50th Anniversary: Sultan Choudhury Q&A

50 Aston Greats: Sultan Choudhury

Sultan Choudhury

Sultan Choudhury is Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Director at Al Rayan Bank PLC, formerly known as Islamic Bank of Britain (IBB).  The Bank’s longest-serving employee, Sultan joined the Bank when it was formed in 2004 and was part of the founding management team of Western Europe’s first authorised Islamic Bank. 

Since then Sultan has set up Al Rayan Bank’s Head Office operations and Branch Network.  He has also led the development and implementation of its full product range and service delivery channels.  As a result, Al Rayan Bank now offers the largest range of Islamic retail financial products in the UK and has attracted over 50,000 customers. Most recently, Mr Choudhury successfully oversaw the Bank’s acquisition by Masraf Al Rayan QSC (Al Rayan), a Qatar-based Islamic bank.

Sultan is a member of various community and advisory groups and has contributed significantly to the development of Islamic Financial Services in the UK.

He previously held roles at Charles Schwab Europe, Barclays Private Bank and Deloitte. A Chartered Accountant (ACA), Sultan holds a BA (Hons) in Economics & Econometrics from University of Nottingham and graduated from Aston University in 2002 with a MBA with distinction. 

What is your fondest memory of Aston?

I’d completed my first degree elsewhere and I was in the work place, so going back to a university environment was nice in itself, because you could take stock and reflect away from the work place and life’s pressures. I do remember some of the bonds that I made with the fellow students on the MBA, because particularly on the part time course, as they are in a similar situation to you as you are all away from work together. We went on some great visits, including to the Toyota factory, which really illustrated some of the work we had done in the lectures. 

As of the whimsical things I remember, whilst it may have been very frustrating at the time, was getting lost in the huge corridors in the Main Building and the South Wing. They must be the longest corridors I have ever come across. Also, the Balti pie in the canteen. I’d always get the last one, much to the chagrin of my fellow students.

What has your involvement with Aston given you personally?

I had done economics previously, then became an accountant, doing accounting and auditing. Aston was a gateway to the broadening of outlook and mindset. You learn the language of business, I’m talking very much about the MBA, of course, and where the language of business originates from. For example, sometimes as an employee, you are experiencing people applying processes to you. So you keep hearing the same message, from the CEO for example, and you think, this is the same message he said last week and the week before. But you do your MBA and you realise it’s an important part of organisational behaviour and culture and you start using the language of top management and you understand where it comes from and then you understand the repetition of the same message is vital for culture. 

I could give you a very technical answer but in many ways having an appreciation of all the other functions within an organisation and learning the language of business was more important. It helped me in my career and it gave me an appreciation of the organisation I worked in.

What advice do you have for today's students?

It’s definitely the case, and it’s a bit of cliché, but the more you put in the more you get out. This really evidences itself in University and in the work place.  In the part time MBA course you are working in groups and relying on other people while trying to juggle the day job, I guess that encompasses the sacrifice in that period. You have got to make that sacrifice, put the effort in, and get more out of it. 

There is a simple approach that I used when I was at Aston that worked for me, for everything you do define exactly what you are trying to achieve. It might be that you are there to build your business network, broaden your mind, or to get ‘A’s in all the courses, but once you have defined it the harder bit is then being honest about where you are now. Not being too negative, to knock your confidence, or being too delusional about how good you are as well, an honest appreciation of where you are, then once you have done that you can plot your path quite successfully. When I started the course, I had been away from university and it was quite a challenge to adapt, but by the end of it, I had defined what I wanted to achieve and was top scoring across everything. 

Also, think a bit more long term than short term. I hire a lot of graduates and compared to when I first started out, there is a little bit more short termism and impatience about development. I try and explain to young people in career sessions to think a little bit more long term. The next step isn’t about earning a couple of grand more, the next step is about picking up the skills for the long term. Using economics to explain, there is an investment phase and an income phase. In your twenties and early thirties, you really should be almost fixated in the investment phase, and sometimes move sideways. I moved sideways from accounting, to operations, to sales and that was a big leap. I picked up marketing and developed my commercial skills. Think about investment, which is measured in years not months, and you will reap the benefits later on. 

