Here we are,” said the VC. “We shall open the bank on National Day, three months from now.”
“What? How?” Naresh spluttered. “We don’t even have a building!”
“That is not your problem, Naresh,” said the VC. “I will give you the building in three months. You give me the bank.”
Both tasks were done.
First, the building. The skeleton was fabricated from steel I-beams, the floors were pre-fab, and the walls were glass sheets fitted with Venetian blinds. Construction was done in a jiffy.
In between, it was found that the space wouldn’t be enough. No matter, just add one more floor.
Naresh worked like a madman for three months—finding a computer system, hiring people, signing up vendors, engaging an agency that supplied salespeople, preparing SOPs (standard operating procedures) and manuals—the full monty.
On the appointed day, the bank opened amid much fanfare. A visibly exhausted Naresh appeared in one corner of the official photographs of the opening ceremony.
This was not at all unusual.
A contractor once told me, “HH holds a review meeting every three days. Decisions are made. Plans are changed, usually expanded. Drawings are prepared by midnight. Next morning the work starts.”
The frantic pace can only be matched by the apparent impossibility of the task. An example.
HH looked at the various projects marked out on a map of Dubai and shook his head.
“Not enough beaches,” he said. “I want beaches.”
The people around him were mystified. One of them ventured to state the obvious, “We don’t have any beaches to spare. All are public beaches.”
“Then make beaches,” said HH and walked out of the meeting.
Thus, was born Palm Island with 56km of hitherto non-existent beaches.
To make the whole process even more complex, there is often no clear directive.
Khuan Chew, who designed the lavish interior of the iconic Burj Al Arab Hotel, described her 'brief' on the desired look of the interior of the hotel—one word.
It simply had to be ‘superb’.
Ms Chew was on tenterhooks when, after the entire job was completed, HH was coming to visit for the first time.
What if he didn’t like it?
Fortunately, he did like it. You can imagine her relief!
Now, my own (modest) story.
I was offered the position of CFO (chief finance officer) in a financial services company that a large group was going to set up in Dubai. I told the CEO (chief executive officer) that I was a banker, not an accountant and, hence, probably not the right person to be a CFO.
He laughed, “You know more than enough finance to be the CFO of this company. Besides, I need someone who has all-round knowledge and, more importantly, someone I can trust.”
Unfortunately, three days after I joined, the CEO quit.
I became the acting CEO, and my immediate task was to set up the company and issue the first credit card by 1st January, three months and 26 days hence.
I had hoped for a few relaxed years in a low-stress job before retiring, but now I had a seemingly impossible task on hand.
To mention a few issues:
- The company didn’t even have a name, let alone a logo.
- No name; hence, no licence to operate.
- There were just seven people on board, myself and six others—heads of marketing, sales, risk, operations, etc. No staff.
- We did have premises—17,000sqft (square feet) of office space—but it had a bare concrete floor and absolutely nothing inside.
- A credit card portfolio had been bought from a bank, but we had no computer system to support it, and the cards were in another entity’s name.
The list could go on and on.
I sought help from the holding company (HC) of the group, which owned our company; but all I got was a rejoinder: “Failure is not an option.”
That got all seven of us worked up.
To hell with the HC—none of us has ever failed before, and we are not starting now.
I will not describe the agonising time we went through. Obviously, we could not do this in a normal, orderly, step-by-step way. We needed a lot of work-arounds—‘jugaad’ if you like. Examples:
- We short-listed three names for the company, plus two options for the logo for each name, and told our ‘owner’, the HC, that we wanted a decision within 48 hours, or else we walk away. The decision came.
- Our HR (human resource) chap, a UAE (United Arab Emirates) national, had friends and relatives in the central bank. He prepared the licence application with their help, and began pushing it along the labyrinthian path towards approval.
- The office needed everything—flooring, wiring, A/C ducts, partition walls, furniture and so on. There was no time to pick a designer, a furniture supplier, a contractor and all that. We invited offers from furniture companies for a turnkey solution—complete office, delivery in 90 days or heavy fines. We got a good vendor.
- We used our contacts to hand-pick key people based on recommendations—no time for a long-winded selection process.
Suddenly, a huge show-stopper appeared.
Both Visa and MasterCard firmly said that the earliest date for approval for issuing cards was April—anything earlier was impossible.
I found a solution.
The credit card unit of my previous bank had been spun off into a separate company. I did a deal with it to get a dedicated computer platform and issue co-branded cards, with our company’s name on the cards, under its Visa/ MC licences.
Long story short—we issued the first card, to the CEO of the HC, on 27th December.
Mind you, everything was not done in a ‘propah’ way. Actually, one of our team members repeatedly grumbled about ‘sub-optimal’ solutions being adopted, but we ignored him.
We did it the Dubai way.
But was it the right way?
(Deserting engineering after a year in a factory, Amitabha Banerjee did an MBA in the US and returned to India. Choosing work-to-live over live-to-work, he joined banking and worked for various banks in India and the Middle East. Post-retirement, he returned to his hometown Kolkata and is now spending his golden years travelling the world, playing bridge, befriending Netflix & Prime Video and writing in his wife’s travel blog.)