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From refugee to CEO
THE trauma of fleeing a war-torn country as a refugee is one that could make or break a person. For Omar Shokur, who fled Afghanistan in 1990 at age 14 with his family, the experience was painful yet enriching, a dichotomy that defies easy labels.
"When you leave a country in war and you start your life from scratch with nothing, it's by definition difficult. But it was unique and it gave me a lot. I don't look at myself as an unlucky person. I don't want to sound like I was a victim. It was difficult but it was so enriching and unique.
"There are so many people having difficulties in the world, and I'm probably one of the lucky ones who was at least able to have a new life in a new country. I think what you learn as a kid is to live in the present moment. You realise everything can stop from one day to the next, and the people around you - your parents and friends - they can be gone overnight."
Today Mr Shokur, 44, is Asia chief executive of Indosuez Wealth Management and Singapore branch manager. He has a master's degree in mathematics and also obtained an MBA. As if that wasn't enough, he is also a polyglot, fluent in English, Italian, French and Persian with a basic knowledge of Spanish.
All this is a far cry from the trauma he survived as a young boy, having grown up as a diplomat's son in a relatively well-to-do environment. The escape from Afghanistan reduced his family possessions and public standing to literally nothing. Yet, that crisis likely planted the seeds of resilience and endowed him with a clear-headed ability to appreciate and choose between the two sides of the proverbial coin of life.
"This is something I get from that period of time and its importance for me - to set targets for yourself. When you leave a country as a refugee, you start with nothing, and you put to yourself, targets - I want to do this or that in school. After all those years, you see the importance of the journey - and not just the target - but really the process of the present moment. And you try to balance them all the time, keeping the importance of reaching the objective, but also the way you do it and live it, the way you value each moment, is as critical as the target itself."
Today, he feels a deep-seated appreciation for what might have been. "I realise that among many unlucky things, I'm still the lucky one. Among my classmates, I was one of the very few given the chance to restart his life in a new country. So I felt very lucky; I've lost contact with them and I don't even know what their lives turned out to be. So, you look at things positively, but it also gives you a sense of responsibility. You feel that you have to do something, make something of your life. So you have to try hard to fulfil this duty (in relation to) your friends."
His father is his role model for resilience. When the family eventually settled in Switzerland, the elder Mr Shokur spoke no French and he could not pick up where he left off as a diplomat. He started a catering and food delivery service despite not knowing how to cook.
"My parents have always pushed us to be positive. My father was slightly younger than I am today. He was around 40. He had a position in Afghanistan; he was well known. And then you start your new life and you are nobody. I saw the way he rebuilt himself, by starting very slowly to gain the trust of people and find a position in society by working hard and being himself. It had an impact on me. It's important not to forget it.
"As a kid, I didn't see a single time when my father cooked at home… But you have to do something, and no one would give him a job as a diplomat. So one evening at home, he said - let's do food delivery. He said - yeah, I have a good idea. We will cook Afghan food and deliver it to households in Geneva.
"I said - but you have no clue about cooking. He said - don't worry, you will see."
The family took up a lease from a church to set up a kitchen. "The church gave it to us for 500 Swiss francs a month. That's how we started. My parents would cook the food and I would deliver it. For me it was such a big learning because he (my father) didn't complain. He just did it."
As a child, fixing targets and working towards them created a positive reinforcement cycle. "It would sound very nice if I told you that I always wanted to be in the financial industry. But no. As a kid I didn't have any specific ambition. My dream was, like most kids, to play football well."
In keeping with a diplomat's lifestyle, the family had moved several times before settling back in Afghanistan when he was nine. "Each time we changed country, we had to restart school with difficulties. So I started to fix myself targets, I'd try to be a good student and be the best ranked in class. And this is easy when you're young. The more you succeed, it gives you more confidence.
"And you start building a way of working by fixing targets. But I also try to look at the journey, because this is where you spend the longest time. In my humble view, the way you manage the journey will help you much more to reach the targets than focusing on the targets."
The discipline of goal setting and sticking to his convictions has stood him in good stead. "It's important to keep your values and beliefs in your mind throughout your journey. They will help you make the right decisions and move in the right direction, because you believe those are the right things to do. So you stay true to yourself throughout the journey.
"This has definitely helped me a lot because you'll have difficult decisions whether you are a CEO or in any other position…. When you stick to your beliefs, it will help you say no when things don't match the way you look at things. Or yes, because you believe it's the right thing to do."
One area where this rings true is sustainability. Indosuez Wealth Management is part of the Credit Agricole group, which traces its roots to the 19th century when it was established to support farmers in France. "From early on, we have been close to the ground and the real economy. So the group remembers the importance of our role not just for the client but for society."
Over the past decade, Credit Agricole has made strides in sustainable investments and financing. In 2003, it was the first French bank to sign the Equator Principles, which have become the benchmark for responsibility in project finance. It was a co-founder of the Green Bond Principles, and was the only French bank that took part in the drafting. It took a stand to stop financing coal mining and fossil fuel operations in the Arctic by 2017. Last year, it adopted a climate strategy aligned with the Paris Agreement.
