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Dr. George Partridge — Group CEO, PCL

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From the resplendent National Bank Towers to the giddying heights of Malawi’s largest conglomerate, that trip should as well be a fairytale. But what has it been like for Dr George Partridge, for long associated with National Bank of Malawi and now Group Chief Executive Officer for Press Corporation Limited (PCL)? CHARLES MPAKA engaged him through email for his story. Excerpts:

Congratulations on your appointment as Group Chief Executive for PCL. Is this the career path you planned growing up?

Thank you very much for the compliment. When growing up one has lots of expectations, ambitions and dreams and it is very rare that things turn out the way dreams envisaged. However, if it is close, you can only be grateful. The only thing is that while dreaming, one should recognize that things do not come out by themselves like manna falling off from heaven. One has to continuously improve oneself, work hard, use and surround yourself with very smart people as much as one can, and most importantly show visible and verifiable results to your principles. I have tried to do this all my life in whatever assignments I have been given or have initiated, be it at my work place or outside my work place. The other important thing is to somehow show positive difference to those who will be affected by your decisions. I plan my career progression around these principles.

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When the news of your appointment at PCL reached you, how did you react?

I was obviously very excited, who wouldn’t? However at the same time I couldn’t help to be a little bit nervous and anxious because of the enormity of the task ahead of me. Excited because it was now going to be a bigger challenge, and one can only advance and get fulfillment in life by embracing challenges and exploiting opportunities that come your way. I was nervous and anxious because apart from the oversight responsibilities of National Bank, I would now suddenly be responsible for 13 additional companies within the group with more than 30,000 employees, a bigger number if you include their families and dependents, companies ranging from financial services, telecoms, fisheries, fast moving consumer goods, energy etc. I would also be responsible for any new ventures that would come our way. I was nervous because as the biggest company in Malawi, and looking at its history, there are very high expectations from the public and stakeholders as to what the company can do and should be doing. Some of the expectations are legitimate but others are misplaced and arise out of ignorance in terms of how far a company like PCL can play its role in this market. The important thing is to be able to manage these expectations as professionally as one can from both sides.

This far, many Malawians know you with respect to your banking career. Many of the young generation will associate you a lot with National Bank of Malawi where you were Chief Executive until recently. What was your banking career like?

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It is true that I have been with National Bank for a considerable period of time and I had become part of its furniture. I am aware that most people have been telling me that whenever my name is mentioned, they immediately think of NBM. That’s kind of flattering as my name became synonymous with that of NBM brand. More tellingly, it also means that somehow I have been able to make some impact at NBM, which I shall always cherish.

My banking career started with the Reserve Bank of Malawi way back in 1983 when I was a lad aged 20. This was after I had just graduated from UNIMA, Chancellor College as an economics major with a distinction, and after I made a pass for a staff associate-ship position at the University. I joined the RBM as a bank clerk and worked in various departments and rose my way up to director level (head of department) within 11 years of service. I shall always be grateful to the Reserve Bank due to the experiences, and the excellent training that I was exposed to while serving there. I had 2 scholarships when I was in the service of the RBM. After working for one and half years, I was released to pursue a master’s degree in finance with the University of Southampton in England. After working for another 5 years, I was granted another scholarship to the UK to pursue a new profession altogether, to become a chartered accountant. After qualifying as a chartered accountant I served the RBM for a year and at age 31 the then expatriate CEO of NBM had heard about me and invited me to join NBM as its head of treasury in September 1994. This was the time the Malawi financial sector was just being transformed and liberalized and he was confident that I would help NBM strategise in adapting to this new environment, in systems, processes and frontline business using my unique experience in a regulatory environment, combined with my background as an economist, finance expert, and as a technocrat accountant.

Banking is really a challenging profession. How did you manage your way through?

True, banking is challenging, but you can say that of any profession. From a societal point of view, banking affects so many lives every day and as economists have aptly put it: any economy can only develop as far as its financial sector can allow. There is a strong correlation between the status of a country’s financial system and its level of development. One other challenge that comes to mind is that because of the various banking crises that the world has experienced in recent years, even though those crises haven’t affected Malawi in a more profound way, the industry remains a punching bag for the consumer association groups and the public in general, sometimes with justifications. But the fact remains that banks remain a scapegoat for lack of progress on development, for high interest rates, for fluctuating exchange rates, for currency shortages and even for ‘cash-gate’. The industry image has been battered for some time and is blamed for things that it is not responsible for. But as they say, perception is reality. This puts a lot of pressure on bankers, especially those who are at CEO position to manage such negative perceptions. Key is civic education, taking every opportunity to create goodwill by explaining the role of banks, especially commercial banks in society and its limitations on what they can do and what they cannot do. That requires a lot of visibility. As a leading bank, NBM took a leading role in this area by creating appropriate structures at every level and opportunity to address some of these issues. Slowly, I have seen that this engagement does pay off.

Secondly, the major emerging challenge in banks in Malawi –and certainly NBM is no exception being an institution dealing with money –is the increasing number and magnitude of frauds. The moral decay in our society and its trajectory worries me a lot and is truly a national challenge of gargantuan proportions. I spent sleepless nights to figure out what can be done about this menace. The cash-gate saga and rampant corruption is a manifestation of such moral decay in the Malawi society. In spite of the so many imaginative controls experts can devise, it has been made even more difficult because of the way all relevant institutions which we think are supposed to be part of the solution are looking like they are now increasingly being part of the problem itself through their actions or inactions. The perception out there is that crime in Malawi, on balance of probabilities, does pay. I am talking here about the role of our institutions whose actions or inactions seem to be subtly condoning such errant behaviours, and that includes law enforcement agencies and the whole judicial system.

