In our latest interview with an ICC Academy alumnus, we spoke to Riaz Alam, Product Manager – Trade Finance at ICICI Bank in India. Riaz has 15 years’ experience working in trade finance and shared some valuable tips and advice he has picked up along his journey from a desk officer into a branch to the position he performs today.
Read on to learn why Riaz believes it is crucial that trade finance professionals work across a number of different departments, as well as the importance of keeping your skills up to date in a constantly evolving industry.
What is your current position and what does this involve on a day-to-day basis?
Before I start, I want to mention that the views I express are totally personal and not endorsed by my current organisation or any of my past organisations.
I am currently working as a Product Manager – Trade Finance at ICICI Bank in Mumbai, India. I look after new product development, process changes, decongesting the existing processes and making products simpler for both our customers and our branches on the trade finance side. I also define the journey for how existing trade finance or treasury products can be integrated into digital platforms.
Can you talk a bit about your journey to reach this position and what prompted your initial interest in trade finance?
I started my career at a manufacturing company where I used to interact with bankers who were lending to us. This interaction happened daily, and we would have 2-3 hours of discussion. That gave me a good insight into the banking industry. I started to understand their processes and how banking works. This position developed my initial interest in banking.
From there I joined Axis Bank, initially as an executive on the retail banking side. I was handling customers, retail branch banking operations and customer service. I did that for 2-3 years before I got the opportunity to work in trade finance within the same bank. Initially I had a few hiccups while I got used to the new trade finance role.
However, I took these hiccups as a challenge and enjoyed the ‘on-the-job’ training. After about 6 months, I started to really develop an interest in trade finance as I was learning about new products and processes on an almost daily basis.
This is the great thing about trade finance. Nothing is fixed. Every day you get to learn something new. This not only expands your horizons but also makes you more confident when dealing with customers and colleagues.
From there I started to pursue trade finance properly and took some trade finance related courses from LIBF such as CDCS and CITF, as well as trade finance certifications from IIBF. These helped me expand my knowledge base, and in turn it also helped me increase the trade finance business of the bank.
I did well in this role and that enabled me to move to the relationship side of trade finance. I was handling a team of relationship managers with many branches and customers. From there I became the transaction banking deputy head at Axis. I oversaw the transaction banking business (current accounts, CMS, trade finance) for about 50 branches.
Then I joined my latest organization, ICICI bank, as a Product Manager - Trade Finance.
You talked about the importance of on-the-job learning and educational qualifications. Can you discuss your experiences with the ICC Academy’s Certified Trade Finance Professional (CTFP) and your motivation for taking this qualification?
Trade finance is not static. It changes every day. To keep myself updated I continue to read a lot through various websites and publications, and I also continue to enhance my professional skills by taking various certifications like the Certified Trade Finance Professional (CTFP), which I found very good.
The best part about the CTFP is that it covers 9 subjects and almost all the aspects of trade finance. It gives you an all-round education which I feel is very important for future career progression.
You have worked across a lot of different departments within trade finance in both front and back-office positions. Do you have a preference?
I think to become a complete trade finance professional you should not have a preference. You should work in every field. When I started my career, I worked as a desk officer into a branch. Then I worked in sales to see things from the customer side. Then I worked in operations. And then relationship management and now into product.
Every experience counts and adds up to make you a better trade finance professional. You should look to work in all the different roles across trade finance - operations, sales, product - for 3-4 years each to gather a complete knowledge of the subject.
I don’t have any preference. I have enjoyed all the roles I have done. I don’t want to restrict myself to one of them. I love anything under the trade finance umbrella. My preference is just to be a trade finance professional rather being a specific sales, operations, or product person.
You clearly have a passion for trade finance. What is your favourite part of working in this industry?
The world is evolving and trade finance is constantly changing in response to that. The best part of the job is that every day we get to try and solve new customer problems and requirements related to export/import remittances, bank guarantee, letter of credit, international taxation, capital account transactions etc.
This is what excites me.
Something new comes up every day and we need to structure the solution as per the customer needs while keeping regulations and bank policies in mind.
What is the most challenging part of your current role?
Sometimes customers can be very demanding, but we must make sure we live up to their expectations (while keeping in mind regulatory and banking guidelines). Timely delivery of correct solutions to the customer is of utmost important.
Do you have any other advice for more junior members of the trade finance community who aspire to reach a position like yours?
My advice would be to first focus on getting the basics clear and don’t be afraid to take on different positions or roles. I see many new entrants who are afraid of working in sales. They are not comfortable facing customers, but customers are our best trainers. They teach us the most useful, practical things.
So, get your basics clear and understand important terms like the Incoterms® rules. Take some educational qualifications like the CDCS and CTFP to help your understanding.
Most importantly, they should always be keen to learn. If you have that open mind and learning attitude, you will always come out as a winner. The day I think I know everything, I am finished. If you keep this attitude, it will serve you well throughout all levels and positions.
What excites you most about the future of trade finance?
I think the future of trade finance is very bright due to globalisation and the increase we are seeing in exports and imports across the world. Every country is getting dependent on others and needs to increase their own foreign reserves.
Technology will also have a big impact on trade finance in the coming years. The digital journey in trade finance lags far behind other parts of banking. For the last few decades, trade finance products have been mainly pen and paper based but now these are moving towards digital platforms, especially blockchain.
Finally, what do you read to keep up with industry developments and stay informed?
I read the websites and publications of government bodies websites and banking regulations, especially here in India. I also read ICC publications and always keep these in hand so I can easily refer to them when needed.