NBAD’s Group CEO Alex Thursby is spearheading the bank’s international expansion while bringing it to the forefront of technology in the retail sector
National Bank of Abu Dhabi (NBAD) is one of the leading banks in the Middle East and acknowledged by major credit ratings agencies as one of the safest banks in the world. Its stated vision is to be recognised as the world’s best Arab bank leveraging from its roots in Abu Dhabi.
First incorporated in 1968 to serve as a banker to the emirate of Abu Dhabi, today NBAD has a global network spanning 18 countries with 60 branches and offices outside the UAE stretching across five continents from the Americas to the Far East.
NBAD has one of the largest networks in the UAE with 114 branches and cash offices and almost 574 ATMs across the country. Sometimes considered a sleeping giant in consumer banking, NBAD has in recent years embarked on a major transformation not only at home in terms of its investment in its branch business and e-banking services including rebranding but also through its global West-East Corridor strategy harnessing emerging markets from Africa to the Far East.
A comprehensive financial institution employing more than 7,000 people worldwide, NBAD covers the whole range of retail, corporate, wholesale and investment banking. Other aspects include wealth management and private banking, Islamic banking, brokerage, property management and leasing.
Alex Vincent Thursby, Group Chief Executive Officer, assumed the top position at NBAD in the summer of 2013. The appointment followed a six-year stint at ANZ Bank where he was Chief Executive for International and Institutional Banking. Thursby also served 21 years at Standard Chartered including Africa, the Americas and Asia Pacific.
An internationally minded career banker, Thursby received his bachelor’s degree in business administration in Australia, attended the London Business School and the senior international management course at INSEAD, France.
Thursby is very much the architect of NBAD’s continuing international expansion through a raft of initiatives across the bank’s ‘West-East Corridor’ concept which seeks to place it at the heart of a massive trading corridor. Reminiscent of the Silk Road, the ancient network of trade and cultural transmission routes that were central to world trade until the 15th century, the West-East Corridor concept seeks to harness and tap into the dynamics of intercontinental trade flows.
The West-East Corridor covers countries from Egypt and Turkey through India to China and Japan. This trading corridor is witnessing significant growth and will have a higher concentration of megacities over the next 20 years as populations increase.
“There are significant macroeconomic trends, demographics, educational enhancements and increasingly sophisticated policies with huge market potential and we in the UAE are in the middle of the world,” Thursby says. “The movement of goods and services has enormous potential in terms of trade, investment and integration into the West-East Corridor. If you look at Africa, the Middle East and Asia, each of these three regions presents something different which the other needs. There is potential for huge industrial growth, there is the sheer size of the population, and the entrepreneurial dynamism that is evident from Asia. The reality is that people’s lives in these regions are getting better.”
He continues: “It is our view – and we take a long-term view – that the Middle East will continue to be more successful than other parts of the world and we see an opportunity for an Arab bank to be part of that connectivity by not only providing the best banking services to its local customers in what they want to do locally but also servicing them in what they want to do internationally.
“The intercontinental economic trends are nearly indisputable and the private sector is the driver. You cannot change those long-term fundamentals and history is repeating itself. If you actually take 2,000 years of economic history, up until the last 400 years the global GDP (gross domestic product) was dominated by those three continents – Asia, the Middle East and Africa.”
Shortly after his appointment in 2013, Thursby said that NBAD planned to build eight hubs in the West-East geographical corridor of emerging markets. In November 2015, NBAD started operations in Mumbai, India, focusing on corporate clients.
Setting up in India with a full banking licence is an important step for NBAD, according to Thursby. The branch will provide wholesale banking services covering areas of debt origination and distribution, project finance, trade finance and asset finance offering expert advice in energy, real estate, financial services, transport and aviation and retail.
“India is an important milestone in our West-East Corridor and also demonstrates the UAE’s strengthening ties with its second largest trading partner. NBAD is committed to facilitating the flow of capital into and from India through its network across the West-East Corridor and is well positioned to facilitate investment in what is a huge engine for growth. In India, the perception of NBAD is very positive as a high quality international bank,” adds Thursby.
