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Banking in Macedonia

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Banking in Macedonia

Global Banking & Finance Review interviewed  Mr. Vladimir Eftimoski,  CEO of Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola about the banking sector in Macedonia.

What are some of the main challenges and opportunities that the banking sector in Macedonia is facing?

The economic and financial turbulence on global level have their own influence over the situation in Macedonia and are, of course, one of the key challenges which the Macedonian banks are coping with. In conditions of uncertainty, all the positions in the work are placed in frames which should respond to the risks which may be imposed to the banks. In that regard, one should take into consideration the decreased economic activity, the worsened financial results of part of the business sector and the need of bigger liquidity.

In fact, from a macro-economic aspect, it is clear that all financial subjects should follow the directions dictated by the economy and the financial situation in the country. The Macedonian economy is highly dependent on the occurrences in the Eurozone because it is our greatest trading partner. Therefore, in the past several years, including 2015, the key exterior factor whose impact was reflected on the domestic economic situation was the global economic and financial crisis. In the Q4 of 2014 there was a difficult recovery of the economic activity (the annual growth rate of the GDP in the Eurozone was 0.9%), the industrial production slowed down, and the inflation rate was negative for the first time since 2009 and was -0.2%. This situation, as you know, continued in the first half of 2009 when the GDP growth rate in the Eurozone was 0.4% in Q1 i.e. 1% on annual basis. With regard to the inflation, there is an evident mild improvement, so the data for June show annual growth of 0.2%. However, the inflation rate is still the main objective of the ECB and the programme for quantitative facilitation continues and will be implemented by the ECB until the end of September 2016.

In Macedonia the numbers show an increase of the GDP in Q4 of 2015 of 2.7% and an average negative annual inflation rate of -0.3%. In the first half of 2015 the economic results show that the worsened economic trend continues. The average annual inflation rate was maintained on the level of 2015 and it was -0.3%. The GDP growth rate has also not marked any significant changes, so in Q2 of 2015 it was 2.6%.

I would like to underline that it is good that in such an economic situation the Macedonian banking sector has continue the trend of stability and has increased the level of liquidity. This enabled monetary loosening by decreasing the basic interest rate of 3.50% to 3.25% which was maintained in 2015. The additional changes implemented into the monetary policy is stimulating the growth of loans and have provided support for the private sector in conditions of decrease foreign demand which influenced the limitation of the growth in the domestic economy. The final product which we received was the increase of the assets at the level of the banking system by 8.33%, a growth of gross loans to non-financial subjects by 9.22%, increase in the deposits of the non-financial subjects by 10.67% and increase of the capital and reserves by 3.97% compared to the previous year. In that context more concrete challenges and opportunities are defined and these are the challenges which the banks in Macedonia are facing – how to use the increased liquidity in order to support the business and the economy. In that line, Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola marks a growth in the loan placement by 5.13% in the first semester of 2015 whereas the deposits of non-financial subjects were kept on the stable level achieved in 2014. The capital and reserves are increased by 12.99% which is a signal for an increased degree of capitalization of the bank.

Being the leader in the banking services for the population, what do you think, which were the initiatives that contributed for your success?

Even in this period which was difficult for the global and domestic economic surroundings, Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola has successfully completed 2014 with 187.26 million MK Denars in profits i.e. 3.04 million EUR, after the taxation and calculated pursuant to the IFRS. This is three times more compared to the profits in 2013. This result owes to several factors. First, in 2014 we had bigger net incomes from interest by 161.45% compared to 2013. In the same period we increased the incomes of accumulated and written off interest receivables in accordance with the agreement for liabilities settlement with a value of 4 million EUR.

In the past year, the Bank invested all its funds and resources to improve the quality of the services it offers to its clients through analysis of their needs, and with the purpose of creating an offer of services and products pursuant to the specific needs of each client. As a result of these efforts, in 2014 the Bank increased the number of clients, the scope of crediting and the works in the payment system. All these initiatives, together with good expenditure management, have positively reflected on the net incomes of commissions and compensations which were increased by 10.99% compared to 2013. In this period the net incomes of rate-exchange differences mark an increase of 12.87 million MK Denars and are bigger than 2013 by 70.03%.

