We are pleased to welcome Laila Al-Qatami of Gulf Bank today. Ms Al-Qatami is the Kuwaiti bank’s head of corporate communications, and has generously shared her insight into banking in the country, the efforts Gulf Bank has made to promote gender equality and the important role technology is playing within the bank.
And I’d like to start on that subject of technology, if I may, Ms Al-Qatami. How disruptive a role would you say technology has played in terms of changing the business models of banks in Kuwait in recent years?
Technology has certainly been affecting the banking industry worldwide and in Kuwait. People want a smooth banking experience; they are increasingly turning toward mobile banking and new technologies. Gulf Bank is adapting to disruptive technologies to not only meet our customers’ expectations, but also to deliver an efficient and relevant customer experience. However, one needs to be thoughtful in the technologies they embrace, as you can’t be completely certain which technologies will be truly transformative and which will be a fleeting trend.
As we have noted the clear move to mobile and digital banking, we have revamped our mobile and online banking platforms accordingly. We will continue to update and add features based on our research and customer needs. We’ve also introduced new ATM machines, which offer a better customer experience by increasing security and reducing downtime and power consumption. We have also introduced Interactive Teller Machines (ITMs), which include high-definition video displays that allow for customers to interact via live video with a teller located at a remote location. The customer is able to conduct many of their banking needs without having to visit a branch. The customer is also able to use the ITM machines during off hours, when a branch would be closed. The response to the ITMs has been positive, and we have plans to introduce more of these machines in the future.
As part of that revamp of the bank’s mobile- and online-banking platforms that you just mentioned, I understand that on the retail side, you launched a new mobile-banking application and digital-banking portal during last year’s second quarter. How positively have customers responded to these additions?
Globally, mobile banking is the largest banking channel by transaction volume for the majority of banks. In the Middle East region, mobile banking is growing at exceptionally fast rates, and consumer behavior is changing. People prefer seamless services without hassle or effort; instead of visiting a branch, growing numbers would opt to use mobile banking to conduct and fulfill their banking needs. The convenience of being able to bank anywhere and ease of use are reasons customers are moving to mobile and online banking.
At Gulf Bank, this is a starting point for our digital strategy aimed at leveraging the fact that mobile usage in Kuwait is very high. We have created a world-class mobile-banking application that has helped us surge ahead of competition. In May 2016, we launched our mobile-banking app, which offers groundbreaking biometric security, exceptional and intuitive navigational efficiencies, as well as market-leading transactional capabilities.
Our login method is unique to the Middle East and one of the few in the world. Customers can opt to login via a traditional password method, use our sophisticated two-factor biometrics—facial recognition and touch id/fingerprint. This “Blinking to Bank” allows for users to scan their facial features after using their fingerprint to begin their mobile-banking experience. We also designed the app so that users could complete any transaction in three clicks or less.
One year on, we have seen an almost 250-percent increase in the monthly growth of the bank’s digital base and around an 800-percent increase in monthly mobile banking. The app has also been recognized as the best in the Middle East from several noteworthy publications and institutions.
It sounds as if you’re introducing several ground-breaking innovations into the Middle Eastern market. I note that another first was achieved by Gulf Bank last December—if I’m not mistaken, you were the first bank to officially obtain investment licenses from the Capital Markets Authority in Kuwait, which will enable the bank to practice a range of investment activities. Have the licenses been effective thus far in helping the bank to better serve its customers and meet their investment needs?
As part of our long-term strategy to offer services that will benefit our customers, we approached Kuwait’s banking and financial regulators to obtain approval for investment licenses. We were pleased to be the first bank in Kuwait to secure these approvals from the Capital Markets Authority. The licenses that Gulf Bank was granted will enable the bank to practice the following roles: portfolio manager, custodian, investment controller, subscription agent, in addition to the initial approval to perform as investment adviser. These licenses will run for three years starting from the date of the issuance.
Soon we will be unveiling a distinguished and specific investment service that will allow our customers to invest in a unique way across the region. Our service will enable customers to invest in global markets safely and efficiently based on their personal preferences leading to increases on their returns on investment. We are looking forward to sharing more information about this soon.
Great, we look forward to hearing more about this new service. I’d like to turn now to the bank’s human-capital policies. In terms of training and education, how does Gulf Bank ensure staff can progress through the ranks successfully, and ultimately have a long career at the bank?
One of the things we take pride in at Gulf Bank is our commitment to training and education for staff. Our Human Resources department works with each department to ensure that the training needs for their respective staff are met. The bank also holds workshops and seminars on the importance of innovative thinking and how to incorporate it into our work. As the bank believes in a meritocracy, advancement is based on performance and measured on achievement.
