MAZIN KHOURY, CEO of American Express Middle East on shaping the company’s vision through relentless technological innovation

The global payments market is perhaps amongst the most diverse and sophisticated businessa landscape nowadays. From gold coins of the olden days to the cashless and digital wallets of the modern era, the way people perform payments have continuously and will certainly evolve through time.

BiG Magazine talks to AMEX Middle East CEO Mazin Khoury, the man responsible for stirring the company towards relentless growth and innovation across the Middle East and North Africa. 

What differentiates American Express?

Since it was established, American Express Middle East has provided a service experience that makes a difference to thousands of people, every day, across the Middle East and North Africa. A difference delivered to our Cardmembers, Merchants and Business partners through earning their trust, offering assurance, delivering control, great value and unforgettable experiences. 

With our rich history, and our ability to capture, analyze and gain insights from the millions of transactions that flow through our network, we are capable of creating tailor-made experiences and offers that add value to our customers, help our merchant partners attract customers and identify ways for businesses to control expenses and manage payments. But because the payment industry is a dynamic segment of financial services, and as technology advances at an ever-increasing pace, American Express puts innovation at the forefront of everything we do. It lies at the heart of American Express Middle East’s success and it is the reason we are able to maintain a leading position as one of the region’s most valuable brands of the payments field and financial services industry.

In simple words, what makes us different is the fact that our Cardmembers and their needs are our driving force. We provide them with a powerful backing as they move forward in live, we speak to their hearts and minds and that is what makes them choose us day in day out. 

How do you ensure that a global brand such as American Express is relevant to consumers in MENA?

We understand consumers in MENA and we understand what our customers expect from us. 

Today, people are living more global and blended lives, the way they live life is changing, and so are we. People are living more purposefully and their personal and business lives are more intertwined than ever before. The old boundaries are melting away and people are more integrated and interconnected than ever. This means it’s not work versus family, home versus away, this versus that anymore. It’s work life integration and we understand that. 

Our Cardmembers lives are busy, they don’t necessarily have 9 to 5 jobs anymore, they value human connection and experiences, they are also changing the way they engage with companies. Experience has become the product. It is an insight driven by millennials, but one that crosses all generations. And this insight has helped shape our vision to provide the world’s best customer experience every day.  

And in a world that is defined by experiences, people want companies that can support them in all of the ways they are living their lives and doing business today. This has guided us to invest in experience-led innovation to engage with the consumers on their terms and build experiences to become a more essential part of people’s digital lives. To do so, and be everywhere they are, digitally – is to offer them as many ‘touch points’ as possible ultimately to forge trusted relationships and deliver a service experience, that is seamless and more personal whether it is in store or when they shop online.

You mentioned innovation several times, what does it mean for American Express Middle East?

We believe that strategic innovation is the key to business success and leadership. The payment industry offers tremendous potential for growth as we move from a cash-based society towards more sophisticated and technology-driven buying habits. The only way for to the payments industry to address this is to embrace continuous strategic innovation, which can often mean completely changing the way business has been conducted for years. 

And in order to truly live innovation and succeed at it, our approach is to always put the Customer first, at the heart of all that we do. We make sure we deliver personalized experiences that are convenient, add value and secure. We create an environment and culture that fosters, encourages and rewards innovation and finally we form trusted partnerships with relevant stakeholders to create new communities for a common business purpose in ways we might not necessarily have done before – with business partners, major suppliers, government, startups, everyone in the supply chain and supported by regulators. We see disruption as a catalyst for growth and that is why we have become founding partners of Bahrain Fintech Bay, organized our first Hackathon in Bahrain, and launched our first accelerator program in the Middle East. 

Not only that, but we also recognize the changing landscape with regards to our workforce, increasingly bridging five generations – Millennials, Generation Y, Generation X, Baby Boomers and the Traditionalists. We know that Millennials are contributing to innovation in the workplace and at AEME, 57% of the workforce are millennials. 

How do the finance executives in the Middle East see technological innovations impacting the way they do their jobs and their company’s future?

With the rise of the connected customer, executives identified their number-one technology spending priority; regional respondents say they are most likely to boost spending in integrating different information systems in an effort to enhance efficiency and nearly the same (25%) plan to allocate more resources to protection against data breaches over the next two years.    

They actually anticipate that next-generation technology will bring major disruption to their industry (25%), country (15%), or company (11%) over the next five years. Actually 66% of them confirmed that robotics as an emerging technology keeps them up at night, followed by and automation. However, they have also confirmed that they are already making investments in robotics and automation (54%) and artificial intelligence (40%) compared with 52% and 54% worldwide.

Let’s talk about the Hackathon, why did you hold it? 

Our Hackathon, Hack @the Track, was held in partnership with IBM and powered by Angelhack with the aim to develop solutions to make digital payments more accessible. It was one of the highlights of Startup Bahrain Week.  The Hackathon lasted for 30-hours and attracted just under 100 participants from across the region. The challenge was set to find creative, simple and impactful ways to make digital payments convenient, accessible and relevant to many.  25 forward-looking solutions were developed, leveraging technological advancements such as machine learning, predictive algorithms, chatbots, natural language processing and blockchain.

What about the Accelerator program that you launched a couple of months ago?

At American Express Middle East, we strive to always bring our powerful backing to the new business solutions and ideas for the future – ACCELERATE ME is simply an extension of this philosophy.