The remaining incomes of the activities are doubled compared to the ones accomplished in 2013. This increase mainly owes to the profit made from the sale of part of the property. This position includes the incomes of investments in shares of investment funds, as a more profitable alternative compared to the investment in long-term national securities out of which in 2014 the Bank has gained an amount of 1.46 million MK Denars.

The number of employees was increased as a result of the increased number of clients and the increased activity in 2014. The Bank expanded its network of branches and ATMs which cause increase of the expenses for employees by 15.08%, the remaining expenditures of the activity were increased by 20.31% whereas the depreciation was higher by 16.27%. In the first semester for 2015 the trend of growth of the Bank continues, and so the expenses for the employees mark an increase of 13.22%; the remaining expenditures of the activity are increased by 6.04% whereas the depreciation is higher by 13.22%. In parallel with the increased scope of clients the Bank was also active in line of expanding the network of branches and ATMs. In that line, annually, the network of branches was increased by 26.67% in 2014, while the ATM coverage on the territory of Macedonia marks a growth of 41.18%.

When it comes to the increase of the clients base, the contribution of new clients – individuals is especially important – compared to 2013 it was 6.16%, a trend which continues in the first semester of 2015 with an increase of 1.07%. The positive changes within the clients’ base additionally contributed to the increase of 49.76% of the gross loan portfolio of individuals in 2014 compared to 2013 i.e. a growth of 6.92% in the first semester of 2015. The growth of gross loan portfolio of individuals positively reflected on the net incomes of interests which in 2014 were bigger by 192.94% compared to 2013 i.e. 269.59% in the first six months of 2015 compared to the same period in 2014. Having in mind the conditions of the economy in the country, I am especially glad to underline the support which the Bank is giving to the individuals by approving self-employment loans, a project realized in cooperation with the appropriate competent institutions in Macedonia. Moreover, there is an appropriate growth within the incomes of commissions from individuals which were increased by 9.40% in 2014/2013. The growth on this position in the first semester of 2015 compared to the first semester in 2014 was 7.10%.

I reckon that this growth is mostly owing to the unique approach which we as a Bank have towards our clients and is a result of the commitment of each of our employees towards every existing or new client. The fulfilment of the requests and meeting the needs of our clients are our obligation! Namely, every individual who accesses as a new client in our Bank with the very act of signing becomes our highly appreciated client who receives highly qualitative and professional services.

Which unique products and services were created as a direct response to the needs and desires of the clients?

In the past period the Bank is recognized as a stable and secure financial institution. The professional working and the good reputation have contributed to the growth of the deposits of the individuals, an increased number of loans and reinforcement of the market position.

Working with clients (individuals) is in the primary focus of Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola. The objective of the Bank is to provide maximum support to the individuals with an acceptable and reliable business idea when adopting the financial decisions referring to providing additional funds with low interests, as well as long-term loans. We offer friendly advice when investing their surplus of funds in specially created deposit products, which are, of course, in line with the prudent risk management.

The unique approach which we as a Bank have created towards our clients contributes for each client to be able to get all necessary information and to meet their needs in one place which is a special advantage, taking into consideration the dynamics of the contemporary living. The professional relations and the qualitative service towards every client are our single obligation.

The Bank is continuously working and investing its funds and resources to improve the quality of the performed services, makes analysis of the client when preparing the offer and works on the engineering of new competitive products and services which will be fully responsive and in accordance with the needs and nature of the population.

In this part I would like to emphasize that this is a permanent and inevitable process. During 2014 as a result of the agility and flexibility, the conditions and prices of the products and services of Stopanska banka Bitola were continuously harmonized with the conditions on the market, the needs of the clients and the competition.

The technology plays an important part in the banking. How did Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola cope with the challenges of the development of information technology?

