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The Custodian of Trust

By: Sirajuddin Aziz Sirajuddin
Published: April 1, 2017
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In Memoriam 1931 – 2017

Mr. Kassim Parekh’s iconic life as a banker began in 1949, when he joined Habib Bank Limited at the age of 18. In a career spanning over six decades, Mr. Parekh rose to the upper echelons of Habib Bank, becoming the President of the bank before leaving in 1988.

In recognition of his financial acumen, the government appointed him Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan, a post he held from September 1989 to August 1990, the same month that the first PPP government was dismissed.

He was soon tasked with setting up Habib Metropolitan Bank and remained Chairman until he passed away.

Born in the Bantva village in Indian Gujarat on January 31, 1931, Mr. Parekh and his family belonged to the Bantva Memon community He received his primary and secondary education at schools in the village and Rajkot in Gujarat. He completed matriculation from Bombay and migrated to Karachi, Pakistan in 1947.

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I had just returned to Pakistan in the 1990s, after a decade-and-a-half, to work for a financial institution that was as new as Pakistan’s re-privatised banking sector.

During a consultation of a major consortium syndicate led by a US bank, the then country manager of the US bank, Mr. Dennis Dunn, mentioned that he would check the details of a particular issue with ‘Kaazmbai’. It took me a few seconds to understand whom he was referring to.

In retrospect, it was fittingly ironic how his name eluded me then, as it was indicative of how Kassim Bhai’s larger-than-life personality eluded the understanding of many.

Much as I want to avoid using the clichéd description of ‘larger-than-life,’ that is exactly what Kassim Bhai was in the banking industry.

Among bankers across all financial institutions, it was unanimously acknowledged that Kassim Bhai had an unparalleled grasp over market information; regardless of the transaction, the client or the bank in question, we all relied on his sharp acumen and keen judgment.

It was because of this widespread acknowledgement of his expertise and reliability that he became the arbitrator and third-party-of-choice – this was where differing opinions converged, this was where dissenting viewpoints came to agreement.

Despite having such a recognised stature, Mr. Parekh was not an imposing personality. He was humble, unassuming and respectful in his interactions with associates, friends and family alike.

He was measured and precise in his actions and words. He was extremely perceptive and compassionate in his understanding of others. His reserve with words was complemented by his calm personality; no crises or urgency could unsettle our great Kassim Bhai.

This is what endeared him to us even when we shared no expression of emotion. This is what made us turn to him for his firm support and gentle guidance.

The unassertive and temperate persona of Mr. Parekh was, nonetheless, an immense force of nature. We could only watch as he trail-blazed through life.

His professional experience transcended the local industry and comprised managerial roles in the Middle East, Africa, the Far East and Australia. During his illustrious career, he served as the Chief Executive of the largest commercial bank in Pakistan.

He was also the Chairman of the Pakistan Banking Council (the regulating authority for all nationalised banks at the time) and then the Governor of the State Bank of Pakistan (SBP). For a large part of his career, he was the flag-bearer of the industry and played a crucial role in shaping its landscape into the form that it is today.

Kassim Bhai’s name was synonymous with integrity and the highest standards of the work ethic. Outside of banking, too, he was a custodian of trust

I first worked under his supervision for only 90 days in the year 2000; in this brief period, however, his personality and banking skills left an enduring mark upon me.

During this time, and in my interaction with him later, I found him to be astutely insightful. I would just have begun to discuss a particular issue with him when he would pre-emptively suggest possible solutions. He would already be framing intuitive answers mid-way into half-articulated questions.

Kassim Bhai’s name was synonymous with integrity and the highest standards of the work ethic. Outside of banking, too, he was a custodian of trust. People would deposit property documents with him for safekeeping and he was the third-party of reliance for many. Trust was his hallmark.

His brand of leadership was inclusive and empowering.  He was compassionate and respectful with his team, while being firm and unyielding in demanding the best from them.

In doing so, he encouraged his colleagues and gave them enough space to grow to their maximum potential. If he suspected that he had hurt someone, he instantly made an effort to rectify his mistake and apologised to the person he thought he had aggrieved. He believed in having positive pride in oneself without letting one’s ego get in the way of their thoughts and actions.

From 2012 to 2016, I worked with Mr. Kassim Parekh as the Chief Executive of Habib Metro Bank, where he was Chairman of the Board. The re-establishment of a close professional relationship with Kassim Bhai once again gave me the opportunity to witness his impressive grip over market information, including commodities, clients and businesses.

Bankers generally think of ‘Know Your Customer’ as a compliance checkpoint. To Mr. Kassim Parekh, this meant knowing your customer inside out and understanding their strengths, weaknesses, needs, requirements and future plans. He had detailed knowledge of at least three generations that came before every borrower and client.

His time-tested relationships with his clients were mutual in terms of respect. His customers not only ‘banked with’ the bank but also ‘banked on’ him.

Humility was Kassim Bhai’s most pronounced trait. His concern for his customers and colleagues was tremendous. He was the first to arrive at weddings or even funerals, and he never missed any occasion to share in his associates’ happiness and grief. Even during the later days of his life, when he was not in the best of health, he made short appearances at around seven events every day!

If he suspected that he had hurt someone, he instantly made an effort to rectify his mistake and apologised to the person he thought he had aggrieved. He believed in having positive pride in oneself without letting one’s ego get in the way of their thoughts and actions

He had his first heart attack at the age of 36. He had a bypass at the age of 42. Over the course of the rest of his life he had numerous other heart-related procedures and surgeries including a triple-bypass and valve replacement.

All of these, together, could not subdue the indomitable soul of Kassim Bhai. He dexterously and tenaciously deflected all the curveballs that life threw at him. A couple of years back, Kassim Bhai suffered a leg injury and the doctors expressed concern that he may never be able to walk again.

But once again, the doctors did not recognise the indomitable spirit. Lo and behold, after a few months, Kassim Bhai was seen walking in and out of meetings, clad in sneakers with his suit – his determined spirit outstepping the obstacles that came in his way.

In the course of his last prolonged hospitalisation, I used to think about and inquire after his health every few days. Life has a way of getting on and so it did.

During his funeral prayers, however, while standing amidst a multitude of people too large to be contained by the walls of the mosque, I was jolted by the void that his passing away had left behind.

Standing among the scores of people from varied professions and cadres who had gathered to say farewell to him, I felt crestfallen as I took stock of the magnitude of our collective loss.

Our Kassim Bhai will be sorely missed and forever remembered.

About the Author
Sirajuddin Aziz Sirajuddin
is a senior banker and freelance columnist.