Mohamed Rafique Merican FCCA holds the distinction of having served as CFO of two of Malaysia’s largest and most influential groups – in his current position at Malayan Banking (Maybank) and previously at Tenaga Nasional (TNB).
Malaysia’s largest bank, Maybank has 47,000 employees serving 22 million customers worldwide, while TNB, the national power utility company, has more than 33,500 employees and an estimated 8.3 million customers.
In both these giant corporations, Rafique has been a central figure in driving change and transformation to bring the groups to a higher level in their respective industries.
Transforming an organisation is never easy, as there are many obstacles that can potentially derail the process. ‘When it comes to driving change, you must have patience,’ Rafique says. ‘Because not everyone is aligned, you have to spend time with people to explain why a certain approach is good for us.’
Despite the challenges which inevitably come with the job of driving change, Rafique is unflappable. In fact, it motivates him to work even harder. ‘It’s about leadership, drive and achieving the results,’ he says. ‘It’s a sense of achievement. You want someone who will come in and deliver, not only in his own individual capacity but with the team as well as the organisation.’
When Rafique joined Maybank in June 2012, the finance transformation was already in progress. He says that this involves business partnering because ‘the true worth of the finance function is not just from a regulatory compliance standpoint – reporting and analysis and so on – but how to make best use of that information to ensure that not just the individual businesses within the bank but the group as a whole is able to progress’ to achieve its strategic objectives.
Key for Rafique was ensuring that the right framework was in place. ‘The journey was one we needed to take,’ he says. ‘We were trying to overcome challenges in terms of change management – not only in Malaysia but across the region.’
Apart from overseeing the finance transformation, Rafique is also entrusted with helping drive the business from a strategy standpoint and ensure its successful execution. ‘You are part of a team that will actually make it happen. You have got to engage with the different stakeholders. Sometimes you have to convince; sometimes you have to persuade, and sometimes you’ve got to direct,’ he says.
Along with being in such a senior position comes the weight of high expectations, and this is complicated by the fact that Maybank operates in a highly regulated sector.
‘Banks are supervised in a much more regulated manner and, at the same time, are expected to progress with their objectives. The staff expects certain things, the regulators expect certain things, the board and the shareholders expect certain things. You are smack in the middle and driving these initiatives.’
Though he had some banking and financial services experience in the early part of his career with Bumiputra Merchant Bankers and Amanah Capital Group, Rafique acknowledges that within the bank there are ‘layers and layers of people with greater banking experience than me’.However, the roles and responsibilities entrusted to a senior executive in his position require someone ‘who is able to lead a team, formulate and execute strategies, and be a team player. He must be someone who would be able to take the finance function and elevate Maybank to the next level. It’s less about finance and accounting because that’s a given. It’s more about what the candidate brings to the equation.’
Previously at TNB, where expectations were just as demanding, capacity building to ensure that the country has sufficient electricity was paramount.
‘In Tenaga, it was a sizable responsibility as well,’ Rafique recalls. ‘Efficiencies are very important in Tenaga, as is customer service, but banking is much more competitive.’
While at Tenaga, one of Rafique’s key achievements was helping to bring the utility’s gearing to a more sustainable level. ‘In terms of generation capacity building, we had to raise financing. When I joined Tenaga it was rated double A, and during the time I was there we managed to secure a triple-A rating. That helps in terms of the more competitive financing that Tenaga can raise,’ he notes.
‘Among the things that we pushed for – such as competitive bidding and for Tenaga to be a much stronger entity so that it can better serve the nation – by and large we have achieved that. It is a much stronger company compared to, say, five years ago,’ says Rafique.
He was also involved in some of Tenaga’s power-related projects overseas, including in Saudi Arabia and Pakistan. ‘Some of these are starting to bear fruit now,’ he says.
Rafique is motivated by a desire not only to help the company he is working with become more successful, but to also contribute positively to the country and economy. So when he received the call to join Maybank, he was excited at the prospect.
Above all, his reason for joining the bank was ‘the compelling vision that they had – to grow not just in Malaysia but in the region’.
‘We wanted to be competitive within the ASEAN space. It is one of the fastest growing regions in the world,’ he explains, adding that he sees his role not just from the bank’s perspective but also from how the group contributes to Malaysia and the region.
‘Then you’ll find the reason for being within the organisation is much bigger. You can do a lot more. If Maybank grows; it is good for us and it also benefits the community. For Maybank to thrive, the whole community should also be doing well,’ he says, adding that it is an institution that is able to contribute to the economy in a significant way.
For Rafique, the desire to put something back into the community stems from the fact that he was a recipient of a scholarship from a government agency. ‘Being a former government scholar, there will always be the urge to serve the country in whatever capacity,’ he says.
He explains that one does not necessarily have to serve within the public sector to serve the country, pointing out that his service in companies such as Maybank and Tenaga, which play an important role in the country’s economy, has enabled him to give back to society.
Rafique is also grateful that he was given the opportunity to obtain his ACCA Qualification in the UK. In fact, his career could have turned out to be very different as he initially planned to study computer science in the US. However, during his scholarship interview, he was advised to study accountancy because of his inclination for mathematics and languages. Rafique took this advice and left for the UK in 1983 to sit his A Levels. After gaining his ACCA Qualification in 1990, he returned to Malaysia.
Rafique is pleased that he chose accountancy and ACCA which has enabled him to have a varied and interesting career in different industries. ‘That’s the wonderful thing about the ACCA Qualification; your core [work] will still be finance but you can experience different industries, which enables you to widen and broaden your perspectives.
‘With the ACCA Qualification I am able to cross different industries, take on different and new roles,’ says Rafique, whose career path has taken him to companies in the property, facilities management, power and financial services sectors.
He endeavours to contribute to the ACCA community and is currently serving as a member of the ACCA Malaysia Advisory Committee. ‘We look at how we can advance ACCA, how we can make a difference, and how we can engage the younger generation that is just stepping out into accountancy.
‘Being in senior positions in the profession, we also want to share our experiences. When we were younger, we thought achieving the Qualification is probably what would define our careers. I think we owe it to the next generation to say that it is only just one step. The next step is how you actually shape your career,’ he adds.
Holding the fort
When Maybank former president and CEO Dato’ Sri Abdul Wahid Omar left on short notice to take up the position of Minister in the Prime Minister’s Department in June 2013, Rafique was the man the board turned to, to keep things running smoothly, and he was made officer-in-charge for two months until an appointment was made.
‘I figured if Dato’ Seri Abdul Wahid was going to take on a bigger role of national service then I was sure I could play a smaller role until a successor was found,’ he recalls. ‘It wasn’t a question of whether I wanted to do it or not; it was that Maybank needed someone to hold the organisation steady for a while.
‘It was an interesting period for me – much busier because a lot of things were new – and there were pieces of it that are non-finance related. So while Maybank was looking for a successor, I had to make sure we continued on the same path and to interact with the team.’
The experience also gave Rafique a glimpse into the CEO’s roles and responsibilities in a large organisation. Asked if this has challenged him to take on such a role in future, Rafique says he will not necessarily say ‘no’ to such an opportunity.
‘If the reasons are compelling enough, and there are opportunities to grow personally as well as to actually make a difference, then perhaps. You never know how far you can go until you give it a try,’ says Rafique who, however, adds that ‘I’m enjoying myself here at Maybank.’
‘I believe we can make a big difference here and once we are done, when the next generation is ready to lead Maybank, we would have made a lasting contribution towards the organisation, the community and the region.’
Lee Min Keong, Malaysia editor, Accounting and Business
This article was first published in the Malaysia edition of Accounting and Business magazine in February 2015