PROFILE: Lubna Al-Olayan looking to shatter glass ceilings as head of merged SABB, Alawwal bank

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Time: October 05, 2018   

Saudi businesswoman Lubna Al-Olayan is to be the first woman in her country to run a publicly traded bank. (Shutterstock)
  • Saudi businesswoman Lubna Al-Olayan is to be the first woman in her country to run a publicly traded bank
  • Al-Olayan has been appointed chair of what will be the third-largest lender in KSA

LONDON: Saudi businesswoman Lubna Al-Olayan is to be the first woman in her country to run a publicly traded bank.
Olayan has been appointed chair of what will be the third-largest lender in Saudi Arabia, following the merger of Saudi British Bank (SABB) and Alawwal Bank. She has been deputy chair of Alawwal Bank since 2014.
A mother-of-three, Olayan, 63, brings an illustrious CV and a wealth of experience to her new job. She is chief executive of Olayan Financing Company (OFC), the holding entity for the Olayan Group, the company founded in 1947 by her entrepreneur father, Sulaiman.
A multinational dealing in distribution, manufacturing, services and investments, it has yielded a private fortune of more than $10 billion for the family.
OFC operates more than 40 businesses and is one of the largest investors in the Saudi and other stock markets in the region.
In 2004, Olayan joined the board of the Saudi Hollandi Bank, becoming the first woman to be elected to the board of a Saudi public company. That year she claimed another first as the first Saudi woman to make the opening keynote speech at the Jeddah Economic Forum, a major conference in Saudi Arabia.
The following year she co-chaired the World Economic forum in Davos, Switzerland.
She appears regularly in “most powerful” lists. She was one of Time Magazine’s Top 100 Most Influential People in 2005 and Forbes lists her as the 86th most powerful woman in the world as of 2014, while Fortune magazine names her as one of 50 Most Powerful Women in its International Power 50 list.
All this has been achieved in an era when a Saudi woman working in business had to overcome considerable obstacles, such as separate offices for men and women.

She spent nine years as an analyst with JP Morgan in New York, returning to Riyadh in 1983. Over dinner, her father asked what she was intending to do now that she was back in Saudi Arabia. Olayan replied with a vague plan to look for a job in a Saudi Bank.
But her father had a better idea. His executive assistant had just resigned. Why didn’t Lubna take over, starting the next day? She agreed and began the process of shattering stereotypes of Saudi women. She was the only woman working at Olayan Financing company for her first 18 years there. When she visited factories, there was never a bathroom she could use.
In an interview with NPR in May, Olayan admitted she felt extra pressure to succeed because she was the boss’s daughter. The few other women in business in Saudi Arabia at the time were working from their homes. The only places men and women worked together was in hospitals. During her years of working with her father, Olayan urged him to employ more women.
“How is our society going to progress if 50 percent of the populations is not allowed to contribute?” she said.
She co-opted male colleagues and senior members of the government who also had wives and daughters who wanted to work. They were supportive but said she must respect Saudi custom.
“So you negotiate, you deal, you take and give,” she said. In 2001 she hired her first woman, whose task was to increase the number of female employees at OFC. As of 2018, 500 of OFC’s 16,000 employees across the Middle East are women. Olayan wants women to make up 30 percent of OFC’s Saudi workforce.
She is her own best advertisement for female capability.
“Even my most chauvinist of Saudi friends and clients have great admiration for the way that she manages her companies,” Bernd van Linder, CEO of Saudi Hollandi Bank told Fortune in 2015. “She is respected as a person rather than as the first Saudi woman to do this or that.”
Her abilities have been recognized well beyond the borders of Saudi Arabia. From 1996 to 2004 she was on the board of the British property developer Chelsfield plc and in 2006 and 2007 she joined the international advisory boards of Rolls-Royce and Citigroup respectively.
Outside the world of business, her primary interest is education. She has been on the international council of the prestigious INSEAD business school for more than 20 years and a trustee of Cornell University for more than ten. Twelve years ago she joined the advisory board of Effat college, a private, non-profit college for girls in Jeddah.
She is also on the boards of Alfanar, the first philanthropic organization focusing on the Arab region, and of the Beirut-based think tank, the Arab Thought Foundation.

This article was first published in Arab News

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