Featured today in this exclusive series of Business Leaders’ Perspectives, Ahmed al Musalmi, CEO of Sohar International Bank, shares the bank’s experience in dealing with the COVID-19 situation and discusses plans and strategies to face the ‘next normal’ in a post-COVID-19 world.
What is your brief assessment of the position of your company in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic?
With our purpose to help people ‘win’ by delivering banking for their ever-changing world, we have stayed committed to maintaining a consistent focus on our top priorities – our customers, our people and our society. From the onset of the pandemic, we concentrated on ensuring the safety of our colleagues whilst maintaining continuous service to our customers and supporting the community as our national duty.
Our existing strategies and business continuity plans (BCPs) were tested to their limits and proved to be significantly resilient and adaptive to the situation. Adopting the best practices and staying connected at all times with our people and customers from the start enabled us to move forward and sail through these uncharted waters.
Leveraging our strengths of a strong infrastructure and extensive capabilities, we were able to provide uninterrupted banking to our customers whilst continuing to focus on all our other stakeholders and meet the needs of the nation during the stressed period.
What plans/strategies did you adopt to maintain your operations during the lockdown period over the past 2-3 months? How beneficial did this prove to be?
In a business environment that constantly evolves and adapts based on a host of external factors, it is important to have the necessary strategies in place to ensure all-round business continuity and minimum disruptions to productivity, efficiency and security.
In the event of a situation that may affect operations in any way, Sohar International is committed to safeguarding the interests of its customers, employees and all other stakeholders. Our Business Continuity Management (BCM) Programme is geared towards mitigating the impact caused by unforeseen circumstances, ensuring every effort is made to maintain a normal approach to ‘business as usual’ functions.
During the pandemic period, it was evident from the start that functioning remotely would be key to the ongoing delivery of our services. As part of our strategy, the digital transformation takes a strong focus, and therefore we accelerated our digitalisation agenda gearing our already capable infrastructure with the right add-ons and tools enabling employees and customers to conduct banking from the safety and comfort of their homes.
From committing towards national-level initiatives to providing recourse measures to our customers, the bank nimbly adopted many tactical steps to blunt the impact of the crisis and shape itself for the ‘next normal’. Since the onset of the pandemic, our workforce has demonstrated tremendous resolve to exceed the expectations of our stakeholders and customers with seamless engagement and more velocity, even while working remotely.
Looking ahead, what are your immediate and short-term plans that you believe will help Sohar International recalibrate and move forward with renewed purpose?
As we adapt to the ‘new normal’, we do so with optimism and with full preparedness tackling any and all challenges resulted by the impact of COVID-19 crisis. With digitalisation being a key focus of the bank, we have expanded our digital footprint and have on-boarded tens of thousands of customers onto our digital platforms, while enriching our relationships with customers across the board and moving more to support them to navigate through these challenging times. Their win is our win.
With our customer-centric strategies and strong digital capabilities, Sohar International is prepared for the ‘next normal’ and equipped with an ambition to seize new opportunities and push boundaries of excellence and redefine banking for the future.
What immediate changes are required in your workplaces, with regard to physical infrastructure, employee welfare, work culture and business promotion, in view of the new guidelines related to COVID-19?
Coming out of the lockdown imposed in the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, a different world awaits us. To face the new normal, we have provided our staff with full support and care to ensure their safety as our topmost priority. We have also created broad-based awareness internally on health tips in order to ensure the safety of all our stakeholders when entering the premises of Sohar International. Further ensuring a safe working environment, we have balanced our presence in office and branches by equipping staff with collaboration technologies and devices to work from home. We have installed all the necessary precautionary tools to maintain hygiene and safety at all touchpoints of the bank in full compliance with the government norms. To cope with the new situation, we are heavily enhancing our digital capabilities to ensure the remote banking convenience for customers. We are ready to face the new normal by pushing the boundaries of excellence and redefining banking for the future.
What have been your primary concerns regarding building/maintaining your company image, during the pandemic, as well as improving performance to regain connections and trust with your consumers/clients?
From the very beginning of the pandemic, we were very clear in our approach to remain steady. Staying connected to stakeholders during regular business environment is very important and it becomes more so during a crisis. Hence, we ensured regular and close contact with our clients to support them as well as understand their requirements providing them with the support, advisory and solutions to ease their financial burdens and help them navigate through the crisis.
