Business

Saturday March 16, 2013

Up close & personal with Datuk Ahmad Zaini Othman, Malaysia Building Society Bhd CEO

By CHERYL POO
cherylpoo@thestar.com.my


DATUK Ahmad Zaini Othman has been sleeping well these days.

In his last four years as CEO of Malaysia Building Society Bhd (MBSB), its profits have multiplied almost seven times, recording an all-time high of RM446.6mil.

As morale goes up so do efficiency levels.

What the visionary president and CEO inherited was a fairly profitable company with a sloppy work culture as a result of too much red tape and uninspired employees.

Business processes limped alongside unresolved legacy issues.

With operational issues affecting the company's profitability, insufficient funds crippled provisions for existing problems.

Zaini then organised a thorough revamp that included four company reorganisations to re-channel company resources.

Busting bureaucracies and moving his people around were necessary.

“Being profitable was so critical to us. Had we not settled this issue, we would have gone under. Our profits of below RM60mil came from writebacks. But we have come out strong. My work attitude is to do things fast and in the most efficient manner,” the 56-year-old reveals in an conversation in his office, where framed art works line its walls.

In a corner, a gift dagger sits in a glass box.

“The company performed poorly as it was run like a government agency. There was no sense of urgency and I had to do away with that by implementing private sector-esque practices,” he says.

In the interview, Zaini comes across as a plainspeaking man with few pretences.

He is sharp and outspoken, his managerial style garnered from decades of experience in the banking industry and, subsequently, corporate sector.

“The adaptive stayed. Those who weren't had to go,” he says in his husky baritone, “even those who show technical competency but display loyalty issues. There is no employment for life.”

Ruthless perhaps, but this is coming from a man whose working experiences were far more intimidating.

Upbringing

Zaini had an ordinary childhood. At seven, he played truant with the help of his mother and was constantly victimised by school bullies who pilfered his lunch allowance.

The years flashed by and by his late teens, he'd decided it was time to get his act together.

He dug into his books at university and excelled.

“Once I started work, there was no resting on my laurels. I went all the way,” he recalls.

His father was a hospital assistant whom he remembers as a pillar of civic consciousness.

As Zaini talks about his education, his mind inescapably turns to MBSB's robust growth in Islamic personal financing, which rose 104% year-on-year and 63.3% quarter-on-quarter.

The scheme is the most competitively priced in the nation, available only to government employees.

His affinity for this facet of the business is clear, as he was a beneficiary of a similar programme when he studied in the UK and the United States.

“I repaid every cent of it. People should not just walk away from their dues,” he says.

Fearless

Upon graduation, Zaini found work in a merchant bank.

“It was vigorous and rigorous training where we had to learn fast from the mistakes of others,” he says.

Exposure to property financing, loan acquisitions, documentation and recovery helped Zaini develop a sense of courage to carry out tasks unfamiliar to him.

Soon, the esteemed lad was tasked with setting up the bank's credit management programme.

It was painstaking work, but it only served to fuel his appetite for bigger responsibilities.

At 30, he pioneered his company's repossession of a dredger vessel off the Straits of Malacca when a client defaulted on its loan.

It was apparently a dangerous project and the CEO had appointed a senior to handle it.

When the latter hesitated, Zaini voluntarily raised his hand.

His CEO raised a brow.

Are you sure? Well, alright then.

“We were dealing with unscrupulous men. Those sea-men could take you apart and toss you into the sea. No one would care,” Zaini says.

He recalls seeking advice from internal and external consultants.

The maritime department could not help since the vessel's offshore location was well beyond the local authority's jurisdiction.

Zaini's job was to get his new crew safely on board for the takeover, but he was up against a strong and unrelenting captain.

Without his signature, nothing could move.

After some research, Zaini found a loophole the captain's commissioner (the bank's defaulting client) was not paying him and the crew's patience was wearing thin.

With RM400,000 cash, they were willing to walk away from their employer.

The young banker contacted his CEO, retrieved the approved funds from a branch in Port Dickson and completed the errand with the support of hired muscle for protection.

It was a riveting experience, but “nothing compared to his subsequent years in Perwaja Steel”.

“It was a dark time working in the steel industry. And an invaluable learning experience,” he says.

The business was underwater at a time that a more seasoned Zaini was tasked to the company's restructuring exercise.

When he terminated a contract worth hundreds of millions of ringgit, angry mobsters set his brand new Volvo ablaze at midnight.

“Dead chicken, black clothes, red cloth you name it, I've received all sorts of threats,” he recalls.

His concern grew when thugs loitered near his office, chasing his car until he reached home.

The ultimatum was a bullet that came in the mail.

“This is meant for you,” a note in it read.

“My wife was very upset but I was in too deep to leave the industry. Those years opened my eyes to the world out there,” he says.

Lessons for life

“I realised how far humans would go to achieve their objectives,” he says. “Those experiences showed me things that the younger generation wouldn't understand. They haven't clocked in enough hours to see such things.”

He talks about employees who are willing to jump ship at a mere RM500 increment.

“When you do that, you lose experience and exposure. What would you have achieved when you keep hopping? There's more to it than these short-term thrill. In my time, I had many job offers but I chose to stay and learn. Street smart can only be developed via circumstances.”

“So you see why I may seem to be brutal in making company decisions,” he says. “This is no place for prima donnas. Everyone must prove oneself.”

Recently, some younger colleagues expressed to him their regret at not having begun working at MBSB sooner.

It's the sort of comment that validates what you do, it says that you must have done something right.

Zaini's father, at his deathbed, had said to his son: “Whatever you do, do not tarnish my name.”

It was a sobering message that never left Zaini's mind.

“I tell my two daughters to have purpose in all that they do. There are no shortcuts to success. I never received anything on a silver platter. I work for everything I have and don't owe anyone anything,” he says.

“I'm satisfied with the work I've done. I'd be able to retire knowing that I made a difference.”

BORN: Kuala Lumpur

PERSONAL: Married with 2 daughters

HIGHEST QUALIFICATION: MBA (Finance) at University of St Louis

CAREER: President and CEO of Malaysia Building Society Bhd (MBSB)

NOTEWORTHY: MBSB's hitting RM1bil in market capitalisation at the end of 2010; admission into the prestigious The Edge Billion Ringgit Club; and being awarded “The Best Performing Stock” and “Highest Profit Growth Company” for 2011 under the financial sector class

MBSB was accorded second place in the financial service sector category of the KPMG Shareholder Value Award.

FAVOURITE FOOD: Sandwich and thosai

FAVOURITE PLACE: The English countryside

HOBBIES: Collecting watches

VALUES: Humility and integrity

INSPIRATION: Those who are successful via their own effort and hard work

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