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BACB 50th Anniversary, In Conversation with Nick Morris

Posted on 27/04/2022

BACB Together

In conversation with… Nick Morris

As BACB commemorates its 50th Anniversary, we spoke with one of our longest serving employees, Business Analyst Nick Morris. Reflecting on BACB’s rich history, Nick takes us on a journey through his career and offers a glimpse into the early days of the bank.

Nick Morris Photo for 50th anniversary cropped

In February 1975, aged nineteen, I joined as a trainee in what was then the Operations department. On my first day, given my previous experience as a cashier at Barclays, I was tasked with looking after the cash till. We called it a cash till, but it was little more than a tin box tied to the air conditioning unit.

At that time, the bank was known as UBAF Ltd (Union de Banques Arabes et Francaises or Union of Arab and French Banks). It became British Arab Commercial Bank (BACB) in 1996. UBAF had opened for business in 1972 and by the end of 1974 it was starting to expand, with about 30 staff occupying half the sixth floor of the Commercial Union Building (now St Helen’s) over on St Mary Axe. It was the tallest building around. Now of course it is dwarfed by the Gherkin.

By the time I joined in 1975, headcount had increased to 60 people and the bank had taken over the entire sixth floor. The CEO was a very personable man named Walter Cronk, who would happily take the time to walk around the office and get to know his staff. Nowadays, that’s what CEOs are expected to do, but back then it was unheard of for management to be fraternising with their employees like that.

In the early days, the markets we served were narrower than they are today. We mostly acted as a correspondent bank for core markets in Libya, Egypt, and the Gulf. There were no corporate services, that would come later.

We spent just over a decade at St Mary Axe before moving to new premises on Gresham Street in 1985. That remained our headquarters until the year 2000, when we moved to our current location on Mansion House Place.

“The era of the 1970s would seem completely alien to present-day staff.”

Looking back now, it was such a different world. The era of the 1970s would seem completely alien to present-day staff. The biggest difference of course is the technology, or lack thereof. Everything was done manually, there were no PCs or computer terminals on any desks, and no SWIFT. Outgoing telex messages were mostly written by hand and then given to a telex operator in the Comms department to be keyed into a telex machine.

The only ‘hi-tech’ we had in the office were the electric typewriters, a couple of desktop calculators – bulky things with a roll of paper attached to them – and several standalone machines in the accounts department that used punch cards to produce rudimentary reports. Back then, the Documentary Credits department also employed three copy typists whose job it was to type up all the handwritten documents.

That all changed, however, when in 1980 I was tasked with installing the bank’s first desktop computer. It was a very exciting moment and it sparked what would become a life-long interest in technology for me. Several years later, I went on to develop BACB’s own digital payments system prior to the adoption of SWIFT.

I soon became more involved in the bank’s IT systems, where I’ve built a career since 1985, helping it to transform with the times. In fact, one of my biggest achievements in my 47-year career is developing an approval system from scratch that the bank ended up using for 28 years. Comparing the systems and technology we use today to the world of 1972; the bank is almost unrecognisable.

BACB has also changed hands several times during my career. When I started out, the bank’s ownership was divided between Midland Bank, Libyan Foreign Bank and UBAF Group (50%). However, the UBAF Group fell apart in the late 1980s during the first sovereign debt crisis, which saw countries such as Mexico defaulting. The whole UBAF Group – of which we were one of six members – was then dismantled, with the Midland Bank taking the majority share. That was until 1992 when HSBC took over. The present shareholding structure, with Libyan Foreign Bank, Morocco’s Banque Centrale Populaire and Banque Extérieure d’Algerie, came into effect in 2010.

But one thing has stayed the same, and that’s our approach to clients. Ever since I joined, we have focused on providing a boutique and personal service, one that you just don’t get with bigger banks. Our teams get to know the customer, meaning they can better serve their needs.

I’m often asked what has kept me at the bank for so many years. One of the things that has made me stay is the camaraderie among staff. There is a family-style atmosphere, where we can share in the bank’s success as the sum of all our efforts. I think a glowing endorsement of BACB is that the sons and daughters of many long-serving employees have been encouraged to work here, including my own. That really gives me hope for the future.

In the past 50 years, we have been able to ride through challenging times together as an organisation and have continued to grow the business. From the turmoil of the 1970s and the sovereign debt crisis in the 1980s, through the Libyan sanctions in 1993 to the Arab Spring in 2011, and more recently COVID-19 and the Russian invasion of Ukraine, we have stood strong as a trusted financial partner for our clients and our community. I’m very proud to have been a part of it.

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