Would you highlight some of the transformations you oversaw at National Bank of Malawi?

There are a lot of transformations that I have been privileged to oversee during the past 10 years as CEO. I will only highlight a few visible ones as I cannot enumerate all transformations.

Firstly, the banking sector has seen a lot of transformation in technology and this continues at a phenomenal pace, especially in the payments business space. My role was to make sure NBM was not left behind. As long as it was a proven technology and it made business sense, we strived to be first on the market to gain first mover advantages. This is key because the competition catches up very quickly.

Secondly, recognizing that in banking, brand equity is built around trust and confidence, we made sure that our premises and points of representations exude that trust and should speak for who we are. We embarked on modernization process of our premises to make sure they are welcoming to our customers. This included having oversight of the construction of new modern service centres and refurbishment of the old; the construction and furnishing of NBM Towers, I dare say the best modern office building in Malawi which is an admiration of many. These transformations were not an easy task to make a business case for to our board, and probably putting up its business case was one of the most challenging tasks.

Equally important was our emphasis on staff training. Although I was not CEO at the time, being passionate about advantages of continuous training, championing the putting up our own Learning and Growth Centre was quite a challenging undertaking. This was especially so when the previous technical managers Standard Chartered Bank had consistently blocked putting up one. Immediately after they left, I championed a business case which was acceptable to the board, and I think the centre has probably paid itself back many times over.

Finally on the softer side of things, although there is still a lot of work to be done, our persistent efforts on customer service improvements are paying off dividends. I think by and large the culture and attitudes of our employees have changed for the better compared with say, 10 years back when there was, for lack of a better analogy, a civil service mentality on customer service within the bank. We started this process by taking out social and cultural barriers that do normally exist between management and staff and making sure that there is smooth and continuous communication between them. This was complemented by appropriate recruitment methodologies and a rewards system which recognizes customer centricity.

What is the most memorable experience you have had as a banker?

Most of my memorable experiences as CEO have had little to do with banking, which probably tells you why you need more than banking skills when you are CEO. I will mention only 2 or 3 of such.

One of the most memorable experiences immediately after assuming CEO position and also assumed the presidency of Bankers Association of Malawi was when there was a gridlock in Parliament on the passing of any bill including the Anti-Money Laundering and Proceeds of Terrorist Financing Bill. The opposition legislators were outnumbering those in government and they wanted to block each and every bill including the budget. I managed to lobby each and every chairperson of every committee and alerted to them to the consequences of Malawi banks completely being shut out on the international scene and its implications on international trade which would ultimately adversely affect all our lives. This culminated in a sort of a seminar and lunch at Capital Hotel for all identified MPs on the opposition benches who were deemed to have a lot of influence. For those still wavering, I spent the rest of the afternoon explaining to them on a one on one basis. After that effort the bill passed 2 days later, and I breathed a sigh of relief. It may have been the only substantive bill passed at that session. After the encounter, I persuaded my principles that I need to sharpen up my negotiating skills.

The second experience which I need to mention is when my good friend Chatuverdi (then FMB CEO and then vice president of BAM) and I spent a lot of time discussing the issue of BAM founding our own Malawi banking institute. I convinced him that a banking institute of our own, if licensed, needed credibility to attract students and to incentivize them not to pursue foreign based institutes and that credibility can only be obtained if the institute can be accredited to the University of Malawi and/or other well established recognized institutes. He challenged me to the task, and through a learning process and a vigorous negotiating process with the University of Malawi, the university senate finally gave us the accreditation. I then challenged him to use his contacts with the Kenyan and Indian Institutes to help us with the vetting of the syllabus, examinations and quality control. It was an excellent example of division of labour. When these things were achieved, Chatuverdi and I celebrated with a long weekend session of partying and club crawling starting from Blantyre, and ended up at Lunzu (of course we had a sober driver!)

Briefly, the recent acquisition of Indebank was an experience I shall always cherish in terms of what it taught me. I have led teams before in making small acquisitions such as Stockbrokers Malawi from MDC, buying out minorities in National Finance Company and integrating its operations into NBM, buying minority stake in UGI, but nothing of the experience I had when we acquired Indebank.

Now you are at PCL, what are your expectations and vision for the corporation?

The Board has already crafted a vision for PCL which I have already bought into and it seems to be a reasonable aspiration for a Group of this stature. The vision is to be “the premier holding company dominating every market it serves with strength and agility”. My major task with the executive management team is to continue where my predecessor left off: by refining, designing strategies and action plans in order to translate this vision into reality.

It could be that your eyes are set for some higher calling than this. What could that be?

Hang on…one step at a time. I have already got challenging job to do for now and I do not even have time to think of another job I should or may have to do in future. I would like to devote 100 percent of my efforts on this new job. Otherwise it may be a distraction on what I want to accomplish together with my colleagues at PCL.

SCALING THE HEIGHTS — Partidge is now Group Chief Executive for Press Corporation Ltd

The moral decay in our society and its trajectory worries me a lot and is truly a national challenge of gar­gantuan proportions. I spent sleep­less nights to figure out what can be done about this menace. The cash-gate saga and rampant cor­ruption is a manifestation of such moral decay in the Malawi society. In spite of the so many imagina­tive controls experts can devise, it has been made even more difficult because of the way all relevant institutions which we think are supposed to be part of the solu­tion are looking like they are now increasingly being part of the prob­lem itself through their actions or inactions.

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