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Interview with Hussain Ibrahim Alfardan

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Vice Chairman and Managing Director, Commercial Bank, and Chairman, Alfardan Group and United Development Company
 
 

 
When did your banking career start?
My first job was with a British bank, Eastern Bank Limited, which today is Standard Chartered Bank. I started with the team there in 1954 after arriving from Bahrain in 1952. I was 18. Five people ran that small bank.

Was it located in dedicated premises or just an office?
It was in an old building when we started. The government built a building for us and rented it to the bank. The bank was running and the market needed it, but business was limited. I worked there for about four years. I left in ’58.

What was Doha like in 1952?
Doha wasn’t as you see it now. It was very small in terms of population. People were all close to one another. All the businessmen, the employees, the ruling families – everyone was close to one another. Life was so easy though we didn’t have wealth. But the good nature and the good character of the people were there. They trusted each other, they liked each other, they were close with each other, they co-operated with each other. Then life started improving, the country’s income increased, and business grew in every direction.

You speak with some nostalgia about those days. Do you miss them?
We miss those days, but we cannot go back. It wasn’t easy, but we enjoyed it because it was a simple life, an easy life with no pressure, no stress. We lived very comfortably; we ate good traditional food. Today is different. We’ve grown up. You can put us in with famous countries and civilisations with all of our facilities and buildings. Anyone who lives here – not only Qataris – feels comfortable.

Have the past 50 or 60 years shaped you, or have you helped shape business and society?

Everyone has his own view and vision. You plan for your future, you dream for your future. Some people dream small, some people dream big. I’m a person who dreams big, and I protect my dream by creating that dream and work hard to achieve it. This is my philosophy.

When you were 20 or 25, what was your big dream?
My dream was to grow up in my father’s business – he was a famous pearl businessman. We were very happy in a big house with a lot of employees. We had a big family and we enjoyed our life very much. In 1954 I started a business with my own small shop importing and exporting from Qatar.

This was while you were working in the bank?
Yes. I had good business contacts so I found a way to import direct and took a commission. As an example, with a bag of rice or wheat or a carton of milk, on each one I took 1 rupee commission. (We used rupees in those days.) I sold them at cost plus 1 rupee. 

So the big dream started when I started growing my own business. I was wondering why I didn’t expand the business, so I started to sell gold and pearls. I opened a jewellery shop and put someone in charge of it. Then we built a building together, me and my brother Hassan, and we worked hard. He was a strong person doing his best to improve. By 1958 I was wealthy.

So you are a good businessman?
I worked hard and my brother worked hard and we did good business. So I left the bank in ’58 and concentrated on my own business. In my dream, when I was working at Eastern Bank, I wondered, ‘Why don’t we have our own bank?’ After a while the government established a bank, partially government-owned and the rest public. It was a good bank: Qatar National Bank. It’s the biggest bank in the Middle East today. So, I was thinking, I’ll start a small exchange house. And this exchange house was very successful.

Was that business part of the hawala system?
Yes. Exchange houses sell everything, all currencies, like a bank. So I started an exchange house. There were many in the country at the time, but mine was the biggest. I studied how we could make a bank and what the law was. Once my plan was ready, I contacted some of my closest, most trustworthy friends and we founded Commercial Bank. I started planning it in 1971, and in ’73 it was ready. It took us two years to come up with the licence. In ’75 we opened for business.

Did you have foreign support or expertise behind you?
Of course, because we didn’t know how to run a bank. My colleagues, friends and partners were depending on me to decide what to do. So I called many international banks and found that the best one to run our bank was Chase Manhattan. We negotiated with them and they were very co-operative. 

We signed a management contract and they worked with us for more than seven years. After seven years they told us, ‘You don’t need us. You are a proper bank. You are paying us too much. You can run the bank yourself and we’ll treat you as our subsidiary and all the facilities you get with us you’ll continue to get.’ They were very honest with us; they helped us a lot. 

From year one we were profitable. 

This was David Rockefeller?
Yes. He is a good friend. He was involved because he used to visit Qatar and I took good care of him. He’s a gentleman, very close to me and with a very good heart. So in 1975 we were the smallest bank in the region with capital of 10 million riyals.

What were your ambitions for the Bank?
I wanted to be one of the leaders in Qatar, and today we are one of the leaders in Qatar. The leader is Qatar National Bank, but we are the second-largest and the largest private bank.

Did you think in 1972 or 1962 or 1952 that you would ever be where you are today?
Yes.

You knew?
Yes. I knew I would work hard, and our team was so close, trusting each other. It took us a long time to grow. There were misunderstandings and a lot of arguing – many things happened in order to grow and we fought to make it work. It didn’t come easy.

What was the most difficult part?
Differences in views, differences in direction. Everyone had their own ideas, but I had a clear vision of how I wanted to grow. We gave good dividends to our shareholders and everyone was happy and we increased our capital and assets.