We remain committed to serve the interests of our stakeholders including the customers as well as the community-at-large during the pandemic and post COVID-19. In line with our national duty and social responsibility during this pandemic, we rolled out a host of initiatives, including a commitment of over RO1mn to combat the impacts of the crisis and to support the nation in its actions towards ensuring the safety of the people. To strengthen financial security, we offered up to three months instalment deferment on housing and personal loans to ease the burden on our retail clients. In addition, we also provided six months of interest and fee waivers to all our SME clients thereby providing further financial relief to every customer who needs help.
Did you have the option of working from home for your staff during the lockdown and to what extent was it helpful? Will you continue to offer that option as part of your new strategy?
Ensuring a safe banking experience for all in line with our Business Continuity Plan, Sohar International followed an emergency response plan to tackle the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic at all touchpoints of the bank. As part of the plan, the bank was fully prepared to function remotely, increasing its capabilities to provide seamless banking for customers. Critical functions of the bank were designated to the different offices to reduce staff density in such departments. In keeping with the highest standards of a healthy work environment, the branch operations were streamlined to protect our staff and customers.
Sohar International continues to seek the most efficient ways of functioning within the environment it operates in and in line with international trends and best practices. Such new ways of functioning have been proven extremely efficient globally. We are at the very beginning of such fundamental changes. In the post-COVID-19 scenario, the bank will weigh the options to determine the convenience and benefits of allowing staff to work from home.
What lessons were learnt from this crisis that would help redefine your corporate goals as well as help the bank experience sustained growth in the years ahead?
Experience has taught Sohar International that through effective crisis preparedness and management procedures, any unforeseen situation can be handled with the required prompt actions. The most effective management of the COVID-19 pandemic was the rapid activation of effective emergency plans. The bank was fully geared to promptly initiate the required action plan on high priority. We are confident that Sohar International is in a position to continue strongly as we gear up for the next phase of this pandemic. The new phase highlights the importance of us co-existing and adapting to the ‘new normal’ gradually.
Whatadditional challenges do you anticipate in 2020-21 and would you place greater emphasis on the risk management?
Globally the economic recovery is expected to be gradual as we move ahead. Certain sectors may take longer than others to recover. Pivotal to the COVID-19 relief measures were the steps initiated by the government to help individuals and businesses to get back on their feet. The recent restructuring of the government is a positive step and we expect Oman to transition into a more diversified and efficient economy in the future.
Going forward, the role of the banks will continuously be critical in facilitating this transition. The Business Continuity Unit and team within the bank continually and consistently assess the effectiveness of the set plans in such crises situations and this sort of preparedness has been key to us being able to navigate through uncharted waters successfully. With advanced risk management and analytical capabilities in place, we see ourselves tackling the challenges and capitalise on emerging opportunities in the future, delivering against our sustainability goals.
In your opinion, how important it is for staff to undergo training to realign themselves with the bank’s policies/new strategies as well as to immerse themselves in a new work culture that the pandemic has dictated?
The only constant in this world is the change, and change requires adaptation. Adapting to a world post-COVID-19 is definitely important and essential; however, it is the process of adaptation itself that is even more important. In the wake of the pandemic, the learnings and takeaways have enabled us to understand the effective steps that need to be undertaken by us to ensure the continuity of our purpose to fulfil the vision set forth.
From conducting virtual training, meetings, interviews, to working remotely from home servicing clients, the world we are living in now is one that is very dynamic and constantly changing. Sohar International staff and in that case, any other employees working within the different sectors, will need to enhance and familiarise themselves with the digital world as digital has stopped becoming an enabler, and in fact, has now become a way of life.
Our employees have shown exceptional character and grit during this period of crisis. When it was easy to crumble under immense pressure and stress, they focused on customer needs and requirements.
What is the No 1 positive aspect you would take from the last three months?
There are multiple positive takeaways from the pandemic experience. The most important takeaway for Sohar International is how the leadership has risen to a challenging situation to instil the confidence and provide guidance to all stakeholders. The series of proactive measures initiated by the bank proved how important it is to stay focused in a calm manner on the end goals and purpose such as the growth strategy and vision of the bank. The learning experience has no doubt further enhanced our perspective to view any situation whether positive or negative as a fact of life.
The faster adoption of digital platforms for banking has further stimulated our ‘digital first’ mindset offering the best-in-class digital ecosystem to our customers for whom digital is a way of life. The pandemic has further redefined the consumer behaviour with purchases currently centred on the most basic needs and people becoming more conscious to save to meet the uncertainties of the future. We need to take cognizance of this shift and build our products and services in alignment with the changing consumer attitudes.
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