… by one who knows how: Khaled Suleiman
“I always say, ‘If you have a huge operation and you want to double its size, it’s like moving an elephant, but when you are starting from a smaller base, to double the size can happen in months.’”
It’s a non-standard metaphor for someone who earns his daily bread at the head of a bank – but then again, Khaled Suleiman is no run-of-the-mill banker. This 43-year-young man heads the National Bank of Abu Dhabi Private Bank in Switzerland, but he does not come from a financial background. Rather, Khaled Suleiman began his professional life as an engineer in Saudi Arabia and it is therefore hardly surprising to hear him speak easily of “building bridges”.
The game change in his career had a lot to do with his early life. Suleiman did his schooling in Switzerland, finished with a Maturité and started his engineering studies at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL).
He later obtained his engineering degree in the United States. It was in Switzerland that he started waterskiing and snowboarding, two activities he is passionate about to this day. But beyond the hobbies, his formative years created deep ties to the country and a longing to return. His wife, too, had been raised in the French system in Los Angeles. Khaled’s opportunity to get back to Switzerland struck in 2001 and involved him taking up an interesting opportunity with HSBC.
He took the new situation in stride, flexibly adapting his attitude to suit what life was offering. “Engineers love to build and I love to build, be that an equity company or more recently a bank,” he says convincingly. “Building a relationship is also part of banking.”
After working at HSBC he then took a position at Banque Piguet, where he made Vice President. On the lookout for private banking partners, he approached the National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) in late 2005. NBAD liked the project that was presented to it and, by mid-2006, Khaled Suleiman was hired by the NBAD Group to build the Global Private Banking division and to open a private banking platform in Geneva as its centre of gravity.
Suleiman was under no illusion that the task would be daunting. The first person he approached was his wife, a medical doctor who had already given up her profession to take care of the family, which by now had grown to four children. She would bear the brunt of his longer hours and frequent travelling. Second, Khaled Suleiman knew success would be built on having an experienced team and he knew where to look for the right people.
“What we have today is the result of teamwork and integrating various competences from various backgrounds,” he points out. “This came from a diligent process of hand-picking the best talent.”
In addition, the bank already had what he calls “good capital”. The NBAD Group is the Emirate’s largest bank by market capitalization and has a customer base of over 200,000, thus having already a prominent international presence. The application was submitted to the Swiss authorities in January 2007 and, by May 2007, Suleiman had the approval signed, sealed and delivered – just in time to pick up new business from the Gulf families coming to spend summers on the balmy shores of Lake Geneva.
Opening a bank in Geneva may appear at first glance to be a typical case of bringing coals to Newcastle. The trick was to design a simple yet effective business model that would provide some genuine added value to the NBAD’s core market – the merchant and entrepreneurial families from the Gulf region.
One solution was to combine the benefits of private banking with trade finance. The private portfolio could then be conveniently and efficiently applied as collateral for any trade financing needs. The private bank is also a complementary service to the other services of the Group.
“Most clients we would consider approaching in the UAE are quite likely to be linked to the NBAD group, for retail banking or corporate banking or any other service offered by the Group,” Suleiman points out. “We are the bridge to the offshore private banking platform as well as for the offshore trade finance, and we are quite well positioned to service the needs of European families and institutions wanting to do business in the Gulf region.”
As for Islamic banking – for which demand is growing – Khaled Suleiman notes that the group has launched its own Islamic bank; but should anyone request such services from the private bank, it will seek to utilize the group solution when applicable, and when not applicable, then to service the client by using best-in-breed external solutions.
The NBAD Private Bank has reached its third year, which, in a nation with a long banking tradition like Switzerland, is still very young. Khaled Suleiman, at any rate, prefers understatement. Nevertheless, under the circumstances, it is still a remarkable achievement.
Opening in 2007 just as the subprime mortgage situation went ballistic was not an auspicious beginning. Clients looking for safe havens were more into straight cash business, which at times reached up to 85% of their portfolio. On the other hand, the bank was never exposed to toxic asset classes.
“It’s not because we were smarter than the others,” Suleiman adds. “We were fortunate not to have been involved in any of the toxic asset class as we were just starting out operations.”
As for the group itself, it tends to favour conservative strategies. When the Dubai crisis occurred, it found itself “merely” with a US$ 345 million exposure on Dubai World.
… and humming along
So the new private bank on the block is humming along. The investment business has picked up again with renewed confidence in the markets and has a global reach at this point. While optimistic, Khaled does not see any expansion into other parts of Switzerland for the moment.
Growing fast may be a nice way to put one over a competitor, but it also makes for a hard and fast fall. In fact, he keeps a photograph to remind himself of “his” bank’s modest origins in one 20-square-meter room, with a single computer and a printer.
“The bank changed gears from a ‘start up’ environment to a ‘normal’ running environment, so the challenges have changed as well,” he says with determination. “What’s important is to maintain the drive that animated us while establishing the foundations of the bank, while at the same time converting some of the energy into accumulated wisdom.”
Obviously, it takes the engineer to pay attention to the natural law of entropy.
Article by Marton Radkai