Looking back, would you have done anything differently?
No. I think I did it professionally and as I wanted it to be. If I faced difficulties, I got over them. I’m very patient. For a long time we suffered because we didn’t have good business. But I was patient, squeezing the expenses and trying to be strong in the market and to get the best clients and management. I always had good management. Finding professional management – professionally trained people – has been an ongoing issue in the Gulf. You have to grow talent and expertise. 

What percentage of your staff are locals?
I’m trying my best. 25% or more are locals. We are trying to increase that number by training them and pushing them to take more important posts. But still the Bank needs experts and professionals to run it.

You have no issues with bringing in expertise from outside?
I am not ashamed if I don’t know something; I bring in a professional to show me. Qataris need somebody to train them in order to take more important positions and more responsibility. Without teaching they will not grow. Any of the Qatari boys, after they graduate, we start them out at the bottom. I want them to have a strong background. When they start out in the lowest jobs and grow and take higher posts and positions within the Bank, they know how to solve problems. 

You mention boys, but I’ve seen many girls and women in the bank as well.
Qatari girls are clever in the bank and very hard workers. I admire them. We have old staff and new staff. We have a training centre and we send them abroad on courses. I would like to be employing at least 50% Qataris in my business in two to three years, whether girls or boys.

Do you believe that there is a problem regarding women’s place in society in the region?
Not in Qatar. If they can prove themselves, they will be given a position. We will not be surprised if we see a woman in a major post in the Bank. If she is clever and capable, then why not?

What will the next 30 years hold for Commercial Bank?
Every five years we make a new plan. I am proud to say that I have one of the best teams in the region. They run the Bank professionally. Every now and then we talk about making a presentation to our committee, which decides what we need to do. 

Every week we try to see what is going on locally and internationally. We decide what our vision is for the future and then we put a plan in place for the next five years. Qatar is not enough for us. We have grown and now we have a presence in Oman, we are in Dubai – in weak positions in relation to our major competitors – but we are with famous banks in Oman, in Sharjah and in the UAE. We want to have our feet on firm ground and do the best wherever we go.

You have said that this has been collaboration. Has that been with the government? With business people? 
With everyone. The government supports all of the national companies including the banks. We also follow the vision of His Highness the former Emir of Qatar, and that of the new Emir. 

It was the former Emir, H.H. Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani, who opened up, for both the government and the private sector, the opportunity to grow and move and participate in building the country’s economy. That’s why Qatar has become successful so quickly. The vision of His Highness has opened up the country and allowed creative people to do what they want.

Is it possible for a country to grow too fast?
We are growing at a normal rate, I believe. We have our own vision and our own plan. When we see a lot of support, then we produce. When you see that the head of the country has a big vision for his country – to become a leader in the region – then you follow the same vision. Qatar’s vision is helping us to dream big. 

So, dreaming big, you initiated the idea for The Pearl-Qatar?
Yes.

What was the origin of that dream? 
I started thinking about it 20 years ago, when Kuwait was invaded by Saddam Hussein. Everyone was unhappy with the situation because there was war in the Gulf. I used to go out to the island and just sit and think. And I said, ‘We go to Cannes, to Nice, to Bali, yet our sea is much better. It’s clear – I dive here and find oysters. Why don’t we use it as a tourist area, do something worthwhile?’ 

So we opened the Sheraton Hotel, and the manager was very active and brought in coach tours that stayed for free. I thought, let’s get rich tourists to come and spend their money here. Just as I created the Bank, I started to think about tourism. To do something for Qataris, first of all, but also for tourists and foreigners. Pearl Island is a unique project because you can own and invest as a foreigner. You can get a residence permit and start your own business. There are hotels for tourists, and millionaires can come, buy houses and live here. My idea was to attract millionaire tourists to spend millions – not peanuts.

What is the project’s value in financial terms?
The project was built for 16 billion riyals. We started with half a billion riyals in capital.

So it’s a USD 5 billion project. And it can house how many people? 
Over 60,000 families, about 180,000 to 200,000 people. 

Is the Bank a big investor in the project?
We are always seeking the best and the most secure investments because it is a shareholding bank and we do not want to go wrong. 

So you are not a risk-taker?
Not when it comes to public business. For myself, yes. 

Have you ever taken a big gamble and lost?
Many times, mostly abroad. Wherever you are, you have to be there to run your business. You cannot depend on others. So I decided to concentrate on Qatar and the region.

Does it affect you when you fail?
No. I’m used to it. My family are pearl dealers. With pearl dealers one day you are very wealthy and the next day you are bankrupt because there is no market. You have to be very patient. I own a group of companies – if I lose here, I gain somewhere else. If I lose my own money, I’m still able to sleep. I’ve made a lot of profit, so if I lose, I lose some of what I’ve gained, but it’s still mine. 

But if I lose a company’s money and it’s public and I’m running it, I will be distraught and not be able to sleep. I’ve had a lot of those kinds of experiences, but I managed to come up strong. It helped me to be stronger both in business and in life.

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