Banker On A Crusade

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28-01-2014

5 min read

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His first job as a junior banking officer more than three decades ago was not merely a launching pad for his career but also played a significant role in instilling invaluable lessons and values about the need to adhere to sound banking principles and practices.

A strong grounding in the values practised by banks before the days of the “Big Bang” has made Gatehouse Bank Plc chief executive officer Richard Thomas a strong advocate of ethical banking practices.

“I was very lucky to have started out (my career) in an organisation (Brown, Shipley & Co) that adopted very high ethical values and standards. Although it was already at the tail-end of the old banking days, I counted my blessings to have the opportunity to be a part of the true Merchant Banking Era as I called it.

“It has imparted the right values in me; that the main role of banks is to help create real value and productivity with their clients and the real economy. This made me abhor the way conventional banks of today sometimes conduct themselves,” Thomas shares during a recent trip to Kuala Lumpur.

He is a picture of cool and collected serendipity when talking about that subject; and with tongue-in-cheek, he confides that he is a happy man in not having contributed to “this problem caused by the global financial meltdown.”

I am glad I am not part of the problem, he enthuses.

Thomas says that before the onset of the Big Bang, working in a bank was so much simpler and straight forward as the values they adhered to were based on sound ethical values and principles.

But within the first three years after he joined the banking industry, the world of banking changed forever.

According to Wikipedia, the phrase “Big Bang” is used in reference to the sudden deregulation of financial markets by the United Kingdom government in 1986. The measures included abolition of fixed commission charges and of the distinction between stockjobbers and stockbrokers on the London Stock Exchange and change from open-outcry to electronic, screen-based trading.

Thomas says following that episode, the big banks started dabbling in more risky banking practices, such as highly leveraged transactions (HLT) and other financial papers including derivatives. The rest is history.

Recalling his first job, Thomas says he was fresh out of university when he landed a job in Brown Shipley in 1979 as a junior officer in documentary credits. Brown Shipley was then an “Accepting House” – a long-established British private merchant bank, based in London, providing trade finance, corporate finance and associated advisory services for private, institutional and corporate clients.

Humility helps

Besides learning the ropes about trade financing facilities for import of goods from China and Russia, Thomas also appreciated his de-facto job as the “tea boy” in charge of making tea and coffee for his fellow colleagues.

Once a “tea boy,” Thomas stresses that his humble beginnings taught him valuable lessons that added to his success.

“It is important to remember how each one of them wanted their drinks. That’s how it was in those days – making drinks for the other members of your team; this was how we integrated new recruits to the team,” he reminisces.

Although it may seemed like a regular, unimportant chore, Thomas says the “tea boy” role taught him some invaluable lessons about responsibility, serving others, and to develop respect and trust for his fellow colleagues.

“Before starting out in their first job, most young people are usually rather self-centred and think that the universe revolves around them. Somehow once they step into their maiden job, they start to think and act more responsibly.”

“From being a self-centred person, they start to realise that their decisions and choices will have an impact not only on themselves but also on other people. This will spur them to act with more accountability and responsibility,” he says.

That must also be the case with the young Thomas going by the fact that he still relishes his “tea boy” role days serving drinks to his former colleagues.

“On the job, the decisions we make are not only based on academic principles, but we need to apply what we have learned in the real world.”

He believes his first job has had a huge impact on his belief system and career.

His disillusionment with conventional banking after the advent of “Big Bang” did not stop him from carving an illustrious career in banking and finance.

After working for three years at Brown Shipley, he decided to move into Islamic finance in 1981. He has never turned back. Today, Thomas is a veteran in the field of syariah-compliant finance, with over 30 years of experience in the sector.

“I was attracted to the ethics and principles of Islamic financing; principally in the way it promotes knowledge and understanding of their customers and their business needs. If there is a good understanding of the customers and what they do, then the banks should know how much credit to extend to them without over lending,” he reasons.

Banking on ethics

Thomas believes Islamic finance is a very practical business; it is transactional, adds value and raises productivity.

“It is about engagement with the real economy, and so to prosper you must understand and engage with the real economy,” he explains.

His first job in Islamic finance was with Saudi International Bank in London where he stayed for 10 years until 1991. He then moved on to United Bank of Kuwait where he worked until end-1999.

Thomas became the Head of Islamic Financial Services at the Arab Banking Corp in London (ABCIB), as well as CEO of ABCIB Islamic Asset Management Ltd and Alburaq.

In 2007, Thomas was approached by some principal shareholders from Kuwait to set up Gatehouse Bank. Today, Gatehouse Bank is a British wholesale syariah-compliant investment bank focusing on how to support cross-border flows and undertake Islamic finance transactions at an international level. It has a paid-up capital of £150mil and assets under management of £1.7bil.

He says given the immense opportunities for Islamic financing services, Gatehouse is on the verge of moving from a “starter phase” to a “growth phase”, and it will be venturing into the Gulf Cooperation Council countries, the United States, and Asia. In recognition of his civic excellence in duties for the UK Islamic finance industry, Thomas was last year bestowed the honour of OBE (Order of the British Empire) by Queen Elizabeth II.

Thomas is also the UK Trade and Investment’s Special Representative for Kuwait, assisting in the UK government’s policy on the promotion of bilateral business and trade development between the UK and Kuwait, and a Fellow of the Chartered Institute for Securities and Investment. Given his long and illustrious career in banking, would he recommend it to young Malaysians?

Without hesitating, Thomas says: “Whatever field one aspires to be in, it is necessary to find out more and research on the sector. Don’t just accept what has been told to you, but build your own understanding and knowledge in advance. That way, you’ll be able to have the right picture of what you want to do and achieve in life.”

Guided by his principles, it is no wonder Thomas continues to uphold his role as a “crusader” of ethical banking practices.

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