What are some of the biggest lessons you have learnt in your career?

The real lessons! I have always applied, what you might call continuous and ceaseless self-improvement. That’s not about going out and getting a bunch of self-improvement books, it is about technical and soft skills and you learn the soft skills as you go up the ladder. And it comes back to what I just said, about being honest about what you are trying to do, you have got to put the effort in. 

In my role, the soft skills - communications, people managing, inter-relationships, leadership - become far more important. I really don’t believe you are born to be a leader, it can be learnt and improved. There can be natural advantages, you have to define what your leadership style is and improve your soft skills. 

For me, there is a bigger philosophy and that is leaving everything you touch better than you found it. When I became CEO in this bank it was making quite sustained losses. CEO jobs aren’t the most secure, so you have to leave it better than you found it. I try and apply that philosophy to life really, whether it’s relationships with my kids, my parents, my wife, or simply the house or street that you live in. If you try and do that in everything you touch hopefully you will have a legacy that you are proud of. 

One attitude that I try and adopt and ensure my team adopts is never stay down for too long. You are always going to get obstacles and things are not going to go the way you envisage, and it’s how quickly you get back up that becomes so important. I describe that characteristic as persistence. I learnt it when we started this bank and it was the first Islamic bank in the western world. We were hitting the streets with a product that no one had heard of, with principles behind it that no one had understood. It was a tough sell. You are going to face rejection and let downs on a regular basis and you have to realise that it will come good later. Every time you have a knock back, you are closer to success. You have to pick yourself up, and that resilience really helps you in life when you do other things. So when you go into management from sales and something goes not as you expected at the board, or someone lets you down, you have got to pick yourself up pretty quickly. I say to the team stay down for a few minutes and if its bad, stay down for a few hours, but never stay down more than a night. If you can adopt that outlook I think that really also helps. 

What excites you about your current role?

It’s extremely exciting because I’m seeing the culmination of 12 years of effort.  I have been in my role for 4 years as CEO, and I was here as part of the start-up team. I’m by far the longest serving employee. We started off in a basement in Old Street, using limited resources, to design and build a banking system. I came from financial services and accounting where we do restructuring, and not the positive sides of growth. We were sacking people and not recruiting people. It’s phenomenally exciting to be building something from scratch, and then work all the disciplines of the organisation. In a bigger organisation it would be much harder to move across different areas and learn and home your management skills. 

Culminating of course when I became CEO, and I think the challenges there and the excitement is that you are referred to by the management. People want that instant direction and that instant answer, and you become very good at that. You have to think on your feet. You have to go from one meeting to the next. You do a q and a meeting with all your staff, the next minute you are on a call to a regulator, the next minute you are on a call to an important client and closing a deal, then to an asset liability meeting and looking at new products. The variety for me always keeps me interested. No day is literally the same. My character has always been one that is an all-rounder rather than a specialist.

You have a significant proportion of non-Muslims bank with Al Rayan, what do you think attracts non-Muslims to bank with you?

Initially, I suspect, we will use conventional hooks. The four Ps: price, promotion, place, and people. If I use price or promotion, and had a market leading ISA, you are going to get people’s awareness going because I will be in the papers, and they go, ‘oh OK, that’s interesting, that’s an Islamic Bank – what does that mean?’ But once, we have got them in, that’s your opportunity to see if that ethical mind set fits.  

I know if I was a big bank or building society like Nationwide, and I was offering the products at the prices I do, I would be inundated. We have a steady flow, I’m not inundated, our customers are very discerning. Other faiths that buy products, are not just ‘rate tarts’, otherwise I’d get billions in. I’m getting people who are discerning who want to find out ‘what does it mean to get an expected profit and why is that different to a fixed interest rate’. It leads to that ethical question and we have to train our call centre staff quite well to handle that kind of question. The money that comes to us is never invested in arms, pornography, or alcohol etc. We did an interesting qualitative survey and we found that some of our none Muslim customers in that survey are slightly more loyal than our Muslim customers. It was only marginal, but very interesting.