Credit Agricole arranged over 120 million euros of green bonds in 2018 and 2019. Its asset management arm Amundi is a pioneer in responsible investing and manages over 330 billion euros in responsible investments.
But sustainability in investments often isn't a priority among Asian clients. "You believe as a person or a bank that you need to fulfil a client's needs. But you also have a duty to bring a more sustainable approach, from an environmental, social or governance perspective...
"It's not just proposing a product, but it is educating, spending time despite the fact that a specific idea or product may not be the most profitable at the moment.
"Our role is not only to provide ideas but also to educate and explain. It's a question of time... Slowly in three, five or 10 years we'll see the difference. But the most important thing is that we do our part and we don't stop just because we don't see the results quickly."
Another area where the journey matters as much as the targets is wealth management itself, which has been assailed by challenges since the Covid-19 crisis unfurled. Mr Shokur moved to Asia in July 2019, and barely months into the job, found himself having to marshall his work-from-home bankers to effect a semblance of business-as-usual. Private banking, after all, has always taken pride in personalised banking even as heavy investments are made into digitalisation.
Since then, the changes in modes of communication, among others, have been significant, some of which are likely here to stay.
"You have to be transparent enough to explain your difficulties, the areas in which we struggle. At the same time, you have to give your staff directions regularly. My bankers also have to be much more connected to clients. It is important to communicate not just on the market, but also to explain what we're doing as a bank to make sure we continue to deliver the right service, despite being affected in terms of the number of people who can come into the office."
Personalisation marks the difference, he says, between retail and private banking. But in the Covid-19 era, instead of personal meetings, virtual events have become the means to convey portfolio updates, for instance. Clients appreciate the effort, he says.
Work-from-home, however, isn't traditionally an accepted practice for banking, because of bank secrecy and the need to access confidential data. "You don't want to have all your staff working from home. But were we able to do it? Yes. Now we realise that there are a number of jobs that can be done on a small percentage of time from home. I can have someone working 20 to 30 per cent from home, and 70 per cent in the office, and they will still deliver a good service. I strongly believe in having a work-from-home strategy in the future where we will allow people to work from home a percentage of the time... We're not looking at it from a cost perspective, but we're helping our staff feel better at work."
Virtual communication channels will not replace in-person communication, but it will bring value-add. "The time to market of our information is now much faster. Doing it on video is as good as having someone in front of you, though maybe not as perfectly."
He believes two things are important in a crisis. One is a strong team; this enabled him to hit the ground running. "As CEO, you make the biggest decisions. You have to lead but you can't do everything yourself. You will have to count on your management team. If you have a strong team, good interaction with them and trust, you don't need to spend too much time discussing and arguing who is going to do what. I was lucky enough on that perspective."
The second is to revisit your core strategy. "You have to adapt to the situation to continue to run your business. But you shouldn't forget your strategic core decisions. Especially when the crisis is long, you still need to invest time in your long-term strategy. Otherwise six or eight months will be lost. This is critical because you have to find the time and energy to push your team to go beyond managing the actual moment."
Asia, he says, is a "very important" region for the group. Indosuez Wealth Management managed some 132 billion euro in assets globally as at end-2019. "We want to continue to improve and get new market share by recruiting new bankers in some markets, and reinforce our position for the next five to 10 years. It's going to be challenging because we have a lot of competition. But we have the right platform, the right value proposition and mindset to make it grow.
"We have a strong large group behind us, but at the same time in Asia we consider ourselves a boutique in size. That doesn't mean we're just a boutique player...
"A boutique bank can deliver in terms of value and tailor-made solutions and closeness to clients. We have a value proposition that can match the interests of wealthy clients."
Asia CEO and Singapore Branch Manager
Indosuez Wealth Management
1976: Born in Kabul, Afghanistan
1996-2001: Ecole Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), master's degree in Mathematics
2000-2001: Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Visiting student/exchange programme Master Thesis, Financial Mathematics
2006: IMD (International Institute for Management Development) - Business Programmes MBA, Management, Finance, Leadership
Sep 2001-Dec 2005: Credit Agricole (Suisse) SA, Senior Project Manager - Organisation Department; Based in Lausanne
Jan 2007-May 2009: Credit Agricole Corporate & Investment Bank, Director - Head of Commodity Derivatives & Structured Products Sales Switzerland; based in London and Geneva
June 2009-March 2014: Indosuez Wealth Management, Head of External Asset Managers and Multi-Family Offices, Switzerland and Asia; Member of the Management Committee; Based in Geneva
April 2014-March 2017: Indosuez Wealth Management, Head of External Asset Managers & Institutionals, Switzerland and Asia; Member of General Management; Based in Geneva
April 2017-June 2019: Indosuez Wealth Management, Head of Markets, Investments and Structuring, Switzerland and Asia; Member of Executive Committee; Based in Geneva
Since July 2019: Indosuez Wealth Management CEO Asia and Singapore Branch Manager; Based in Singapore