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Home arrow Business & Finance arrow The art of RF (riba-free) Islamic banking and finance

THE STAFF AND EMPLOYEE POLICY

In my new capacity as the chairman of the board and the CEO at the Bank of Whittier, I felt fortunate but immensely challenged due to the staff situation when I arrived at the bank on July 10, 2003. I essentially had to staff a new bank, which was good, but the challenge was where to begin, where to find the staff, and most importantly what to look for.

One approach anyone in my situation would do is to contact an employment agency or to put an advertisement in the business papers like the Wall Street Journal or the Financial Times. However, that was not an option because of the type of bankers that would be expected to apply. They would ask for very high salaries, which the bank could not afford, and in general they would not agree to join a bank that was losing money and was in the shape that Bank of Whittier was in at the time. The other approach I tried was to contact friends in the banking industry to help recommend good bankers. I interviewed a few of them. I felt that they wanted a job and a big salary, which they knew was too large for the bank to afford in its state of profitability.

During a quiet moment our team sat down to ponder, brain storm, and think. It was reasoned that the bank could continue to use the services of the chief financial officer (CFO), but with very close supervision and a lot of patience to accommodate his negative and pessimistic “energy-sapping” remarks and attitude. We would also seek some of the wonderful hardworking associates at LARIBA to come and help. I asked my deputy at LARIBA and the secretary of the board to act as the chief credit officer on a part- time basis because the loan portfolio was very small. We all started also to look for a smart, sophisticated, and highly analytical credit analyst. It was reasoned that this person did not have to have any banking experience but must have demonstrable financial analysis skills. To do this, I called a friend and he recommended a person who was a perfect fit. He had an undergraduate degree in aerospace engineering (which meant to me that he has a very careful and deeply sophisticated approach to analysis), an MBA, and was working on his Certified Financial Analyst certification. He had a very heavy accent, and you had to either listen carefully to him or to ask him to repeat the words slowly in order to understand his English. I mention this to share with you the value of a person and the talents that person may have that can be uncovered regardless of this/her accent, national origin, faith, skin color, or gender.

In this regard, it would be useful to share two personal experiences. That experience happened to your author when I was training at Shearson American Express (predecessor to Smith Barney/Citigroup) for a cold-calling financial consultant job (cold calling is an American innovation). A cold call is a phone call initiated by the finance development representative, which is made to a person whom the financial officer has never met, hence the use of the word cold. The cold call is intended for the finance officer to meet that person on the phone, get to know that person, and offer one's services to that person on the other side of the call based on the experience and the service the finance firm or the bank offers. Cold calling requires excellent communication skills and sound intellect to be able to respond intelligently, spontaneously, and convincingly in an honest way and clear expression. During my cold call training, a co-trainee approached me in a sincere way and said that he wanted to give me an advice. He said that because of my accent, I needed to apologize to the person I cold-called, telling him or her that if he/she did not understand my accent they can feel free to ask me to repeat what I said. I looked at him for a minute and said to him that he must be crazy. He thought that he had offended me and started to apologize. I told him that he had not offended me and I thanked him for his advice and concern. I told him that if I had a scar on my face, I was not going to apologize for having it to every person I met. There are things that people cannot do much to change, and that should never be an impediment to their progress and acceptance by others. In fact, feeling rejected, ignored, discriminated against, marginalized, or isolated is all in the mind of the person who has the problem. If he/she accepts who he or she is and tries to improve himself or herself, he or she will be successful. If he/she feels sorry for himself/herself and feels that he/she is failing because he/she is discriminated against, he/ she will certainly fail. The mind is like a fertile soil. If one sows rose seeds in it, roses will grow, and the person will enjoy the smell and the beauty of the roses; but if one sows the seeds of poison ivy, one will be harmed by that ivy's poison. In my case, I went on to become the top achiever in the training class and eventually became a trainer in the Financial Advisory School at Shearson (a predecessor investment bank to Smith Barney/Citigroup), where I specialized in training people on how to make a cold call!

Another experience I had was with a customer at the bank. A prominent lady who belongs to a prominent family in the city had an account with the bank. I knew that the bulk of her money was at another bank. Our private bankers at the bank and I personally tried very hard to encourage her to transfer her banking service to us because she appeared on the NSF (nonsufficient funds) list every morning. I finally had a private meeting with her. I asked her to tell me frankly why she was not expanding her relationship with us. She said the first thing she thought I needed to do was to hire employees who speak English without an accent. I thanked her for her feedback. She continued to be on the NSF list. At a meeting of the operations department, they all complained about the disrespectful way she treated them when they called her respectfully to tell her that she had written a check without sufficient funds to cover it. We all were surprised because she never apologized but was always rude. We decided to ask her to close the account. During my account closing exit interview, I told her that I was sorry about the “accent” problem, but asked her to remember that the United States was founded and built and still is being built and refreshed by hardworking, sincere, and wonderful people who speak English with different accents, and I wished her the best.

We also decided to home-grow our own RF bankers using two approaches. The first was to advertise for banking entry-level positions in the business schools in the universities located in the cities surrounding Whittier. We looked for fresh graduates with excellent scholastic achievements, with a grade point average (GPA) of at least 3.5 (out of 4) and preferably 3.75. We asked not only for a resume/CV, but we also asked for the transcripts in order to carefully review the course work covered and the grades achieved. Experience has shown that this reveals a lot about the character of the applicant. We also advertised for part-time tellers in the same business schools. The idea was to train these tellers at a young age (sometimes as young as 18) and watch their progress closely in order to recruit from among them our future staff. We knew that this strategy and approach would need time, but it was reasoned that this would be the best investment for the future.

To train all of these new and fresh bankers, we pioneered the “Bank of Whittier Open University.” The classes are held at least once a year for 45 days from 8:00 a.m. to 9:30 a.m. and all staff members, including senior management and those with prior banking experience, are required to attend. The training program will be discussed in detail in Chapter 14. In addition, the bank started an intensive training program for the board of directors where we covered one topic of training on regulations and policies in each board meeting.

The decision to groom our own RF bankers fresh from universities proved to be the most important decision we ever made to change the fortunes of the bank. These smart fresh graduates were like sponges, hungry to absorb information and apply that information to their practice, to learn new banking regulations and techniques and strictly following them, and to create new solutions to the problems we faced. They brought with them vibrancy, fresh ideas, loyalty, challenges that made me feel younger, and most importantly the ability to be molded to believe in, operate, and serve people in our new brand of banking — the RF banking way.

 
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