The morning sky was clearing as the first glimmer of the sun emerged when Charles Kimei, sipping hot black coffee as he read the daily papers, heard the frantic tapping of shoes against the concrete floor outside his office. It was too early for someone to be running, he thought.
What happened next was like a scene out of a movie. One of his managers stormed his office, panting and distraught. Kimei, the managing director of Tanzania’s CRDB Bank, instinctively glanced out of his fourth floor window. Everything looked calm outside.
“Then this guy came running in. I was scared; I thought he was coming to kill me. He shouted ‘Robbers!’”
Kimei recalls that day with the preciseness that comes with banking experience. There was no time to ask questions, and so began the worst day in his management career, on October 14, 2002.
Armed robbers disguised in staff uniform had quietly entered the bank in the morning and emptied the safes. In the process, they shot one of the customers, while a bank employee hurt himself as he tried to hide.
By the time Kimei reached the ground floor, where the bank operates its main branch, the robbers had sneaked into the safety of Dar es Salaam’s morning bustle. The robbery took between five and eight minutes, he says, and was so smooth that people outside and on other floors barely noticed anything. Only one gunshot was fired to scare staff and security guards.
“The first thing I did was to ensure that there were no serious casualties, I then called the police. And because we needed to know how much money was stolen, I called the auditor,” he says.
Initially, he thought it was a small amount. But the audit revealed that around $2 million had been taken. The bank had just imported a large amount of dollars to sell to forex bureaus and retail customers and had a stash of euros ready to be shipped out. The timing of the raid pointed to an inside job.
“We had just launched a smartcard, TemboCard, with purse capability, the first of its kind in Tanzania. Then I kind of provoked the robbers. At the launch ceremony I warned them that it would no longer be attractive for them to attack buses plying upcountry routes because passengers will not be carrying cash but smartcards,” says Kimei.
The following Monday, they hit.
“The problem is that our staff are probably shy of looking at each other’s face, otherwise they could have noticed the strangers. The robbers blended in and no one suspected. They ordered everyone to lie down and knew the whereabouts of everything in the branch, including the names of the safe custodians,” says Kimei, the father of three who turns 61 in August.
Back then, the bank was quite small, making a profit of $2.1 million. The pain of knowing that the robbers walked away with the equivalent of the bank’s earnings was excruciating.
CRDB, a product of financial reorganization and financial sector reforms in Tanzania in the early nineties, is now a well-established bank with assets worth $2.2 billion, more than 105 branches, 445 partner microfinance institutions, 350 ATMs and 500 agents across the country. Kimei joined the bank in 1998 and has been pursuing a recovery path, culminating in the listing on the Dar es Salaam Stock Exchange (DSE) in 2009 and a rebrand to CRDB Bank Plc. From 100,000 customers in 1998, the bank now boasts 1.5 million and counting, riding on ICT and modern, customer-friendly branches.
A bank robbery tests the limits of management and business continuity. Decisions have to be made at the speed of a cash-counting machine. The urgency to resume business and the need to arrest suspects and recover the stolen money were competing for Kimei’s saturated attention.
The bank re-opened half an hour late, but early enough to avoid suspicion from its customers and the public.
“I did not want customers to know what had happened. If they panicked, they would think the bank had run out of money. The task was to ensure there was confidence outside the bank. We told staff to be calm and take business as usual. Later, I realized we underestimated the panic and trauma among staff, although they managed to render services,” says Kimei.
Around that period, there was a wave of bank robberies in Tanzania. So, the bank beefed up its security by bringing in additional police and boosting private security guards. On the fateful day, police officers were not on guard.
The biggest issue for Kimei was how to recover the money.
“There was a possibility of recovering the money. At some point, I felt if I was given a police uniform I would do a better job. I was getting phone calls on leads on where the money was but the police were slow. Few people were jailed, but the only money recovered was from the insurers.”
Kimei held a press conference to assure the public that everything was under control and the bank was safe.
“It was well received and most customers who had visited the branch did not even notice there was a robbery. The fact that I gave them the news myself gave them confidence,” he says.
The bank installed CCTV cameras, enhanced its diligence on staff and reviewed their profiles. After the vetting, some suspects were identified among the staff. The morning after, panic was still palpable and morale had not improved, but it was business as usual. Kimei visited the branch every morning to assure staff. This was not made easy by investigators who regularly questioned staff.
“The way we handled the matter was very professional. There is very little someone can do better, even with the benefit of hindsight. Robberies are unexpected and you cannot prepare for them. For example, the police officers were always on site before. We should have noticed the absence of police that morning,” he says.
The bank now has a business continuity plan. But Kimei says disruptive events are not always similar so a business manager must always be ready to use their own intuition alongside what is documented. Staff must know how to react to disasters. This is the mentality powering the bank’s operations, which has seen 30% growth each year.
But he notes that some things happen spontaneously, giving little time for the grab list.
“If something were to happen now, I will run to the drawer and grab my wallet. I won’t even remember there is a grab list,” he says jokingly.
Kimei has always been in decision making positions, both in school and the corporate world. Perhaps this has played a role in preparing him for critical moments.
“I was head prefect at Shinyanga High School which was the most cantankerous experience. People see me as very humble. But I have handled very complicated situations.”
This is why he enjoys games that exercise his mind.
“If you play chess you learn a lot of strategy and concentration. You can’t watch football alone; you must be in a crowd to enjoy it. Some of these games are good for relaxation, not building your mind. Chess, and even normal cards, gets you thinking, because you try to guess your rival’s strategy and you are always betting your fortunes.”
That’s the strategy he is using to grow the bank into an industry leader in Tanzania.