Earlier this year, we launched our first Accelerator programme, ACCELERATE ME, in partnership with Nest, the corporate innovation specialist with the aim of bringing together the next generation of startups and newly established SMEs from around the world. Our ACCELERATE ME programme has 118 start-ups and SMEs from 36 countries around the world from Seed funding through to Series B stage. The start-ups were carefully assessed on criteria such as their business and revenue models, investor portfolio, along with anticipated client portfolio. 24 startups from 15 different countries made it to the interview by American Express Middle East Senior Management that led to granting 6 of them the opportunity to be part of the Program. The 6 selected Startups spent eight weeks in Bahrain alongside American Express Middle East, to develop their innovative solutions, working from a specially appointed innovation lab at American Express Middle East’s headquarters in Bahrain, a highly supportive and collaborative environment.

And as a founding member of Bahrain Fintech Bay, and as proud contributor to the overall fintech ecosystem here in the region, we were extremely delighted with the solutions developed as part of ACCELERATE ME.

To create and deliver a initiatives such as Hackathon and ACCELERATE ME is a testament to American Express Middle East’s commitment to create and encourage a culture that supports and rewards innovation. As part of ACCELERATE ME, new partnerships were formed, bridging the gap between corporate organizations and the startups to deliver on the promise of using innovation to create new and meaningful and trusted connections with customers. 

What can we expect from AEME in the near future in terms of innovative value-added services?

At AEME, delivering service excellence and innovation is at the core of our future plans and strategies; we continue to focus on building longstanding and trusted relationships with our Cardmembers, Corporate partners and merchants After more than 40 years in this region we know what our Customers have come to expect from us and we make significant investment to provide them with the powerful backing of American Express so they can move forward in life. 

Today, consumers and businesses are on the lookout for new and valuable products which are supported by services that go the extra mile. They have become more aware of the standards they can expect when utilizing services and purchasing goods. The MENA region has a dynamic and growing cashless payments sector and we are committed to continuously invest in new digital technologies that are regulated to allow us to provide an indispensable service experience to our Cardmembers, Merchants and Businesses. 

Why did you roll out the new Brand Platform?

American Express is witnessing a global transformation in people’s relationships with work. How they choose to earn a living and pursue their passions. We see people are combining increasingly complex professional and personal lives and appreciate when someone has their back as they navigate this blended lifestyle. And based on a global study commissioned by American Express earlier this year, we found out that more than half of people today are adopting new lifestyles with personal and work life increasingly deeply intertwined. The study, which was conducted in eight markets, also revealed that two in three people feel they can achieve more because of this work-life integration. 

The new brand platform and marketing campaign that reflects how people live and work today, called “Powerful Backing: Don’t Do Business / Don’t Live Life Without It.” The campaign celebrates the new reality that life and business are increasingly interconnected, and the unique role American Express can have in supporting people today.

American Express Middle East is uniquely positioned to deliver on its promise to have its customers’ backs as they live life and do business. 

What final message of confidence would you like to convey to our readers and viewers about American Express Middle East and Bahrain?

American Express Middle East has long been a leading brand in payments. And we go a step further to back our Cardmembers and so they can move forward in live. We stand for security, service and personal recognition. In the MENA region, we know that consumers today demand the highest quality goods, lifestyle choices and services and as such American Express Middle East is dedicated to leveraging the global expertise behind the American Express brand to create compelling products for our Cardmembers and business partners in the region.

We pride ourselves in the diversity of our workforce, something we passionately believe drives innovation, creativity and a highly differentiated service experience that customers truly appreciate. With 36 different nationalities represented in our workforce, 42% being female, 23% of which hold key leadership positions. And as a company headquartered in Bahrain for more than 40 years we also have a long-standing commitment to the local economy and the community. Over the years, we have partnered and supported many initiatives and projects and we will continue to do so in the years to come and further contribute to Bahrain’s journey of digital transformation that will position it as one of the most dynamic, flexible and forward-looking economies in the region.

The 2018 American Express Global Business & Spending Outlook

For the first time in its 11-year history, the 2018 American Express Global Business & Spending Outlook surveyed executives from the Middle East, with a promising 17% respondents and was conducted across 16 sectors including Financial services, Real estate, Insurance, Education, Transportation, Construction, Health care.

From these industries, American Express targeted responses from large and mega firms with annual revenues of 500 million US dollars or more focusing on key decision makers like the CEOs and CFOs.

The responses were gathered in November and December of 2017 based on a survey of 870 senior executives from more than 21 countries around the world located in North America, Latin America, Europe, Asia Pacific, and now counting the Middle East.

4 Key findings in 2018 Global Business & Spending Outlook
  •   Financial leaders are less anxious about economic surprises and have a well-directed view on how to drive business growth
  •   Better meeting customer needs has become a top priority; with spending plans center on technology
  •   Employment levels anticipated to rise, with more use of part-time workers
  •   Next-generation technologies are on the horizon; robotics & automation and a.I. Take lead

This means…

Although the changes in economic climate are inevitable, financial decision makers today in the Middle East are more confident about their safety strategies in case of an economic emergency and have the right insight and knowledge in sustaining business growth for the future.  Innovation and new technologies is what’s expected of companies to invest in today to ensure aggregated customer demand is met effectively and successfully.

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