Leading in a warzone: running a company during a conflict

Ukrainian executives must navigate their companies through a time of war. Louai Al Roumani offers advice from his experiences in Syria

Many business leaders face challenging circumstances, but few compare with running a company in the middle of a war. When conflict broke out in Syria in 2011, Louai Al Roumani found himself in this unenviable position. 

As head of finance for Banque Bemo Saudi Fransi (BBSF) – Syria’s largest private commercial bank – Roumani was tasked with leading the company through its most challenging period. The horrific images from the war in Ukraine bring back memories of his experiences in Syria.

“The Syrian civil war differs from the conflict in Ukraine because there wasn’t a single turning point. It was more gradual and as things escalated, it morphed into one of the worst wars in modern times,” he says. 

A warrior and a philosopher

Now living in London, Roumani wrote about his experience as CFO of BBSF during the Syrian conflict in his 2020 book Lessons from a Warzone. “When you’re working in such a crisis you almost need to become both a warrior and a philosopher at the same time,” he says. “You face daily challenges that make things so much harder on the ground, which need to be constantly addressed. There’s very little leeway for getting things wrong.”

At the outset of the war, Roumani and his colleagues wondered how it would end. They found themselves imagining the many different scenarios that could unfold. “In war and times of crisis, it’s very tempting to only think in the near-term and focus on short-term fixes,” he says. “It’s easy to let the dominant feeling of impending doom take over and make you feel like everything’s falling apart, that there’s no way things could become better.”

This exercise proved futile, with the conflict ongoing more than 11 years later. The bank’s leaders “decided to take a step back”, he says, becoming more stoic and asking important questions. “Whether the war ends tomorrow, or in 10 years, whether the US interferes or not, we’re a bank – what do we need to get right?”

You don’t address a crisis by simply taking the easy route: you need to go beyond that

By focusing on the things they could control, rather than external factors, BBSF continued operating despite the crisis unfurling outside. “When we started approaching it in this way, it became obvious to us that there were things we had to get right, no matter what, and these were factors that were critical to our success,” Roumani says.

One of the early barometers of a crisis are queues. In the UK, at the start of the Covid-19 pandemic, long lines outside supermarkets were a sure sign that people were fearing the worst. As impending war approached in Syria and Ukraine, people queued for banks to withdraw their money. 

This presented a challenge for BBSF. “Most of the other banks limited withdrawals. They would tell people not to withdraw their money or try to delay the withdrawal,” Roumani says. “We took a risk and did the exact opposite.”

Rather than add to the panic building outside the banks, BBSF decided to reassure people that it had sufficient reserves. Banknotes were stacked in counter windows and people began sharing photos of the piles of money. “We wanted to put out the message that we had good liquidity and we were open for business,” Roumani explains. “If people wanted their money, they could take it.”

He believes this helped maintain trust between the bank and its customers. This was in stark contrast to the other banks that opted to delay withdrawals, making their customers panic even more. “Although we lost some short-term liquidity, over the longer-term people remembered how we acted and within three months they were bringing their deposits back,” Roumani says. “That’s why it’s important to be a philosopher as you have to resist the instinct to address short-term problems and instead think about long-term goals.” 

Shaking the survival instinct

However, it’s hard to focus on long-term ambitions when conflict is happening around you. During the war, Roumani had to contend with mortar bombs hitting the bank where he was working and threats of kidnapping. Around a quarter of the bank’s branches were destroyed over the course of the war. 

“You can imagine how horrific it was to manage operations when ISIS was rampaging through some of our branches,” Roumani says. Even in these situations, Roumani was reluctant to focus on survival. “If survival becomes your only goal, you’re limiting yourself to not dying. It almost becomes suicidal – you stop taking risks and the focus is on safeguarding,” he says. “You don’t address a crisis by simply taking the easy route: you need to go beyond that.” 

I was the CFO of a bank and we had thousands of depositors, so we needed to go to work. I couldn’t just sit at home doing nothing

Some people assume that economic activity comes to a halt during a war and businesses pull up the shutters. Roumani recounts one phone call he had with a Finnish company. “When I mentioned that I was the CFO of a bank in Syria, he thought I was pranking him,” he says.

“Although we lost a quarter of our branches, it didn’t destroy the main industry dynamics that we were operating in,” Roumani explains. “Even in war people continue to live.” 

While around 6.8 million Syrians left the country as refugees or asylum seekers, more than 17 million people stayed in the country. “Imports continued to be made every day and there was still economic activity going on, even though it had been highly curtailed,” Roumani says. “People have to move on with their lives, despite the crisis. I was the CFO of a bank and we had thousands of depositors, so we needed to go to work. I couldn’t just sit at home doing nothing.”

Many Ukrainian companies now find themselves in a similar situation. Despite the Russian invasion, these firms are finding ways to continue working while ensuring the safety of their staff. “I’m sure they’re going through the same thoughts that we did,” Roumani says. “With so much large-scale destruction happening around you it becomes very easy for this negative narrative to dominate and not allow you to see any opportunities.”

However, he advises businesses to maintain a laser focus on their critical success factors. Stakeholder management also becomes a vital skill. “In a crisis, all of your stakeholders become a lot more demanding – shareholders, customers, government, regulators, suppliers,” he says.

Taking action

In these instances, it’s important to demonstrate your support through actions, rather than words. “Everyone tries to make their people feel better by trying to provide reassurances but without backing them up with actions, people will stop trusting you,” Roumani says, reflecting on his own experiences.

“There was no way that we could talk about mental wellbeing when so many of people’s basic needs were not being met. Instead we took action by moving people and their families out of danger zones. Making sure that we were satisfying these very primary needs was essential, because if we didn’t do that the rest of our actions wouldn’t matter.”

Business strategies must also be flexible to react to constantly changing circumstances. Roumani’s experience at BBSF shows that by focusing on long-term success, remaining flexible and adopting the warrior/philosopher mentality that he describes, it’s possible to lead a thriving company in the middle of a warzone.

“There’s no way you can predict what’s going to happen, even if you have a team of 20 analysts around the table,” Roumani says. “Rather than wasting time on foresight, embed flexibility in almost everything that you do. We had no idea which branch would be rampaged by ISIS or other groups but what we could do is ensure that the branch staff, customers and assets were safeguarded.”