With a résumé spanning three decades in the ever-changing Middle East banking sector, it’s easy to see why Ahmad Abu Eideh has become a transformational expert.
"Turning around the fortunes of a company is not easy," the CEO of Sharjah’s Invest Bank tells The CEO Magazine. "But when you have the right people by your side, there’s no such thing as a difficult job."
After working his way through the ranks from the most junior beginnings, Abu Eideh was already CEO of a bank by his late 30s.
"It’s truly been a privilege to be trusted with difficult jobs, especially transformations that entailed full restructuring of organizations and finding ways to dismantle legacy issues to make it possible to turn a new page," he explains.
"We’re not talking about cosmetic or superficial adjustments here and there, but rather very thorough, deep restructuring where my team and I take an end-to-end look at the organization – policies, processes, procedures and governance structures – and try to strip out any inefficiencies. Only then can we call it a genuine transformation."
In 2010, Abu Eideh was appointed CEO of a global bank in his native Jordan; his first time in such a role. Five years later, he was named CEO – Middle East, with his remit extended across Egypt, Iraq and Lebanon as well.
This role is the embodiment of everything I’ve learned over the years.
"I’ve been privileged to spearhead teams tasked with transformations under extremely challenging conditions, where it’s very difficult to plan ahead and implement long-term strategies for any financial institution," he says.
In 2019, Abu Eideh moved to the United Arab Emirates, where another of those challenging transformational opportunity was made part of his mandate.
Three years later, another such opportunity beckoned, this time with Sharjah-based Invest Bank.
"When we talk about transformation, it’s not just about the bottom line, like enhancing or even restoring profitability to a bank," he says, which is why he sees his job at Invest Bank as ‘the ultimate challenge’.
"My role has been the embodiment of everything I’ve learned over the years, from my first job as a junior clerk, then as a teller and trade clerk, then working in a treasury function before moving into corporate and investment banking.
"Here at Invest Bank, I find myself applying every piece of knowledge I’ve accumulated over the years."
A new mission
Established in Sharjah in 1975, Invest Bank might not appear as an old business by many countries’ standards. In the United Arab Emirates, however, that is not the case.
"The country itself was only founded by our leaders in the early 70s, so Invest Bank is effectively a home-grown brand that is almost as young as the UAE," Abu Eideh says. "The country was founded by visionary leaders who were very open to the idea of learning from other cultures all over the world, and here we are half-a-century later in a country that has become its own brand and a model that has inspired our entire region."
Invest Bank drew on the spirit of openness over the decades. As the United Arab Emirates brand took shape, and especially with new ownership taking the reins, giving the bank and its image an Emirati flavor became a pressing necessity.
"In its early days, Invest Bank had a focus on commercial banking, and in fact carved a niche for itself financing trade with regional economies, but the crises of recent years rendered some of its past exposures open to extreme volatility," he says
In 2022, the year Abu Eideh joined the bank, Invest Bank found itself compelled to absorb significant losses and write off a heavy legacy of what had then become non-performing loans. "We had a big job on our hands."
The mandate, he says, was to transform the bank with the least amount of resources and capital.
We had to give ourselves a fresh start across every facet of operations.
"We had to give ourselves a fresh start, which entailed intervention across every facet of the bank’s operations with the respective team members," Abu Eideh says.
"Each one of us was asked to draw on every skill that they had at their disposal: skills in governance, IT, HR, finance, compliance, business development, building sustainable relationships with new customers and digital transformation," he says.
"I had to empower the leaders within the bank to pick things up and move forward with their respective areas. That was the main driver."
There was another motivation, too. "Our bank is 50 percent owned by the government of Sharjah so we had a responsibility towards our government and our ultimate sponsor, His Highness Sheikh Dr Sultan bin Muhammad bin Sultan Al Qasimi, member of the Supreme Council and the ruler of Sharjah. They have placed a lot of trust in us," he explains.
A year in, and he can proudly say that with optimum use of the resources at his disposal, the restructuring of the bank has been concluded.
"Judging by the positive feedback we’ve been getting, we are on the right track," he says. "Our partners, our stakeholders, our regulators and the market in general are all impressed by what’s been achieved in a very short period of time, and they share our confidence that we are headed towards a very bright future."
Up and running
"We’ve introduced some basic functions that were non-existent," Abu Eideh says of the restructuring process, which created treasury and financial markets functions that were previously lacking.
"We didn’t have an image as a retail bank, so we created one. We were not particularly strong in terms of transactional banking, and the lines between wholesale and retail banking were somewhat blurred. All the lines have been clearly defined now."
There’s also been a quick turnaround in HR strategy to refresh the competitiveness of Invest Bank in the talent market.
The staff realize that they are part of a family rather than simply coming to do a job and going back home.
"We managed to hire very talented people into this organization and to realign our existing staff and their benefits to the market, which hasn’t happened in many years," he says. "I’m very proud that we are competitive in terms of staff offering.
"We have managed to enhance and create a family environment in the organization, which adds so much value. The staff realize that they are part of a family rather than simply coming to do a job and going back home."
