Deadline day approaches for First Abu Dhabi Bank. A closure of its branches and services begins next week, as FAB − the product of a multi-billion-dirham merger between First Gulf Bank and National Bank of Abu Dhabi − seeks to complete its integration process over the holiday weekend.
It should be the final step on a years-long road: the merger was announced in July 2016, creating the second-biggest bank in the Middle East in the process. The new company began trading on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange in April 2017 and its own branding and signage were introduced in branches late last year.
The FAB merger was one of a string of tie-ups between similar entities across the emirate over the past five years. A diverse range of sectors were represented, including property, investment, banking and education. Another big merger, this time between three more banks, has also been mooted. All of these plans were designed to promote greater efficiency in the businesses they bonded together.
The bigger test of that idea is now upon FAB.
As the bank’s account holders will tell you, FAB may already be a single network of branches, but it provides two customer experiences: despite being branded as FAB ATMs, cash machines are also additionally labelled either as NBAD or FGB, meaning customers may be unable to access some services depending on which their “home” bank is. Similarly, FAB has customer service representatives designated to handle either FGB or NBAD banking queries, but not both, and its mobile banking app is a rebranded product using an engine and technology from pre-merger days.
All that is about to change. As our business desk reported, FAB branches will shut from next Thursday lunchtime (November 29) and will reopen on the following Tuesday (December 4), as FAB integrates its IT systems. Its mobile banking services will close on Wednesday night.
Account holders will be hoping the temporary inconvenience will result in long-term convenience, although none of this “unification” and “harmonisation” work will come as a surprise to customers. Indeed, the bank has done a good job in communicating what is about to happen, advising its customers through text messages, emails and mobile notifications.
The choice of dates for the integration process is also smart: the long National Day weekend means in reality that customers are only actually deprived of service at the branch on Saturday, December 1. The remaining days of the blackout period would be days when the bank would be shut anyway, owing to Friday closing and closures for public holidays.
The bigger problems for customers are the possibility of inconvenience in the days leading up to the outage and a more general fear of the unknown during it.
Experts warn that there may be long queues immediately before the shutdown, as customers seek to withdraw cash or accelerate payments to tide them over a busy holiday weekend. One commentator said the fact that the extended closure “could cause real problems”. The key word here is “could”. We don’t really know, although FAB insists their credit and debit cards will work as normal throughout.
It’s quite possible that the end of the integration period could produce a latter-day equivalent of the unfounded global fears surrounding the Y2K bug, when millions of people fretted that our trade routes and personal computers would be thrown into chaos. What actually happened was there was next to no disruption and the sky did not fall in.
It's also perfectly possible that there will be problems − and lots of them. Not of the end-of-days variety that the Y2K catastrophists imagined, but more niggling and persistent issues.
This newspaper is produced from a newsroom that overlooks FAB’s flagship offices next to Khalifa Park, and 18 months ago we went through a similar relaunch.
Like FAB, many dedicated staff members had been involved in months of preparation for what amounted to a weekend of changeover as we moved from one publishing system to another and into new premises. It was a testing time: there were lots of bugs to work around and fixes to be dreamt up. Patience became a prized virtue and pragmatism was an absolute necessity.
I suspect the staff of FAB will need to conjure a similar spirit next weekend. Final steps are the most difficult ones to take, especially when so many account holders are involved, and particularly when the transition period is protracted. It will be worth the bank remembering that it is not just an integration of systems that is about to undertaken, but an exercise in supporting those at the core of its business − its customers.
Nick March is an assistant editor at The National