In what is a recurring feature, Finopotamus will profile interesting and intriguing tech professionals who are positively impacting the credit union industry.
For this issue, we spent time with Samaha & Associates’ Founder and CEO Sabeh Samaha. Since 1998, the Miami Beach, Fla. –based firm has helped hundreds of credit unions improve respective relationships with vendors, while enhancing their technology and service offerings.
By W.B. King
As a young boy growing up in Dubai in the late 1960s, Sabeh Samaha began tinkering with tape recorders — the mechanics of the device intrigued him. By the time he entered high school, he was taking apart and reassembling hi-fi stereo systems and cameras.
“I have always been interested in electronics,” said Samaha. “I just want to know how things work.”
After earning an International Baccalaureate Diploma at the University of Greenwich at Avery Hill, U.K. in 1981, Samaha moved to southern California. He went on to receive his bachelor’s degree in business administration with an emphasis in technology at the University of San Diego in 1985. During his second year of college the entrepreneurial bug bit him.
“It was the advent of the PC — it was kicking into high gear. There were so many companies making personal computers like IBM, Apple, Epson and Compaq. I ended up buying an Apple IIe, an amber screen monitor and dot matrix printer,” recalled Samaha. “I then started my first business using WordStar software, a word processing business for college students who wanted type-written papers.”
Samaha set up the “operating system” and hired students who could type fast and the little business was born. He later went on to complete studies in computer programming at the Computer Learning Center in Los Angeles.
“When I graduated college I went straight into computer programming and operations classes working in RGP II and III, COBOL and PL/1, among others,” he said. “When I was done there I went directly to work in IBM mainframe data centers working as a production control analyst. I ran the console and updated programs. I became really immersed in that IBM data center environment.”
In the early days of his career working in tech, Samaha said he and his colleagues referred to the computer room and data environment as “the dungeon.” Tech employees, he noted, were often separated from the rest of the organization. And when there was an operational problem, the IT department usually took the brunt of the blame.
“It was a high-pressure environment,” said Samaha. “Today, tech employees have so much more power because the organization depends on them to compete in this modern, digitized world. Those who drive the technology have facilities at their disposal that can really empower the organization.”
Among reasons why IT executives have become so instrumental within the business model is because they are no longer bogged down by antiquated hardware and “buggy” software systems, said Samaha, reflecting on the working conditions of the 1980s and 1990s.
“Back then operating systems weren’t as predictable and consistent as they are today,” said Samaha. “In the early days, we were operating big machinery like a factory. It was much more of a production and an operation.”
Moving at the Speed of Member
Over the last 23 years, Samaha and his team of seven seasoned consultants, who he refers to as “family,” have worked on more than 450 credit union-related technology projects — from core conversions and implementations to contract negotiations to mergers to comprehensive technology planning initiatives. He founded Samaha & Associates because he realized a strong demand in the credit union space for a dependable technology consulting services.
A film buff and boat enthusiast, Samaha referenced “The Hunt for Red October” and “Crimson Tide” as favorite movies. Aside from what he called stellar acting and interesting plots, he feels akin to some of the situations the actors encounter.
“A study of human relations in tight quarters under pressure is a perfect description of the complex technology projects, including core, payment systems and technology planning that our team regularly executes,” said Samaha.
As technology has morphed so has Samaha & Associates’ approach to consulting. And particularly over the last 10 years he said technological advancements in the credit union space have been significant.
“We are not just advisors and consultants across the client’s organization to optimize its technology capabilities, but we also support the credit union competitively — internally and with regard to the member experience,” said Samaha. “We have turned into a company that helps our clients generate more market share and more revenue, while enhancing their reputation in the credit union industry.”
Currently the Samaha team is actively engaged in two projects with two different credit unions credit unions with “a specific mandate to focus on maximizing the member experience,” he said.
Due to so many clients recently requesting the implementation of member-enhancing technologies, Samaha has developed a new slogan: “Moving at the speed of the member,” which stands alongside his longstanding motto, “Think hard. Work harder. Chase dreams, not money.”
“There is no such thing as just a product,” he said. “It is the product and the support of the product that result in a successful outcome. “For the roll out of a solution to be successful there is a point of coincidence between the maturation of a product, the maturation of the service levels and maturation of the credit union culture.”
When considering new technology offerings for credit union clients, Samaha said he and his team study the market and all the viable players — from proven core providers to new fintechs.
“We determine whether or not a solution is ready for what we call ‘prime time,’” said Samaha. “When it comes to some of these fintechs or trends, we ask if the solution will do more harm than good. We are seeing fintechs in data analytics, CRM and artificial intelligence that are doing good things, but nothing that has taken off to the point that we are seeing a flood of projects coming from these offerings.”
Samaha said he is keeping a close eye on "member experience" offerings because in many cases these solutions do not require “that much” of a technology interface with existing systems.
“No matter what happens with a member experience-focused project the credit union wins because it is focused on the right objective,” said Samaha. “It is these fintech that offer member experience solutions that are healthy because it’s not risky to the credit union’s overall business model, but rather enhances it.”
From a client advocacy perspective, Samaha said, “We always break a technology by stress-testing it and then fixing it before we let it go live.” This approach, he added, ensures a successful experience for both the vendor and the credit union because no two implementations are ever the same.
When investigating trending technologies, Samaha said he always tries to find the right balance of leading edge and bleeding edge and the “sweet spot” between “north of infancy and south of maturation” on the bell curve.
“You can’t implement a technology without truly understanding the support that is supposed to come with it,” said Samaha. “The advice I always give to my clients is not to sit at a poker table with professional poker players playing for real money unless you know how to really play the game.”
What continues to inspire Samaha and his team is the “people helping people” philosophy that defines the credit union industry. And while Samaha & Associates’ consultants are spread around the country working on a various projects, they are in constant contact sharing best-in-class knowledge, practices and experiences.
“We are a tightly knit, boutique outfit that shares a singular goal of delivering the best technology solutions to our credit union clients — it’s really that simple,” said Samaha.
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