There is a saying, Nezar Banabeela tells The CEO Magazine, that to create a great CEO who can add value to any organization, they should pass through five challenges or opportunities.
“First is the development that comes from working in a very mature corporation or organization,” he says. “Second, they should pass through a greenfield. The third should be an international experience, while the fourth is joining a company that’s on the verge of going bankrupt and turning it around.”
And the fifth? “Letting it all go and moving to a completely different industry,” he says.
As the CEO of stc Bahrain, it’s a cycle he has experienced firsthand, starting his career in the industry at the telco’s Saudi Arabian parent company, stc (Saudi Telecom Company). “It was a great organization and a huge corporation,” he says of his five years there in roles that included Director of National Service Implantation.
The greenfield was his first stint at stc Bahrain when the company launched in the country in 2010 under the name VIVA Bahrain. (It rebranded to stc Bahrain in 2019 to unify the brand across Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain.)
“We built the company from scratch,” he says. But this experience showed him another business perspective. “This is where I saw a different view – the challenger view,” he continues.
In both Saudi Arabia and Bahrain, the roles offered him international experience. “When I was in Saudi Arabia, I worked on the wholesale side of the business, and I continued that in Bahrain as Chief Wholesale and Enterprise,” he says. “That gave me a new perspective on understanding different cultures, different markets and different challenges,”
By 2014 he had returned to Riyadh, Saudi Arabia. And although it’s a situation many hope they’ll never find themselves in, his turn to face financial turbulence came during his year at local telco Mobily. “I don’t know if I should say luckily or unluckily, but six months after I joined the company, it faced a financial crisis,” he explains.
“I saw firsthand what it means when an organization confronts such a problem and what it takes to make sure that everyone focuses on the specifics needed to deliver the value needed to save the organization.”
A year later, ready for something new, Banabeela took over as CEO at Bahri Dry Bulk, a shipping conglomerate considered the Kingdom’s national maritime carrier. “If you have a few hours to spare, I can tell you how different to a telco the logistics business is,” he says with a laugh.
Two different phases
His crash course to the C-Suite behind him, Banabeela returned to stc Bahrain in 2019 as CEO. “It’s been beautifully fascinating seeing the two different phases of stc Bahrain,” he says.
“We had a very simple strategy when we launched the company and that was to have a great network,” he explains. “At the same time, we offered value for money with our service.”
It was a positioning that delivered quick results. “Within a very short period of time, less than two years, we became number one in the consumer market segment.”
Similar results soon followed in the wholesale segment. “Then, starting with small and medium-size enterprises, we developed our capabilities in the corporate market and we were soon growing double digits year on year,” he continues.
I saw the same company, the same spirit, the same culture and the great team that we had continued on the same accelerated base to be number one.
After five years away, he says it was a ‘pleasure’ to return. “I saw the same company, the same spirit, the same culture and the great team that we had continued on the same accelerated base to be number one,” he says.
“There has always been a commitment from every single individual in the organization to make sure that we never sacrifice that and will always fight the fight and win every single battle we go through.”
His return coincided with a change of direction for the company, a new strategy that continued to focus on the organization’s core value. “stc Bahrain, and stc at large, has three core values: dynamism, devotion and drive,” he says.
By driving diversification according to these three values, Banabeela says stc will continue to improve and adapt new and better approaches to the business. “We will always focus on agility, on collaboration and on fresh views,” he explains.
“We are devoted to becoming a customer-centric company for our clients and our employees by being caring, committed and trustworthy. And our drive is what keeps us restless, always on the lookout for the best possible solutions for our clients and also for our people by being proactive and innovative.”
Maintaining market position
Behind his decision to return was the old adage: “It’s easy to get to number one, but it’s harder to stay there,” he says. “To do that, you need to understand what the market is actually looking for today.” he explains.
And the answer, he says, is in a core, customer-centric focus and an emphasis on stc as an innovator and leader across the whole region.
This is where I belong, with this A-team behind all these great initiatives and achievements.
“This can be seen across every single move that we are doing today,” he says. “We were the first to launch 3G and then 4G in the region. We were the first to launch 4G LTE and then 5G. And now, not just only in Bahrain, not only in the region, but in the whole of the Middle East and North Africa, we are the first company to launch the foundation of 5.5G, which is a big thing.”