The continuous progress and application of information technology in the everyday life imposes a need of expanded palette of products and services coming from the banks in electronic form and will be user-friendly for the business people who have less and less free time. The industries which desire to be more competitive and easily available for their clients will need to adjust to these changes. The adjustment includes creation and application of innovative, easily available and automated processes and solutions in the everyday life, with an increased saving of the direct use of human capital.

 Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola during this and in the past year has implemented several activities and projects for development and upgrade of the applicative systems in line of implementation of the regulatory terms, meeting the mandatory standards and regulations of the Bank and the recommendations given by the audit; achieving competitive advantages; rationalization and optimization of the business processes and harmonization within the frames of the Bank; upgrade of the IT infrastructure (system, communication, data base, as well as security information). These changes and improvements of the existing IT systems have enabled conditions for efficient monitoring of the market and the scope of the work and easy adjustment of the Bank to the changes in the organization and regulation.

The bank is permanently expanding its ATMs network, as well as their upgrade with new services. This is one of the two banks in Macedonia which have started the M-payment project. This was initiated towards the end of 2014 and we expect it to be finalized towards the end of this year.

The relations with the clients play an important part in the banking. What are the initiatives you included in order for the clients to continue getting on their disposal the best services?

The clients are always in the focus of the bank. During its existence Stopanska banka Bitola managed to establish close connections to its clients. The maintenance and deepening of these relations is a primary objective of the Bank. This is recorded in its heritage, tradition, culture, as well as in its future working. In order to achieve a higher level of services for the clients, the Bank managed to upgrade its internal educational programmes and the training programmes in cooperation and with the support from external companies specialized for training. In that line, in 2014 the Bank started an intensive realization of the project for talent management by organizing and implementation of unified professional assessment of the leading personnel and preparatory activities of the bank for implementation of a new system for monitoring and assessment of the performances of the employees by defining the objectives.

The more significant internal trainings in the bank include: seminars for the new employees, trainings for the organizational culture and professional behaviour, covering the ongoing changes of the legal regulation and current trends regarding the news in the offer of products and services, improvement of soft-skills of the employees, as well as experts’ training for internal transfer of know-how in different areas in the banking. The relations of the Bank with the clients are based on contemporary approach in the human resources management. The maintenance and reinforcement of the human capacities is done with appropriate engagement of employees, valuation of their performances and results, promotion and upgrade, systematic approach towards accomplishing professional specialization and training of the employees. These are the main tasks and activities in the field of personnel management of the Bank.

At the same time, our employees are always timely acquainted with all aspects and details around the new services and products which the Bank is placing on the market, all in order to provide qualitative and timely service to the clients.

Do you have any ongoing projects which you would like to share with us?

Following the world trends of globalization which are present not only in the finance sector, but also in all other sectors of the economy, we are aware that Macedonia, being a small open economy, will not be bypassed by these processes. In Macedonia and the region there are several banking brands which additionally put pressure on the competition, but also over the fast tempo of the globalization. Being aware of this unstoppable process, and led by the experience of the managing team of the Bank, we are intensively working on being well prepared to tackle these processes. As for myself, in my 17 years of banking experience, gained in international banking trends, I have passed through these processes and I know their importance.

It is a fact that in the moment the world economy and the finance sector are still in a global crisis which slows down this process. Here we can see our biggest advantage, to be sufficiently fast and flexible, in order to use this vacuum period for reorganization and consolidation in order to attract a foreign strategic partner who would be interested in presence of the Macedonian market. The most optimistic expectations are that the financial markets, especially the market of capital will start recovering towards the end of 2017. The consolidation process, cleaning out the bad placements and reorganization started in 2013, which resulted in excellent achievements in 2014. We plan to use 2015 and the following two years for more efficient acting on the domestic and foreign markets in order to attract a foreign strategic partner. Knowing the deliberation and reservations which the investors have, this process would be a gradual one: First, by attracting a credit line with a longer repayment period; then, in the form of subordinated debt to make efficient use of the time for them to meet the Bank and its processes. In the end, our primary objective i.e. primary project is our complete consolidation and reorganization which will enable us to function as a modern bank which will be able to compete with the world banking trends in line of attracting foreign financial strategic partners.

