Education scales FNB’s Kali to new heights

The story behind the recent promotion of Ester Kali as First National Bank of Namibia (FNB Namibia) Head of Retail Banking is one of determination, knowledge, hard work and dynamism.

Kali, who started at the bank as a mere enquiries officer in the then Barclays Bank (now FNB Namibia) Ondangwa branch has never known any other working environment over the last 20 years.

She is now in charge of ensuring that FNB takes banking to all Namibians through the expansion of their branch network as well as introducing new alternatives and innovative services and solutions.

FNB’s hit cellphone banking product is one of the many common solutions under her new responsibilities.

She joined the bank straight from matriculating in the late ‘80s after failing to proceed with tertiary education due to financial constraints.

“I desperately wanted to further my studies after school but had to start working immediately to raise funds for myself and my family,” she says.

Her diligence saw her being promoted from enquiries officer to telex operator and then to savings account clerk. By 1991 she had become the assistant accountant.

Despite all the promotions coming her way, Kali was still determined to further her studies. Through the bank, she got a Credit Diploma as well as a Financial Services Advanced Diploma in 2003.

Her elevation did not end there because in 2005 she was promoted to Senior Manager Operations in the retail banking division responsible for the operational and financial efficiency within all retail banking business units as well as operational risk management of FNB Namibia.

In 2006 she obtained an MBA through the Maastricht School of Management (Netherlands).

The biggest promotion of her career came this year and she does not hide her excitement to this development; “This new position has been part of my personal development plan. The sky is the limit.”

She has already mastered the major policies and procedures needed to meet the retail banking strategic objectives of FNB, arguing that they are directed by their bank’s strong and solid value system and strategic plans.

“We also have Risks and Compliance guidelines to mitigate the risk to the customers and the bank.

“It is true that is you cannot manage what you cannot measure, when you work with other peoples’ money, there is a fine balance between avoiding risks and pleasing your customers. Sometimes it requires us to say no in the best interest of the customer,” she says.

In order to meet customers’ expectations, Kali’s division believes that customers are complex in nature, preferring different channels for different services, while different age groups have specific requirements.

“For these reasons, our customers are segmented accordingly in order to ensure that we understand them and we can address their needs accordingly. We also conduct regular surveys among our current and potential customers to gauge their needs and how they perceive FNB as a financial service provider,” says the new retail banking chief.

With a bank that has been at the receiving end for long queues, Kali says that her division is primarily responsible for optimising physical retail infrastructure and she has the right response to that.

“Queuing has largely become a choice. We have taken a strategic decision to expand our banking footprints with a strong technological bias in order to contain cost and offer our clients cost effective banking services,” she says, encouraging customers to use alternative self-service channels such as cellphone and internet banking.

For Ester Kali, now an authoritative voice in the institution, FNB Namibia has managed to close the financial gap that exists between the clients, while remaining relevant to the clients’ lifestyle changes and demands.

Although FNB Namibia is in the process of revamping its online services and having low cost branch banking value propositions, the ultimate banking solution would be to have a complete branchless banking, she argues.

“We are still far away from this. Driving financial inclusion will require us and our customers to be open minded in choosing the way they conduct their banking system,” she says.

Despite her determination, she admits her new post has its own challenges.

“The challenges I am facing in the new position is that of the limited size of the Namibian market and the dangers of competiveness where we need to acquire new customers, cross sell to the current base and retain the existing base in a very competitive environment,” she notes.

There is also a threat of new entrants into the market space that are not always traditional competitors.

“Another challenge is to recruit, develop and retain the best of the best human capital in an environment where skills are a very scarce resource and the competitors know how good our staff is,” she adds.

In her mid forties, she describes the relationship between bank retailing and economic development as “crucial transmission belts for funding investment activities”.

“It is in this regard that commercial banking broadly remains a key engine for economic development by using its retail and investment banking arms to raise deposits to help channelling these funds to where the risk-reward calculation is most optional.

“I need to be on top of things by understanding the market in which we operate, understanding our customer needs and expectations, while at the same time spotting and identifying new opportunities and to capitalise on these by servicing customers appropriately.

“For any bank, balance sheet management is crucial, just think of what happened to some overseas banks that got it wrong during the recent financial crisis,” she says.

A mother of three whose promotion came three months at the end of her maternity leave, Kali prides in her sense of belongingness to the banking world, particularly FNB Namibia.

“A career in banking is one of the most rewarding occupations provided you are prepared to work hard and integrity is part of your personal value system.

“Like any other career, there are no quick fixes or short cuts. My advice is to dream big, ensure to set achievable goals and to work hard. Never compromise on your values and dreams. Be good to others and the world will take care of you. Have a close relationship with the Almighty who makes all things possible,” she advises as she sums up her road up the ladder with a quote from John C Maxwell: “Never allow others to put obstacles in the pathway of your dreams”! PF