Then there are the other innovations: in December 2022, it became the first telecom operator in the country to accept cryptocurrencies as payment. There’s also stc Pay, a mobile wallet designed for day-to-day expenses and to seamlessly send money to friends and family.
“I realized this is where I belong, with this A-team behind all these great initiatives and achievements,” he says with a smile.
At Global Brand Magazine’s 10th annual Global Brands Awards in Dubai in December 2022, stc Bahrain was recognized as the Most Innovative Digital Solutions Brand.
The award was presented to the company for the investments it has made to drive Bahrain’s digital transformation in line with the Bahrain Economic Vision 2030.
“The award is a token of our dedication to diversify our offerings, enable the digital economy and position Bahrain as a digital hub in the region,” Banabeela stated when accepting the award.
A guiding vision
Looking forward, he says that continuing the growth of its core telecom surface for both B2B and B2C clients will remain an ongoing focus. “On top of that, we are looking to diversify into new growth areas such as FinTech, InsureTech and ICT services,” he explains.
Bahrain’s Economic Vision 2030 was launched in 2021 by His Majesty King Hamad Bin Isa Al Khalifa and is a driving force behind proposed development for Bahrain’s economy from a “regional pioneer” to a “global contender” – for which digital transformation is a key pillar of the vision.
“We’re looking at what we can do to make sure the country is a hub in the whole region,” he says.
To that effect, stc recently announced the development of the region’s first data center park, in partnership with the Ministry of Transport and Telecommunications. The site will be 55,000 square meters in size.
Other infrastructure investments include the deployment of a new point of presence in the Kingdom in partnership with Australian IT firm Radian Arc. stc Tajer, a point-of-sale software, and Fleet Management, a GPS vehicle tracking software, are some of its B2B innovations.
This was the biggest proof that we are a trusted organization and a real demonstration of who we are for the business sector.
In terms of insuretech, the company introduced stc protect – a car and device insurance product, which forms part of its significant investment in digital infrastructure in Bahrain.
It’s clear that Banabeela isn’t afraid of looking at new ways of doing things as stc continues to offer its customers an array of both traditional and digital products and services. An example is its #stctechtalk events, the first of which was held in September 2022 as an in-person and live-streamed event.
“The first subject that we came out with is the big elephant in the room – cybersecurity,” he says. It is a subject that stc workshops for businesses via its Security Awareness program.
More than 50 CEOs and decision-makers in Bahrain attended the inaugural talk, and for Banabeela, that figure is a source of immense pride. “This was the biggest proof that we are a trusted organization and a real demonstration of who we are for the business sector,” he says.
The initiative also demonstrates stc Bahrain’s commitment to being a one-stop shop for its B2B clients as it looks to enable their digital transformations.
40 under 40
In 2019, Banabeela was recognized as one of the most influential young leaders in the region when he made Arabian Business Middle East’s 40 under 40 list.
The publication called him “one of the prominent business leaders in the region, with an impressive track record of achievements in the various positions he has held across different industries”.
“It was a beautiful experience,” he reflects. “I’ve always said that the right company, the right time and the right people, like we have here, has been my motivation to achieve more than what anyone else can deliver.”
Banabeela is also aware of the importance of giving back to the Kingdom of Bahrain, and CSR is an important focus. Its Trees for Life campaign is the largest afforestation program in the country and works to preserve the Kingdom’s precious nature and regenerate the land, with a target of doubling Bahrain’s tree population by 2035.
“We’ve planted more than 35,000 trees in collaboration with our partners and The Supreme Council for Environment and Ministry of Municipalities and Agriculture Affairs in the biggest Private Nationwide Trees for Life campaign in Bahrain,” he says.
We will do whatever it takes to satisfy our customers and ensure they have what they need. We will always be available to them.
The business is also behind the award-winning documentary Kafu. “The show presents Bahrainis and their culture and the values that are embedded in the beautiful Bahraini people, who are driven by nothing but personal motivation to do their best for the country,” he says.
In return, Banabeela is determined to remain by their side as the country navigates the digital transformation. “We will do whatever it takes to satisfy our customers and ensure they have what they need. We will always be available to them.”
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