In which way is Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola providing support for the socio-economic development in Macedonia?

One of the strategic objectives determined with the business policy and the development plan of the Bank is to take consistent care for the social good. In accordance with this strategic determination, the Bank in 2014 was constantly and actively included in the different projects and activities of public and social nature.

  • In 2014 the Bank continued its long-term tradition with humane character to help the protégés in the Primary School “Gjorgji Sugarev” in Bitola;
  • Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola donated funds for construction of the temple “Ss. Konstantin and Elena” in Skopje;
  • Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola supported the International youth art-festival “Bitola – an open city”;
  • The bank sponsored the equipping of the city pool “Atina Bojadzi” in Ohrid;
  • The bank gave donation to the Association of children with autism and the children with Asperger’s Syndrome.

We are especially proud of the cooperation which the Bank has with the Association of children with autism and Asperger’s syndrome because the constant support which we are providing is promoting and animating their creativity and talents through adaptation of their drawings and other pieces of art into the marketing materials of the Bank.

Unlike the other banks in Macedonia, Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola has its head-quarters beyond the capital. This is a great advantage, but of course, and a big responsibility for the bank to aid the local economic development in the South-West region of Macedonia. With its projects and plans, the Bank is actively included in supporting the small and medium businesses, and of course, the agriculture sector, which is one of the main activities of the population in this region.

The activities of public and social nature have continued in 2015 when the Bank was included in providing help for the flooded areas in the Pelagonija region. Furthermore, the support which the bank is providing to the development of the culture and sports is not lagging behind.

What are your future plans for development?

If I say that we should grow, because we are a medium bank on the level of the banking sector in Macedonia, this will not be the most precise definition of the plan for development of Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola. Our objective is to continue the trend for growth of the crediting scope in healthy and sustainable business projects, which will improve the economic position of Macedonia. Our goal is to gain bigger trust within the clients and to use it, in order to increase the overall capital of the Bank which will be placed into the function of the business. These are the more general goals, but they are presented in details in several business plans and policies of the Bank, which are very ambitious.

In the very end, I would conclude that a given banking and financial system does not recognize small or big, but good or bad, successful or unsuccessful. Therefore, our primary goal is to be good and successful, and of course, to always improve and upgrade in all segments of our work, such as relations with clients, the offer of products and services, relations towards the community, etc. In any case, we must not forget the investments in the employees and managers.

Interviews

Supporting Growth in Africa

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Supporting Growth in Africa 1
Jules Ngankam Group Chief Executive Officer African Guarantee Fund

Jules Ngankam Group Chief Executive Officer African Guarantee Fund

Despite the internationally recognized importance of SMEs, African small businesses often have difficulties accessing financing for growth and innovation from the formal financial sector. SME financing is often considered by many financial sector players in Africa to be a risky activity as promoters quite more often than not, fail to come up with the collateral levels required to secure bank facilities. Enterprises (SMEs) are widely recognized as big drivers of economic growth, innovation, regional development and job creation. A strong and vibrant SME sector provides a strong foundation to increase standards of living and to reduce poverty. African Guarantee Fund is a non-bank financial institution whose objective is to promote economic development, increase employment and reduce poverty in Africa by providing financial institutions with guarantee products and capacity development assistance specifically intended to support SMEs in Africa. Jules Ngankam is Group Chief Executive Officer of African Guarantee Fund (AGF), and recently he spoke to Global Banking & Finance Review about today’s business challenges in Sub Saharan Africa, and the financial implications combatting the Coronavirus pandemic. Jules has over 15 years of experience in banking and financial services with leading financial institutions. He joined African Guarantee Fund in 201 3 as the Chief Financial Officer after which he served as Deputy CEO from April 2017 and was thereafter appointed Group Chief Executive Officer in September 2020.

