Many business leaders face difficult circumstances, but few compare to running a business in the middle of a war. When conflict erupted in Syria in 2011, Louai Al Roumani found himself in this unenviable position.
As head of finance for Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi (BBSF) – Syria’s largest private commercial bank – Roumani was tasked with leading the company through its most difficult time. The horrifying images of the war in Ukraine remind him of his experiences in Syria.
“The Syrian civil war differs from the conflict in Ukraine because there was not a single turning point. It was more gradual and as things escalated it turned into one of the worst wars of modern times,” he says.
A warrior and a philosopher
Now living in London, Roumani wrote about his experience as CFO of BBSF during the Syrian conflict in his 2020 book Lessons from a war zone. “When you work in such a crisis, you almost need to become both a warrior and a philosopher,” he says. “You face daily challenges which make things so much harder on the pitch, which have to be constantly overcome. There is very little room to go wrong.
At the start of the war, Roumani and his colleagues wondered how it would end. They found themselves imagining the many different scenarios that could unfold. “In times of war and crisis, it is very tempting to think only short-term and focus on short-term solutions,” he says. “It’s easy to let the overriding sense of impending doom take over and make you feel like everything is falling apart, that there’s no way things will get better.”
This exercise proved futile, with the ongoing conflict over 11 years later. Bank executives “decided to take a step back,” he says, becoming more stoic and asking important questions. “Whether the war ends tomorrow or in 10 years, whether the United States interferes or not, we are a bank – what do we need to do well?”
By focusing on the things they could control, rather than external factors, BBSF continued to operate despite the crisis unfolding outside. “When we started approaching it in this way, it became clear to us that there were things we needed to do right no matter what, and those are critical factors to our success,” Roumani says. .
One of the first barometers of a crisis are the queues. In the UK, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, long queues outside supermarkets were a sure sign that people feared the worst. As impending war approached in Syria and Ukraine, people lined up for banks to withdraw their money.
This presented a challenge for BBSF. “Most other banks have limited withdrawals. They were telling people not to withdraw their money or trying to delay the withdrawal,” Roumani says. “We took a risk and did the exact opposite.”
Rather than adding to the panic outside the banks, BBSF decided to reassure people that it had sufficient reserves. Banknotes were piled up in counter display cases and people started sharing photos of the stacks of money. “We wanted to send the message that we had good liquidity and that we were open for business,” Roumani explains. “If people wanted their money, they could take it.”
He believes this has helped maintain trust between the bank and its customers. This is in stark contrast to other banks that have chosen to delay withdrawals, further panicking their customers. “Although we lost cash in the short term, in the longer term people remembered our way of doing things and within three months they got their deposits back,” Roumani says. “That’s why it’s important to be a philosopher, because you have to resist the instinct to tackle short-term problems and think about long-term goals instead.”
Shake the survival instinct
However, it is difficult to focus on long-term ambitions when conflicts are happening around you. During the war, Roumani had to deal with mortar shells hitting the bank where he worked and threats of kidnapping. About a quarter of the bank’s branches were destroyed during the war.
“You can imagine how awful it was to handle operations when ISIS was rampaging through some of our branches,” Roumani said. Even in these situations, Roumani was reluctant to focus on survival. “If survival becomes your only goal, you limit yourself to not dying. It becomes almost suicidal – you stop taking risks and focus on protection,” he says. “You don’t face a crisis by simply taking the easy route: you have to go beyond it.”
Some people assume that economic activity stops during a war and businesses close. Roumani recounts a phone call he had with a Finnish company. “When I mentioned I was the CFO of a bank in Syria, he thought I was playing a prank on him,” he says.
“Although we lost a quarter of our branches, it did not destroy the main dynamic of the sector in which we operate,” explains Roumani. “Even in times of war, people continue to live.”
While around 6.8 million Syrians left the country as refugees or asylum seekers, more than 17 million people remained in the country. “Imports continued to be made every day and there was still economic activity, although it had been greatly reduced,” Roumani said. “People have to go on with their lives, despite the crisis. I was the CFO of a bank and we had thousands of depositors, so we had to go to work. I couldn’t sit at home doing nothing.
Many Ukrainian companies today find themselves in a similar situation. Despite the Russian invasion, these companies are finding ways to continue working while keeping their staff safe. “I’m sure they’re going through the same thoughts as us,” Roumani said. “With so much large-scale destruction happening around you, it becomes very easy for this negative narrative to dominate and not allow you to see any opportunity.”
However, he advises companies to stay focused on their critical success factors. Stakeholder management is also becoming an essential skill. “In a crisis, all of your stakeholders become much more demanding – shareholders, customers, government, regulators, suppliers,” he says.
To take part
In these cases, it’s important to show your support with actions rather than words. “Everyone tries to make people feel better by trying to reassure them, but without backing them up with action, people will stop trusting you,” Roumani says, reflecting on her own experiences.
“There was no way to talk about mental wellbeing when so many of people’s basic needs were unmet. Instead, we took action by moving people and their families out of dangerous areas. Making sure we met those primary needs was essential, because if we didn’t, the rest of our actions wouldn’t matter.
Business strategies must also be flexible to react to ever-changing circumstances. Roumani’s experience at BBSF shows that by focusing on long-term success, remaining flexible and embracing the warrior/philosopher mentality he describes, it is possible to run a successful business in the midst of a war zone.
“There’s no way to predict what’s going to happen, even if you have a team of 20 analysts around the table,” Roumani says. “Rather than wasting time planning, build flexibility into almost everything you do. We had no idea which branch would be ransacked by ISIS or other groups, but what we could do was make sure that branch staff, customers and assets were protected.