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When banking came calling after a retired military pilot

By | June 29th 2010

By Timothy Makokha

The dream of a good job has been the single biggest motivation to many a youth in school. There is always a yearning for a good car, decent housing and a good spouse.

But sooner or later, even with everything falling into place, reality quickly dawns that life is much more than walking through a scripted pattern of revolving doors.

This is one lesson in life that Mr Najmul Hassan, the Chief Executive Officer of Gulf African Bank has learnt to talk about.

Born to a military father and a stay-at-home mum in February 1954, Hassan was never short of role models. From his father, he learnt early in life to differentiate what is good and what is necessary.

He grew up in Risalpur, an airforce base in north West of Pakistan, an area close to Afghanistan. This is the environment that came to shape his later choices in life.

After 14 years in school, Hassan enrolled in the College of Aeronautical Engineering, graduating in 1975 with Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering. This set him up for another spell of regimented lifestyle as an airforce officer – a path he had watched his father trek for years.

A trained pilot, Hassan recalls when on March 19, 1977, he with a colleague crashed in Algeria. The crash left his colleague paralysed.

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Hassan was a Squadron Leader at 27 — seven years after he joined the service — when he quit. He soon enrolled for an MBA in Finance at the Karachi Institute of Business.

Armed with the discipline of a soldier, the escapades of a sailor, and restlessness of a go-getter, Hassan would soon embark on journey that would see him pick and drop jobs in a way his friends could only term as ‘stupid, hasty and risky’.

"When I was expected to stay on a job, I quit and when I was expected to quit, I stayed on," Hassan says of his unpredictable career moves, adding that to him, the taste of risk-turned-into opportunities was all the more tempting.

In 1981, with a financial crowning on his earlier grounding in engineering, Hassan joined Agri Auto Industries Ltd, a leading automotive parts manufacturing company as marketing manager. Five years later, he had risen through the ranks to head the company as its chief executive.

Despite the fact that the company was going through a rough financial patch and its closure was looming, Hassan picked the challenge with verve staying on another eight years.

When the firm’s balance sheet started greening, so did his desire for a new challenge, which came in the form of Delphi Diesel Systems in 1994.

As country manager of a multinational oil company, Hassan’s friends thought he had finally arrived. Thanks to the opportunity, Hassan did not only earn the respect of his peers as a member of the multinational family, he also had a cushy life to show for it.

But Hassan would call it quits again just after five years at the helm. Not even calls from friends to tame his appetite for risk would calm him down.

Craving for change

"I have always known that risk is every important element of growth. Risk keeps life interesting, and so expands opportunities to learn," he says of his insatiable craving for change.

"I have also heard that if I don’t change jobs, life will be so boring that I will want to change wives," says the father two daughters.

Hassan’s affair with financial institutions kicked of in June 2001, when he surrendered his high profile job and its huge perks to join little known Meezan Bank as chief executive, with just about 25 employees.

In his previous posting, Hassan was atop 12,000 employees and seven factories spread across Pakistan.

"This was a new investment bank looking for a new person with a new mentality to do things differently," he says.

"I knew banks had been exploitative and I wanted to be part of the team that wanted to do things differently."

Working for the first time in a bank, Hassan was tasked with building corporate clientele by rolling out Islamic banking products, and developing marketing strategies for the Islamic products. He was also in charge of training and development of Bank staff on Islamic Banking.

Clients quickly picked interest in the product offering pretty fast, setting off the bank’s rapid growth. In eight years, the bank’s capital base had grown from Sh100 million to Sh18 billion while employees had grown to 3,500 working in branches in 45 cities in Pakistan.

New challenges

However, these were not the sort of achievements to sate Hassan’s longing for new challenges. And so when he was asked whether he would take up a job in Kenya – a place he had little information about, he picked his bags and headed for Jinnah International Airport, Karachi to found Gulf African Bank in Kenya.

"I arrived in Nairobi in April 2008 amid flames of a country at war with itself, but that was the least of my worries because I had seen more consuming fires back home," Hassan says.

"What was sobering was the fact that I had left my comfort zones, I had dumped my network of friends and here I was priming to sell an untested product in a strange land."

Looking back, Hassan is grateful he took the challenge.

Already, Gulf African Bank last year posted a profit for the first time since it opened shop in 2008, raising hopes for its investors to earn their first return on Sh1.75 billion investment.

And what is more, the bank which lends on Islamic principles grew its earning by 127 per cent to propel its pre-tax profits to Sh25 million in the first three months to March 2010.

The returns have been powered by increased lending that now stands at Sh5.2 billion, 128 per cent higher than a corresponding time last year.

Customer deposits also grew significantly to almost double the levels of the first quarter last year, to top Sh8.2 billion — a sufficient war chest as the bank seeks to grow its loan book.

Hassan attributes most his achievements to hard work and discipline, but he also knows destiny has been on his side. "I guess I was lucky to have been at the right place at the right time," he says.

To Hassan, life is one continuous lesson. He remembers his father telling him to go easy on motorists who jump lanes. "This is a lesson that has served me well on Kenyan roads."

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