  1. What conditions led to the creation of African Guarantee Fund?

The Small and Medium Enterprise (SME) sector contributes significantly to developing African economies, but it still has a huge unexploited capacity for growth. SMEs make up approximately 80% of Africa’s private sector firms, with 50% being small- scale and 30% being medium-sized. SMEs contribute over 50% of new jobs in Sub-Saharan Africa however, only approximately 20% to the GDP. This is compared to 40-60% of GDP in the EU and the US and even higher rates in growing Asian economies.

For the SME to really play their role of the engine of growth, among other barriers, access to finance remains the strongest obstacle. According to analysts the SME financing gap in the continent is estimated at USD 300 billion.

The acknowledged reticence of the banking system in financing SMEs, especially as regards to the investment needed for development for this class of businesses, is mainly explained by:

  • Low Banks’ long-term deposits; The inability of the SMEs to provide
  • acceptable guarantees and collateral; Inadequate equity for SMEs;
  • SMEs’ poor quality of management.

The African Guarantee Fund for Small and Medium- sized Enterprises (AGF) was established in 201 2 to address the mismatch in the supply and demand of SME financing in Africa.

The aim of AGF is to reduce the risks assumed by the financial sector by sharing these risks through the provision of financial guarantees that mitigate the inability of SMEs to provide acceptable collateral.Supporting Growth in Africa 2

AGF also offers capacity development to financial institutions to improve SMEs’ financial product offerings, by helping banks to better address working capital and long-term financing needs of SMEs; and increasing Banks’ capacity to appraise SMEs by providing technical assistance and strategy to further develop their business.

AGF is a truly public-private partnership involving donors, development institutions, financial institutions and private investors joining forces to support African SMEs.

  1. Can you tell us about the guarantees AGF offer to address the range of financing needs?

AGF offers four main types of guarantee products:

Loan Individual Guarantees

Loan Portfolio Guarantees

Bank Fund Raising Guarantees

Equity Guarantees

The Loan Individual Guarantee guarantees a single loan made by a bank to a single Borrower whose identity is known. The Loan Portfolio Guarantee guarantees a portfolio of loans made by a bank to a borrower segment for which the qualifying criteria have been defined but the individual borrowers are not known at the time of the guarantee agreement. The guaranteed party is not required to get approval of AGF prior the placement of each loan under the guarantee.

The Bank Fund Raising Guarantee guarantees bonds issued by a bank to investors for the purpose of raising long-term resources to finance SMEs.

The Equity Guarantee is issued to cover equity investments in SMEs.

  1. What is the scope to use guarantees?

The most important criteria of AGF’s guarantee is that the end beneficiary has to be an SME.

  1. How does African Guarantee Fund enable banks in Africa to execute their SME strategy?

In Africa, the main source of financing for SMEs is the banking sector. Despite Banks’ increasing interest to provide services to SMEs, they face multiple challenges mainly due to issues of assessing and managing risks. Furthermore, the resources of banks and financial institutions are mostly short-term, and it is therefore difficult for the banking system to easily use their current excess of liquidity to finance the needs of SMEs. Finally, the inability of SMEs to provide acceptable collateral to reduce the lending risks associated to them, the inadequacy of their capital structure and sometimes the poor quality of their management increase the reluctance of the banks to fully support their activities.

AGF products assist financial institutions to scale up their SME lending activities in situation where SMEs are unable to meet collateral requirements; Improves the solvency (regulatory capital) ratios of banks and thus enables them to have a better leverage on their capital; Addresses regulatory requirements of banks’ limited use of short-term resources to finance medium and long-term SME needs; Allows banks to mobilize medium and long-term resources at very competitive price.

  1. How is the AGF opening up financial opportunities and supporting the growth of SME customers?

The challenges SMEs face in Africa are within five key areas:

Access to finance

Infrastructure

Access to markets

Human resources

Legal environment and corruption

Amongst these challenges, the biggest one is that of accessing finance.

The SME financing gap is brought about by the following gaps:

Information gap: SMEs lack historical data to enable them to adequately assess their risks due to the fact that most of them do not practice proper book-keeping.

Tenor gap: Banks have short-term resources while the SMEs need more of long-term resources to grow.

Collateral gap: Banks have tough collateral requirements.

