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Thursday, 20 February 2020

A long-term undertaking – Mariya Tariq

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Relocating to London in 2011, Standard Chartered’s Mariya Tariq is keen to make her voice heard and push the bank’s role in Africa. By Colin Leopold.

To view the digital edition of this report please click here.

There was a joke going around Standard Chartered before it signed up as a mandated lead arranger (MLA) for Turkey’s record-breaking Eurasia tunnel. To be certain of internal approval, some of the younger bankers made sure senior management drove through Istanbul the long way, through rush-hour traffic. They would see for themselves how congested the city was and find the bridge a perfect fit with the bank’s reputation for supporting developing economies with jobs and infrastructure. On the day in question, as it turned out, there was little or no traffic and the cars breezed straight through to their destination. Luckily for the bank’s Mariya Tariq, she won a place on the project team regardless and has not had to worry about Istanbul traffic since.

Sitting in a small eighth-floor conference room with vivid artwork lining the corridors outside, it’s clear that the US$1.27bn project was a big moment in Tariq’s developing career. After eight years of relatively junior relationship work, mainly in Pakistan, she was thrown into discussions on everything from the engineering procurement and construction (EPC) contract, to operation and maintenance, to negotiations with the Turkish government.

“I remember sitting with 30 people around a table at 2am negotiating a specific point,” she says. “We had a lot of those moments. It was pretty exciting.”

There is an innocence in the way Tariq talks about project finance. Without drawing a line between the older and newer generations currently rubbing shoulders in the industry, she is clearly conscious of her age and the need to build experience quickly.

“When you’re sitting in a room of 20 or 30 people and you have senior project financiers around the table it’s very daunting to sit up and contradict something,” she says. “Someone once said to me – even if you think you’re only 12% right just make yourself heard and the worst that could happen is that someone will disagree with you.”

Making herself heard doesn’t come naturally, she admits. “There have been situations where you say something and you’re so convinced of it – then you hear someone who’s done 50 of these deals in their lifetime just come up with the answer, while you are still going through a ten-step process in your head,” Tariq says. “Some of the younger lot have a natural ability to speak with confidence and have an opinion. I do internalise things before I launch into an attack.”

I am spared a verbal attack this time round but notice that the MBA graduate’s idealism is matched by a conscious desire to grow and learn, as a person and project financier. We meet the day after StanChart’s annual results are released and there is a bounce in the air among staff at Basinghall Avenue, off London Wall. Tariq is slightly reserved, arms-crossed, but considered and articulate.

She is currently working on the first drawdown for the Eurasia tunnel, which closed at the end of last year, a deal she admits has taken over her life and those of many around her, but it’s her role as associate director for Africa that leads the conversation.

“I am pretty new to Africa, so the opportunity to travel to these markets and engage with stakeholders on the ground and anticipate that these projects will make a difference to the region in terms of job creation and transfer of skills is very satisfying,” Tariq says. She has been to Ghana and South Africa and is keen to make the trip to Gabon, where StanChart is working on a landmark petrochemical deal. 

“With Africa’s improved macroeconomic stability, rising incomes, and the emergence of a middle class, there are certain sectors that are going to pick up that are not necessarily oil and gas-related,” she says. Such deals are in infrastructure, power, and fertilising – and are notable for the part that development finance institutions (DFIs) are playing and the relationships commercial banks are building with them out there.

In an accent part-proper English part-international college, Tariq explains how DFIs are becoming more commercially driven across the continent, taking on the role of MLA or insurance bank, while commercial banks such as StanChart are being forced to think more long-term.

“In Africa we tend to be a bit more old-school, we have to be a bit more cognisant of how things might pan out in those jurisdictions,” she says. “We tend to be more conservative and lean on more traditional risk mitigation methods. Commercial lenders therefore have a similar approach to DFIs – which means you could probably take longer to structure and close.”

This ability to adapt and compromise is at odds with Tariq’s first taste of project finance. On deals such as Uch II power in Pakistan and the Ma’aden Aluminium Smelter project in Saudi, it was easy to lapse into a comfort zone where you knew things would move forward quickly, she says. “It’s not the same in Africa, you need to actively think of issues and be pre-empting [them]. You need to be persistent in terms of dealing with people and make sure you don’t let the ball drop.” Despite these efforts, she is realistic about execution times.

“The development period might be fairly stretched on some of these deals, so waiting for things to happen and certain decisions to come through, especially from governments, can be fairly challenging,” Tariq says.

How does she stay focused during this downtime? “It gives you an opportunity to go back into the documentation and due diligence, reading and re-reading what you’ve done so far … and then the rest of the time you spend marketing, which I obviously love,” she said jokingly. There’s also the 5am conference calls every now and then, she adds. “The deals I’m working on at the moment are in full execution mode, so it’s more about having a lot of debates with the lender group on due diligence matters such as the market side or regulatory aspects, or around fuel supply and going back to the sponsor with a consensus.”

After only just over a year in London, Tariq sees Africa as a long-term undertaking. Although working with a team she had not previously met in person and having a regional boss in Dubai cannot have been easy, she is enjoying working in London and even managed to save some time for ballet and theatre in the evenings. She deviates from corporate speak only twice during our meeting (her time in Pakistan was “back in the day” and the London weather “messes with my life”) but describes StanChart as a natural fit for her personality.

“Being here has given me a tremendous opportunity to grow,” she says. “When you leave university and you get into a job, it might not necessarily fit into your personal aspirations but when I got into project finance my professional and personal goals aligned. You get to use your skills but at the same time you get to contribute to an economy in a meaningful way.”

Has being a woman in a male-dominated industry made this any harder? “It’s definitely a challenge really, across the board,” Tariq says. “Women do have to try a bit harder… I wouldn’t say to be taken seriously, but when you do step out and are interacting with clients and stakeholders you need to push a bit harder to make yourself heard. Having said that, it helps to be working for an institution that encourages dialogue around diversity and makes a conscious effort to develop women.”

Whether it’s in Gabon or London, I have a feeling a lot more people in the industry will have heard her voice this time next year.

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