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Myth of a ‘legendary banker’

By Sirajuddin Aziz

A legendary banker was born on May 14, 1922, in Lucknow. He has undoubtedly enlightened the financial panorama with the radiance of his vision and zeal. This revered personality is none other than Agha Hassan Abedi who spent his early life in Lucknow. He acquired his post-graduate degree in literature but adopted banking as his profession. He beautifully fused the mundaneness of banking with a high level of human intellect and carved a scenic landscape of innovation and ingenuity.

Agha Hassan Abedi started his banking career with Habib Bank Limited in Bombay and served the institution till 1957. He parted amicably from Habib Bank on a dispute of ‘principle’ and in 1959 laid the foundations of a financial institution named United Bank Limited in collaboration with the Saigols.

United Bank Limited has achieved significant milestones and had expanded to a network of over 600 branches nationwide with more than a dozen overseas branches. It emerged as the second largest bank of the country and remained a formidable competitor to Habib Bank till its nationalisation in 1974.

When nationalisation of financial institutions was looming on the anvil, Abedi set up a bank in Luxembourg called BCCI with the help of Bank of America, the royal family of the UAE and other Middle Eastern countries. The Ramazan war of 1973 brought to the international forefront “oil as a weapon” which translated into a lucrative resource generating a stream of income for the Middle East for many decades to come. Consequently the region was flushed with abundance of petro dollars. This aroma reeked of the perfect ingredients to attract international banks to indulge in the scrumptious deal of managing the excess bounties of petro-dollar-loaded Arab states.

The highly acclaimed pioneer of the then strikingly notable Bank of Credit and Commerce International (BCCI) broadened the purview of the bank by instituting it in 73 countries the world over in less than two decades. It even bagged the position of the sixth largest bank in terms of country network against the difficult competition posed by global banks.

The bank was shut down… in fact forcibly closed by a college of regulators. The bank was highly liquid, but not comfortably profitable. It didn’t suffer from any non-treatable financial malaise unknown to the global banking industry, but that it was shut down was more a consequence of the interplay of diabolical political and regulatory suspicion.

Agha Hassan Abedi was an articulator of new management concepts. He exhibited the depth of his soul by speaking on compassion, empathy, humility, interdependence, tolerance, forbearance and interfusion. He took the role of a great leader; he also played the part of a mentor for his staff, an inspiration to the entire financial sector, envy to the competitors, awe to the peers and an addition to the list of great leaders. Amongst the innumerable conferences that he convened, I recall how fresh he was when he called the day’s proceeding to an end at 3:00 am in Athens, Greece, having promptly started the meeting at 10:00 am the previous day.

As management trainees we always referred to him fondly as “Agha sahib”. He brushed shoulders with top political leaders belonging to the US, the USSR, China, India, Pakistan and the UAE and for many of them he acted as a financial and economic consultant. He spoke of Corporate Social Responsibility in the late 70s. He helped President Jimmy Carter in the establishment of Carter Centre, including the setting up of ‘Global 2000’ which dedicated itself to the underprivileged and downtrodden citizens of the third world. He personally supported many charities globally. Abedi sahib, you were great and will remain so in the fond memories of many.

The writer is CEO of Bank Alfalah Limited

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