Ghazi Qarout - Al Hilal Bank

Friday, 12 August 2011 12:44
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Mr Qarout started his career with Arab Bank as a programmer back in 1983. He participated in many projects within the bank including ATM systems and an end to end core banking deployments, he worked in several countries during his tenure with the bank.
After leaving Arab Bank, Ghazi consulted for Al Hilal Bank on IT strategy and deployment.  In early 2010, he was appointed as the Head of IT of Al Hilal Bank where he is now Senior Vice President and CIO.
Mr Qarout is a backgammon expert, he also supports Barcelona and Liverpool football clubs in addition to the LA Lakers, his favorite basketball team.


The Interview 

CIO2CIO: Talk to us a about your employer, its key business challenges and how IT Support overcomes them.
Ghazi: Al Hilal Bank is a relatively young Islamic bank which commenced its services in June 2008. It is owned by the Abu Dhabi Investment Council, its capitalisation of AED 4 billion. Differentiation is one of our core values, one example is our flagship mall branch concept where the client can walk through our different offerings and select his/her preferred services.
Naturally IT has to align its strategy with that of the bank. This is reflected on our state of the art IT architecture. But in IT we were more concerned about building the capabilities rather than systems; this allows us to respond quickly to the ever changing business needs

CIO2CIO: In your view, what is the biggest challenge faced by CIOs nowadays? Is it budgets, skills, picking the right technology, or status within the enterprise?
Ghazi: Of course budget, skills and picking the right technology are all classic challenges, yet I would consider being able to quickly respond to the ever changing business requirement as the major challenge. As a new bank aggressively seeking to grow its market share we need to be agile, we need to be fast but without compromising quality or security.

CIO2CIO: As an accomplished CIO of a leading organisation, can you talk to us about the project you hold closest to your heart, the project you are most proud of?
Ghazi: My favourite project and the one closest to my heart is the ATM application which I launched in 1985 at Arab Bank. It was the first of its kind in the Arab world; it was a great feeling to successfully introduce new technology, to be a pioneer.
Similarly, I can say that Al Hilal Bank is ahead of any other bank terms of using the latest technology; it requires vision, excellent planning, courage and of course full management support to forge ahead.

CIO2CIO: Is there a project that you look at in retrospect with a certain amount of regret? Something that did not go that well and that you would like to share your learning experience with our CIO community?
Ghazi: There have been many lessons learned in the projects I have been involved with. I believe vendor management is critical to the success of any project. Defining the scope of work is essential in order not to leave any room for misinterpretation later on. Additionally, having the full commitment of the senior management and the stakeholders is a vital to the success of most projects.

CIO2CIO: What are some of the big projects you are working on or planning for?
Ghazi: One of the biggest projects I am involved in now is the adoption of the IBM Information agenda at Al Hilal Bank.  This is a strategic project to create an IT architecture that is better aligned with business objectives. We are also working on building a new data centre.

CIO2CIO: As a CIO how do you decide on whether to adopt a new technology or not?
Ghazi: CIOs should not be fascinated by a technology for the sake of technology, but should care about what technology can bring to the business. When evaluating a new technology there are many different factors that need to be taken into consideration. First of all you have to look at the environment and future plans. I have to choose something that suits and serves our business objectives. I cannot isolate my preferences from my business objectives. Business priorities needs drive everything – my planning, my strategy, the decisions I make should all be in line with my business strategy. So when I choose, I look at many factors – scalability, flexibility, ease of implementation and use, and of course vendor credibility and stability, which is an important factor. Also, CIOs should not ignore the consultancy role they must play with business by scanning the markets for new innovative ideas and products that can help the business achieve its goals.

CIO2CIO: As the major IT vendors expand their product portfolios especially through acquisitions many of them turn to a new sales model that relies on multiple account managers addressing the same customer - from a customer’s perspective, is this a good thing?
Ghazi: No this is not a good thing, I prefer a single account manager from the vendor, one who gets the full picture and aligns everything together to fit our needs and strategies. I want to work with just one person who knows my environment and my needs.

CIO2CIO: Business intelligence is always on the priority list of many CIOs but we all know that it is not being heavily adopted in the Middle East. What is your view on this?
Ghazi: Yes, business intelligence is indeed a priority and I’m building the infrastructure for that. Internal users need access to information to enable them to make the right decisions for budgeting, planning and modeling. It is the duty of IT and the CIO to ensure that such information is available to them. We started by building the data warehouse and then putting the analytical tools needed to support the users. We are also looking at predictive analytics.

CIO2CIO: How do you see social networking in the enterprise? Is it a total waste of time or a great productivity tool? What are you doing about it?
Ghazi: Without a doubt business is going social and I believe people who are not using it will be left behind. It is important; I believe social networking is catching up and will be integral to any type of business application, including in banking.

CIO2CIO: You operate in a largely expat market.  How do you attract, nurture and retain the best talent? How far do you invest in training and certification?
Ghazi: Attracting and retaining talents are major issues especially in the UAE market. In many parts of the world, financial benefits may not be ranked as the top attraction factor when organizations create their employee loyalty schemes, but in this market it is one of the most important aspects.. Nowadays many expatriates have more loyalty to their profession rather than the place where they work. For example I worked for over 25 years at Arab bank, I used to get calls from headhunters but I stayed. Now, you are unlikely to see this in the local market.
However, at Al Hilal Bank we are using a mix of financial and non financial benefits and incentives to attract and retain the top IT talent.  In addition to the normal performance rewards, we introduced a monthly spot reward system that to gives flexibility to management to reward outstanding performers on the spot. Motivation is also an effective retention tool; it is based on the fact that people are the real asset for any organization. We introduce our staff to the latest technology which is always considered an opportunity to advance one’s career and challenge staff capabilities and competencies. Self actualization and satisfaction are attained via job rotation and matching employee’s interests to work assignments. 

CIO2CIO: What would your advice be to new CIOs in the region?
Ghazi: New CIOs in the region have to understand the market and the culture, which may be far from what they are accustomed to. I came from Jordan and it’s totally different there. New CIOs have to plan well, determine what they need and what they want for their companies, and align with their organization’s strategy. They cannot develop their strategies in isolation from the business or only based on their previous experiences. New CIOs need to bear in mind how they want to make their company different, innovative, pioneering, and so forth. These differentiators should be incorporated into everything they plan or do.

Al Hilal Bank IT Profile

Core banking: Temenos T24
ERP: Oracle E-Business Suite
Database: Oracle Database10g
Middleware: IBM Websphere and Oracle Middleware
Desktop: HP
Networking: Cisco
Telephony: Cisco

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