We have also created a special training program named Ajyal, which means generations, for our young employees. Ajyal nurtures young Kuwaiti talent early in their careers to develop them into “holistic bankers” and prepare them for future leadership positions at the bank. Kuwaiti employees who have worked at the bank for one year, but not more than three years, can apply to the program. After initial screening, the candidates must successfully complete a series of assessment tests. Each stage of selection is based on elimination, and only those who complete each stage advance onwards. The final step is an interview with a panel of Gulf Bank executives.
This is a nine-month program of intensive training covering every facet of banking from the basic principles of banking; financial economics; banking laws and regulations; corporate and retail finance; to risk management, anti-money laundering, banking ethics and customer orientation. It also enhances participants’ critical, analytical and reflective-thinking ability, in addition to exposing them to creativity, presentation skills, customer-service orientation and understanding of corporate social responsibility.
This is our third year of the program, and we are pleased to see the graduates moving along in their careers and making their marks.
And how about your own role in particular, Ms Al-Qatami—as manager of corporate communications—what is the most challenging aspect of your role?
I enjoy the fast-paced, deadline-driven work of communications and public relations. In my job, I am responsible for the bank’s overall image through its media coverage, social media, events and corporate-social-responsibility program. There are lots of moving parts to what I do, and one of the most challenging aspects of my work is keeping up with everything that is happening and ensuring our messaging is synchronized.
Naturally, I wouldn’t be successful at what I’m doing were it not for the team working with me. I have a team who is also dedicated to their roles and offer each other the support and backup needed to ensure our success. I know that each person on the team wants our work to be world-class, and they each put in the extra effort needed to ensure our standards. They also make the work environment fun, even when the workload is heavy. I appreciate all their efforts and am glad to have a team who is committed to success.
You have been with Gulf Bank for almost two years now, if I’m not mistaken. If you could name one standout feature of the bank’s business culture that has caught your attention during this time, what would it be?
I’ve been working at Gulf Bank for almost two years now. In my career, I’ve worked in communications around the world. For many years, I worked in Washington, DC, and for almost a decade I was a spokesperson and advocate for the rights of Arab Americans and Muslim Americans. I’ve also worked for the government of the United Arab Emirates and for the government of Kuwait.
My working in the banking industry came about organically. I was ready for a new challenge and was encouraged to consider banking. While it did not initially appeal to me, I went through the interview process. Once I met the chairman of Gulf Bank, Mr Omar Kutayba Alghanim, I saw that Gulf Bank was uniquely progressive. The culture of the bank is a meritocracy, and innovative thinking is valued. The bank provides numerous training and educational opportunities for its staff.
The bank also is very committed to gender parity and empowering women. It goes beyond talk; it isn’t about thinking about a better future for Kuwait and our region, it is actively building it one step at a time. The bank’s corporate-social-responsibility program is very active in educating and supporting youth, as well as holding and supporting events and activities that are making a sustainable impact in Kuwait.
Yes, it certainly appears that the empowerment of women is high on Gulf Bank’s priority list, especially as one of its major corporate-social-responsibility initiatives is the “Women in the Corporate World” non-profit conference, which was held by the bank in May 2016. How easy to do you think it is to attract women to the banking industry in Kuwait?
Gulf Bank has a very strong corporate-social-responsibility program. We revamped the program in the last two years to focus on areas in which we believe we can make a sustainable impact. We work in the areas of youth education and entrepreneurship; health and fitness; women’s empowerment; promoting heritage and traditions; and community service. In May 2016, along with our partner Alghanim Industries, we organized the “Women in the Corporate World: Beyond the Glass Ceiling” conference to raise awareness about the importance of gender diversity and key issues facing women in the workplace.
The conference brought the topic of diversity in the workplace to the forefront, and the discussion resonated with Kuwait. At the conference, we revealed the results of a Kuwait-wide survey aimed at improving the key motivating factors for women in the workplace; the majority of respondents (83 percent) were working women and (17 percent) were students. The majority of women indicated their preference for jobs in the private sector. The reasons for this were noted as: challenging work; room for learning and development; possibility for career advancement; a more healthy work environment; the reputation of the company; as well as salary and benefits. Results also noted that 7 out of 10 women noted the top two key motivating factors behind employment choices: the possibility for career progression was the top factor in choosing employment, followed by financial reward. For women who worked in the public sector, they indicated their choice was due to more flexible working hours.
At Gulf Bank, we encourage qualified women to join us. Our workforce is approximately 40 percent female. We work to provide an environment where women can move ahead based on their achievements. However, we have found that when women have families, they tend to drop out of the workforce and consequently don’t make it into leadership positions. We continue to encourage them to stay in the workforce, by offering flexibility and maternity-leave policies, and hope to have more women in our leadership ranks.
Well, I must say that you appear to be part of a very forward-thinking and innovative financial institution, Ms Al-Qatami. Hopefully the acquisition of the investment licenses will also help the bank’s customers achieve their investment objectives going forward. We wish you and Gulf Bank the best for the coming year. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us today.