He adds that he is proud to be a member of a team which is now "rejuvenated, reinvigorated and – most importantly – more empowered than ever before".
Transformation not disruption
Having steadied the ship, Abu Eideh and his team are able to look toward the future of the bank — and it’s one where technology shines bright.
"With the support of the board, we’ve taken on a bold decision to change the core banking system and apply the latest technology, so we’ve taken a trail-blazing route that may be seen as unconventional," he says.
By moving away from a traditional banking approach to a fully cloud native with a full SAAS model for its digital and core banking platform, Invest Bank will "lead the way in terms of innovation and position itself as a pioneering challenger bank in the region," according to Abu Eideh.
"We’re the first in the region to look at technology from a customer’s perspective," he explains. "We put their needs first, and then we source best-in-class providers who can help us fulfill those needs."
We’re targeting the whole UAE community with services that are novel and unconventional.
Abu Eideh is confident that this approach will allow Invest Bank to offer customers the best added value, especially as modern technology becomes even more pervasive and continually raises customer expectations.
"As a banker, I fully understand that if we’re not supported by the latest, cutting-edge technologies, then we won’t be prepared for a world where customer expectations are based on open banking, open finance and open data, which is coming our way as we speak."
The end goal is to become a hub for APIs to plug and play into, allowing Invest Bank to become a provider of non-banking products to its customers.
"Why is that important?" he asks. "Because as an API aggregator for retailers, we would have the power to actually approach the customer and offer funding to them for their purchases directly, without any intermediaries."
But Invest Bank’s mission is not to simply overturn the status quo. "We’re not here to disrupt banking," he stresses. "We want to transform into the future without disrupting anything. My team and I look at this as a typical step in the future of the financial system."
The vision for the future of Invest Bank that drives Abu Eideh is simple.
"We want to be viewed as a prime boutique bank that is focused on the retail side," he says. "To become the customer’s go-to bank, we must have customer-centric core values that we actually practice. We want people to understand that this is what our DNA is."
There’s a particular customer segment he has in mind, as well. "We want to focus on gen Zs and millennials, and provide them with the latest technologies that they’re used to," he says.
We’re not here to disrupt banking. We want to transform it into the future without disrupting anything.
With that demographic often disengaged from the world of banking, Abu Eideh believes the key to winning them around is simply to provide them with what they are asking for. On the corporate banking side that may be the latest technologies in cash management and trade and very quick turnaround times in approving credit applications.
"We want to be viewed as up-to-date, full of innovation and boutique in the sense that we focus on efficiencies rather than size," he explains. "We strive to serve the whole UAE community. Whether for retail individuals or business entities, our service offering will be novel and unconventional."
To fulfill this vision, the core values he is implementing revolve around integrity, transparency, efficiency and partnership.
"Partnership actually means being customer-centric," he says, adding that he prefers to use the word partner when referring to a customer. "It’s simple. We thrive, they thrive. They thrive, we thrive as well."
It’s a culture he’s focused on ingraining into the organization.
"Culture is net change and the biggest challenge to any CEO anywhere, especially in an industry like banking, where adopting unconventional digital norms and practices can be seen as a risk in its own right," he says.
Strength in Speed
Just as Invest Bank has transformed itself in record time, there’s one tool Abu Eideh has used which he wants the bank to retain as part of its corporate culture for the future: speedy decision-making.
"That’s one tool that has to remain in our toolbox at all times. We’ve been very agile, very accommodating, very adaptable with bureaucracy kept to a bare minimum, and we want it to stay that way," he says.
"Yes, we have some committees and panels, but we take very quick decisions. The turnaround we’ve achieved has proven – to us before anyone else – that you can do a comprehensive job quickly. That is one of our strengths."
Yet he’s confident that, in the next three-to-five years, the organization will be fully transformed into the premium boutique bank it aspired to be.
"I see it as being very well-run and functioning, providing the latest technologies to a very sizable customer – or partner – base," he says.
He also predicts efficiency will become a core characteristic of the bank. "Even as we grow bigger, we will keep our focus on the individual customer," he says.
"We don’t want to lose that focus. We want to cater to their individual requirements and have them interact with human beings – so upskilling my team to embrace that highly digital, partner-centric era that we are heading towards is crucial."
Alert and humble
Not ready to declare the job done, Abu Eideh says that the success of Invest Bank is an ongoing game of personal improvement and incremental enhancements.
"If you listen to your customers and to your wider stakeholders as well, you’ll find that there will never come a day when you sit back and think that you’ve completed your job 100 percent, that the page can be turned and you can move on," he says. "That keeps you alert and humble."
This perspective can also be felt in his own understanding of success.
We don’t want to treat our customer just as a number.
"I believe personal success means not having an end line to ambition and feeling ever more passionate and having the drive and the zest to get things done," he says.
"By the grace of God, I have that. I still wake up every day energized, especially when a new challenge comes up or an innovative idea is floated where there is a need for passion and dedication.
"To me, after 30 years in this industry, having the passion to actually go after that challenge or idea is success."