Bernd van Linder set an ambitious goal to double the bank’s size upon becoming CEO of Commercial Bank of Dubai in 2017. Six years into the job and one global pandemic later, van Linder has accomplished his goal while positioning the bank as a leader in Dubai and setting it on a path for growth in the Gulf region.
"I thought that this was a bank with a fantastic starting point to really double in size, and that’s essentially what we’ve done since I joined," van Linder recalls in an interview with The CEO Magazine. "We’re now, as a bank, roughly twice the size of what we were in terms of balance sheet, in terms of profitability, and in terms of market share, as well, which has risen from about two percent to close to five percent."
Dubai, one of the seven emirates comprising the United Arab Emirates, has undergone a remarkable transformation over the past five decades, becoming an important destination for commerce, finance and tourism.
Van Linder has positioned the Commercial Bank of Dubai to grow along with the emirate. A veteran of banking in the Middle East, he is bullish on the United Arab Emirates.
"I’m very optimistic about the economy of the United Arab Emirates, about the economic growth that we’ve seen, and the economic growth that we’re going to see in the coming years," van Linder says. "I think the government has done everything right when it comes to policies.
We really believe there’s good growth opportunities in the United Arab Emirates economy, and that we will be able to get more than our fair share of that growth.
"We really believe there’s good growth opportunities in the United Arab Emirates economy, and that we will be able to get more than our fair share of that growth," he continues. "With a five percent market share, there’s still a world to be gained. There’s a 95 percent market share that we don’t have in the local market."
Van Linder expresses similar bullishness on the Gulf region, where Commercial Bank of Dubai is expanding its footprint into Saudi Arabia, Oman and Bahrain.
From AI to banking
Van Linder brings an unconventional background to the banking industry: He received a PhD in Artificial Intelligence from the University of Utrecht in the Netherlands, and later completed an MBA in Financial Management from the University of Bradford in the United Kingdom.
After a year with Philips Electronics, he jumped to Dutch bank ABN AMRO in 1997, before moving to the Middle East and joining Saudi Hollandi Bank, which later became Alawwal Bank.
I’m very optimistic about the economy of the United Arab Emirates, about the economic growth that we’ve seen, and the economic growth that we’re going to see in the coming years.
"We roughly doubled the bank in size, in balance sheet size, in profitability between 2010 and 2015," he says of his time at Saudi Hollandi.
That is when Commercial Bank of Dubai came calling.
"I really thought, ‘That’s a bank where it would be possible to try and achieve the same thing, to really double the bank in size,’" he says.
Transforming the bank
Van Linder took the reins of what he calls "a truly commercial bank".
"It was a bank that was very strong in sort of the mid-size corporate client segment," he says. "What we set out to do when I joined is to build up our personal bank, our retail bank."
Commercial Bank of Dubai expanded its credit book and became a major player in home finance. It also started a push toward digitalization. Then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.
We’re very proud to be a relationship bank. We’re very close to our customers.
During the pandemic, van Linder made staff, customer and stakeholder safety the top priority. His number two priority was carrying on with business as usual while taking all the precautions and safety measures that were necessary.
"We really wanted to be there as a bank to support our clients," he says.
The pandemic inadvertently hastened the digitization process, providing technology which customers have embraced.
"We provided uninterrupted service during the pandemic. And after the pandemic, we really have seen a change in customer behavior," van Linder says.
"We’re back to the days of physical contact, human interaction and face-to-face meetings, but it’s clear that many things can be done digitally, and our customers want them to be done digitally. We’re very proud to be a relationship bank. We’re very close to our customers. We understand our customers. We support our customers in good times, in challenging times."
Van Linder’s background in AI has served him well in the banking sector.
"It allows me to appreciate the importance of technology and the importance of digitization," he says.
While embracing technology is an imperative, van Linder cautions companies on their approach. "There is a tendency sometimes to make a mistake and think that acquiring the right technology, or acquiring lots of technology, or spending lots of money on technology, will be a solution to everything," he says.
"With the right team in place, technology can be a fantastic enabler. But you have to make sure that you are in a position that you understand how you can make technology that enabler."
With the right team in place, technology can be a fantastic enabler. But you have to make sure that you are in a position that you understand how you can make technology that enabler.
Van Linder started working with fintech companies in what he calls "a true partnership".
"They gave us some state-of-the-art solutions, some really cutting edge technological solutions for problems that we had," he says of the partnerships. "It also provided the fintechs to learn from a bigger banking partner and reach the next stage of maturity."
Success by any measure
With the pandemic in the past, the bank is confronting new challenges, starting with acquiring and retaining the right talent, according to van Linder. Commercial Bank of Dubai has prioritized developing local talent, hiring close to 100 United Arab Emirates nationals in 2023 alone.
"We really develop them for a good career in banking, preferably at Commercial Bank of Dubai. But if they decide to go somewhere else, then that’s perfectly OK," van Linder says. "That’s our contribution to the economy and the society of the United Arab Emirates."
We have one of the highest returns on equities of any of the banks in the United Arab Emirates. So, in terms of financial metrics, success is easily measurable.
Developing talent is but one measure of success for van Linder. He points to more traditional metrics such as the net profit doubling to nearly US$545 million, the balance sheet nearly doubling, too, and Commercial Bank of Dubai boasting the lowest cost-to-income ratio of any of the banks in the region, even much bigger banks, he says.
"We have one of the highest returns on equities of any of the banks in the United Arab Emirates," he says. "So, in terms of financial metrics, success is easily measurable."
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