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One-on-One with Kamal Ali

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Although Kamal Ali has spent more than half his 52 years far from his native Nigeria, it was his experiences at the extremely strict Baptist Academy near Lagos that shaped him.

New Mexico BBVA Compass Bank CEO Kamal Ali. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

Ali, the New Mexico CEO of BBVA Compass Bank, recalls school years filled with early wake-up calls, khaki uniforms and hawk-eyed seniors patrolling the dorms for the slightest rule infraction. The school was for boys only, with little exposure to girls, so it wasn’t until Ali was 26 and living in the United States that he had his first date.

“At 5:30 every morning, the bell rings, and we hated it,” Ali says. “Because it wakes you up, 45 minutes to get dressed and be in the chapel. After chapel, we line up …. then breakfast and then we go to class.”

As for the rules: “You could get in trouble for playing in the field when it’s not time for a break. You could get in trouble if your mom or parents sneak in some candies for you.”

But Ali came to realize, after he left Nigeria for England when he was 21 (his mother wouldn’t let him leave sooner), that he had received an education that far surpassed that of most others his age.

“We hated it when we were in there, (but) I really got to appreciate it when I got to England, because there was so much nonsense I couldn’t associate with in my age group. Pot, getting drunk, none of that when we were growing up.”

Ali fully intended to become a doctor and hoped to go to Oxford University for medical school. His backup plan was to attend the London School of Economics and pursue a career in finance.

That interest was sparked when his father’s friend hired him at a bank in Nigeria. Ali says he was mostly a “gofer … just pushing paper around” as an internal messenger before rising to the human resources department to help with medical claims.

Kamal Ali had planned to study medicine at Oxford before landing an entry level position at a bank and getting hooked on finance. (Adolphe Pierre-Louis/Albuquerque Journal)

It was the overall banking environment that sparked his interest.

“I was hearing a lot of stories about a lot of the big projects that I’d see in (Lagos),” Ali said. “Some of these skyscrapers, businesses that I knew (were) actively financed by the bank. People pointed out some of the executives who did those transactions, and I just kind of got fascinated: This guy, so he was responsible for that big manufacturing plant or this power company.”

When scholarships in England didn’t come through, Ali moved to the United States and connected with the son of one of his dad’s friends, who was living in Atlanta. After some research and on-the-ground exploring, the two young men ended up at Jacksonville State University in Alabama, partly because they didn’t have driver’s licenses and “we could ride our bikes around there.”

Was the move from Nigeria to England and then the United States difficult for you?

“It wasn’t difficult because of the education we had. I really didn’t start learning stuff (in college) until the tail end of my sophomore year. The only difference was I wasn’t the normal (youth) because I didn’t grow up in the society. There were certain things that … for my entire college year, I don’t think I ever went to a club or dancing or anything like that. Of course, I don’t drink so I didn’t really do a lot of the social things. I’ve spent more years overseas than in Nigeria. Every so often, I ask myself even if I go back, can I really fit in? I don’t know.”

Do you feel like you fit in here?

“It’s one of those where you feel like you’re in two places. I still have two brothers, two sisters (in Nigeria), but as far as social life – no connection there whatsoever.”

What do you do in your spare time?

“Well, I don’t see how you’re going to be in New Mexico and not be out and about. I run twice a week. I have a team of probably 19 or 20 of us. Every Saturday, we find a trail and we go … no matter what the weather is. Then during the week, I get home about 6:30, and I go run a few miles. I play tennis. Then on Sunday morning, I play soccer. Oh, my God, I’ve been playing with these guys since a year or two after I came here. It’s a little United Nations, actually, because I have people from the U.S., Argentina, Mexico, Venezuela, Spain, Guatemala, Colombia, Haiti. And people come and go.”

Whom do you look up to?

“Actually, I would say anyone that has a major responsibility, and they can do it successfully.”

Are you thinking of anyone in particular?

“Not really. I can go back in history and see how individuals were given awesome power to make a change, and they end up really disappointing. So I get fascinated about that, about how you’re given a big responsibility, and along the way it was just way too much for one individual.”

What makes you laugh?

“You hear stuff, it just cracks you up. I can laugh really hard, especially if something is really funny. For example, if I hear any of my friends (who don’t) cuss, and all of a sudden they blow something out – where did that come from? Whoa. It kind of jolts you a little bit.”

What makes you sad?

“When you lose someone, and all of a sudden it dawns on you: you can’t see them again. It makes you really sad. Then also when you see life snuffed out, you know, prior to them experiencing what they should experience. Because a lot of the (mass) shootings that we continue to endure, you feel like that’s not necessary. You’ve got teenagers, they have their life ahead of them. I don’t know how any sane person can be in a society and be proud to see stuff like that. It’s heartbreaking.”

What are your favorite places in the world?

“You know, if I tell you I have a favorite place, I would be lying. You know why? Because everywhere that I went to, I thought it was the favorite. When I went to London, I thought, ‘Oh, boy. I can live here.’ Then I went to Paris: ‘Oh, I can live here.’ So it looks like everywhere has its own difference that can pull you in. If you ask me where would I want to live, as long as I’m close to the ocean, I’ll be fine. I grew up close to the ocean. When I was 5, 6, 7, we just go to the ocean, and we wait for the fishermen to come out to bring their catch, and sometimes they throw us some fish they didn’t want. And we just kind of put it in the fire, cook it right there – oh! Perfect! I used to surf in the ocean. In Nigeria, we can surf like crazy. But that place now, when I went back, is all high-rises.”

Tell me about that first date.

“This is where the social part kind of comes in because when we were at boarding school, we didn’t know ‘date.’ So I wouldn’t call mine, really, ‘date.’ I just asked her maybe to go to lunch. She didn’t believe it was my first date. She thought I was lying.”

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