'Do what you love': Interview with Egyptian lady CEO

Deya Abaza, Tuesday 22 Nov 2016

Ahram Online republishes an interview with the recently deceased Nevine Loutfy: As part of a series on pioneering Egyptian women, Ahram Online talks to Nevine Loutfy, the first-ever female head of an Islamic bank

Nevine Loutfy
National Bank of Development (NBD) Head Nevine Loutfy (Photo: NBD)

Nevine Loutfy is managing director and CEO of the National Bank for Development. After an international career spanning over three decades with global behemoth Citibank, the fearless banker left Citigroup’s EMEA Commercial Bank in London where she had held the positions of chief operating officer, managing director and business senior credit officer to head NBD in 2008.

At the end of 2007, Abu Dhabi Islamic Bank had acquired a 49 percent stake in NBD, a failing bank at the time, and Loutfy’s mission was to transform NBD into a successful, entirely Sharia-compliant institution.

Asked about how she dealt with the challenge of becoming one of a mere handful of women heading banks in Egypt, the tall and slender Loutfy is far from intimidated.

“It’s a matter of scale. I had a global job with a huge number of countries under my authority, whereas work here in Egypt is a lot more focused; there is one culture, one system, one set of laws you have to deal with.”

“The challenge is environmental, given what Egypt has gone through in the past years, with the revolution, and the political instability. But every country has its own set of challenges,” she concludes.

The seasoned banker seems equally undaunted by the fact that she is the first Arab woman to head an Islamic bank, despite her lack of experience in Islamic banking.

“If you have common sense and a brain, it is not nuclear physics,” she says in her customary matter-of-fact tone. “The important thing is to understand banking, and banking we knew well.”

As for her being a pioneer, she remarks: “It doesn’t mean anything to me. You can be the first and be a huge failure, right?  Maybe I was the guinea pig!” she adds with a grin.

Guinea pig or not, Loutfy has delivered. Today, NBD is one of the largest Islamic financial institutions operating in Egypt, having been voted “Best Islamic Bank in Egypt” by Islamic Finance News (IFN) for the third consecutive year in 2012.

Leaping into the unknown has been something of a life-long modus vivendi for this globetrotter. Her formative experience in banking was as a fresh graduate in the early 70s. “I got an internship in Texas Commerce Bank in Houston. I’d never been to the US, and as a kid I was always fascinated by it. So I took the internship, and I loved it.”

Later, after six years in Citibank’s Cairo office, Loutfy turned down an offer to head corporate banking, asking to be transferred to Italy. “I wanted to learn something different, get different exposures, try different markets, different customer segments,” she explains. “I wanted to learn about investment banking, which was very strong in Europe. So when the opportunity came, I left.”

In the following 26 years, Loutfy would go on to hold international positions with Citi in Europe as well as New York and London.

All the while, the savvy banker was a divorced single mother to two boys, who travelled with her. “If you are well organised it is really effortless” says Loutfy. “You have to be smart and quick on your feet. And we are lucky as Egyptians to have families who really support us, which is what I had from my parents and my sister while the children were very young.”

Asked if she thought divorce was a problem that plagued high-performing female bankers, Loutfy dismissed the idea that it was gender-specific.

“Years ago somebody had done a study on men in top positions at Citibank. Almost all of them divorced at least once because in order to make it to the top in Citi you had to go international at some point in your career. Along the way, men got divorced,” she shrugs.

With the hindsight of international exposure, Loutfy does not feel like women bankers are worse off professionally in Egypt than elsewhere. “Take unequal pay for men and women for example. There is no such notion in Egypt, whereas in the US, to this day, women make 75 cents to the dollar of what men make.”

Nor does the cool-headed CEO seem particularly alarmed by the prospects for women in Egypt under an Islamist-dominated government.

“Do I expect the current regime to actually elevate women and invest in them to get them to leadership positions? No. But the private sector, which is by definition profit seeking, will continue to pick the best available set of skills available, be they in a woman or a man.”

“Nevermind the flashy offices and the executive world,” she elaborates in direct tone. “It is an economic reality, according to studies by the UN, that 60 percent of Egyptian households are financially provided for by women. The politics is a lot of talk. It will not change those realities.”

Finally, Loutfy ponders the driving force behind her impressive career.

“Many people get into banking for the wrong reasons, because they think it’s really glamorous, and it’s a lot of money and this and that. A lot of this is simply not true,” she admits.  

“The advice I would give is to follow your heart. Do what you love. Your acid test is when you wake up in the morning. If you feel like you need to drag yourself out of bed, there’s a problem. What drove me was the love and the passion for what I do.”

She adds with a smile: “Just telling you this gives me goose bumps.”

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