Despite the challenges of the Egyptian economy, Thursby recently celebrated 40 years of NBAD operations in Egypt, the bank’s largest market outside of the UAE where wholesale, retail, and wealth management are available.
When NBAD opened its first branch outside of the UAE in Egypt in 1975, it became the first overseas Arab bank to do so at the time. Today, NBAD employs more than 700 Egyptians on the ground supported by a network of branches and ATMs across the country.
“Although the Egyptian economy has struggled, I believe that it is now beginning its journey to recovery. I do think that if Egypt becomes a very strong private-sector-led economy, it certainly has the business skills and expertise, then this development will be significant for the region,” he continues.
NBAD continues to invest in Egypt with its new five-year strategy focused on modernising the business and directing foreign currencies into the Egyptian market. Last September, NBAD launched a real estate programme providing finance to Egyptian expatriates as well as UAE nationals to purchase properties in Egypt. There are currently over 300,000 Egyptian expatriates in the UAE, the largest Arab community in the country.
A prudent banker, Thursby takes the wider view with the current fall in oil prices.
“There are winners and losers but cheaper energy is going to benefit large countries that are growing and across the West-East Corridor there are many emerging economies. The beauty is in countries such as the UAE and the way that a strong economy has been created in such a short period. I think the UAE is in such a great position long term and you have to compliment the foresight of the UAE government as policy-makers in what they have achieved.”
Thursby is also confident that over the current NBAD five-year plan, 20 per cent of bank revenues will emanate from the West-East Corridor from outside of the UAE.
“I think 20 per cent is a good number and we will probably make it, as the bottom line is developing very well,” he says.
Thursby is also working to enhance the NBAD brand, polish it with a new corporate identity and develop a stronger retail presence.
“Our positioning in this market needs to be stronger and NBAD needs to grow in the retail and commercial space – so we have Pillar One which is about the domestic market while Pillar Two is the West-East Corridor,” he says.
As part of its retail strategy, NBAD is now designing its branches with a new look and feel so that they are more sales and service orientated yet still have transactional capabilities, though the latter will be further reduced as customers move more towards technology.
“What we are doing in the retail space is a change in the marketplace, which means that the branch is not just about a transactional service. Elder customers might like to going to the branch but younger customers don’t care about the branches in the same way,” he says. “Actually, our retail customers are taking the lead over our commercial ones in terms of moving towards technology and the latest IT applications.”
“Of course, we will still have customers who want to cash a cheque and they will still be able to do that. But when our customers want new technology then it is our job to give what the majority of our customers want and then help the others to adjust to that new environment.”
As Thursby says: “It’s all about connecting with our customers.”
Thursby has lived in the Far East much of his life, with NBAD his second key posting in the Middle East. From 1998 to 2000, he was regional head for the Gulf and head of Middle East wholesale banking with Standard Chartered, where he was based in Dubai and led the integration of Grindlays in the Gulf as well as running corporate banking and as country manager.
He also has a lot of experience in working in Africa during the reconstruction of Standard Chartered’s African business. “I have a good knowledge of all the three regions of the Far East, Middle East and Africa and you can consider that is one of the reasons why this West-East Corridor concept developed,” he says.
NBAD reported a net profit of Dh5.23 billion ($1.42 billion) in 2015, down six per cent over the previous year’s net profit of Dh5.58 billion ($1.52 billion). Revenues for the whole year rose one per cent to Dh10.6 billion ($2.87 billion) compared to Dh10.4 billion ($2.84 billion). Return on equity was impacted by market challenges and at 12.9 per cent was below the medium-term target of 15 per cent. However, Thursby says the figure still represents a “healthy profitability, considering the wider economic environment”.
“The bank’s core business and balance sheet remained resilient in 2015 in the face of a challenging macro environment,” he says, adding that NBAD “remains confident and conservative in 2016”.
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