Product gap: Bank products are sometimes not adapted to SMEs’ business cycles.

Skills gap: SMEs are unable to attract or afford required talent.

Perception gap: This is the gap between the perceived risk and the real risk.

AGF’s guarantee products and capacity development assistance are designed to tackle the financing challenge by being the missing link between the lending institutions and the SMEs.

  1. What improvements have you brought about in the SME sector since you began operations?

Since AGF began operations, the company has delivered in:

Improving lives in Africa

AGF has supported more than 25,000 SMEs.

SMEs that benefited from AG F guarantees have generated an additional revenue of USO 4 Billion. Approximately 50% of supported SMEs are located in rural areas.

20 Million people were able to access clean energy thanks to SMEs supported by AGF guarantees.

Fostering Jobs Creation

130,000 Additional jobs created

Fighting Climate Change

Cutting 3.8 million tons of C02 equivalent Greenhouse Gas (GHG) 57,005 KW Cleaner generation capacity installed

101 Partner Financial Institutions and 291 SMEs Trained

Promoting Gender Equality

USD 522 million Loans granted to 6,000+ women-led SMEs

328 women-led SMEs Trained

Contributing to Africa’s Competitiveness USO 780 million loans granted to 3,400+ SMEs in the Energy, Infrastructure and Manufacturing Sectors

Contributing towards Food Security

USD 188 million loans granted to 2, 100+ SMEs in the Agriculture Sector.

Partnering for Poverty Reduction

USD 2.5 billion private capital made available in 40 Countries

  1. What are your plans to increase financing to agricultural and renewable energy SMEs in Africa?

In 2015, AGF with support from the Nordic Development Fund, launched the Green Guarantee Facility (GGF) to ease access to finance for SMEs to invest in climate and green growth-oriented economy.

The Green Guarantee Facility brings direct benefits in terms of climate change mitigation and adaptation as well as sustainable employment, poverty reduction, and gender- inclusive financing opportunities.

From the banking sector point of view, green finance is a new sector, of which SME lenders are not very familiar. Besides, SMEs are also not well versed with knowledge and skills to design and manage climate-friendly projects, let alone access to green funding. There exists significant knowledge and capacity gaps in green finance, which the GGF technical assistance addresses.

To-date, AGF in partnership with the Nordic Development Fund and the International Trade Centre has hosted five Green Finance Conferences and subsequent trainings in Zambia, Kenya,

Ghana, Cote d’Ivoire and Senegal.

  1. In November, Fitch Rating confirmed the African Guarantee Fund for Small and Medium- sized Enterprises Ltd’s (AGF) Insurer Financial Strength (IFS) Rating at ‘AA-” (Very Strong), what does this rating mean for the company?

The biggest asset of a guarantee fund is its credibility. The main criteria defining AGF’s credibility is its rating. The rating brings a very strong comfort to our partner financial institutions when assessing AGF’s capacity to assist them in improving their profitability, liquidity and solvency in order to meet the expectations of their shareholders and the requirements of the regulators.

AGF’s rating brings huge benefits to our partner financial institutions:

It provides a higher capital relief to banks as it reduces the required amount of loan provisions.

Allows banks to raise capital at a better cost;

Increases the asset quality of banks’ loan portfolio.

Improves the banks’ Risk Weighted Assets (RWA)

  1. Has AGF had to adapt operations as a result of COVID-19? What are some ways AGF is responding and assisting businesses and individuals during this critical time?

COVID-19 pandemic continues to affect African SMEs and has deteriorated their creditworthiness.

As a consequence, the reluctance of financial institutions to finance SMEs has increased.

It is crucial to provide external stimulus to financial institutions so that they can continue to support SMEs in this unprecedented crisis.

AGF launched a COVID- 19 product that aims to:

Reduce the uncertainties faced by financial institutions in Africa as a result of the global coronavirus pandemic.

Provide more comfort to financial institutions to restructure facilities that become non- performing because of COVID-19.

Provide commercial stimulus to the financial sector with the objective of mitigating the deterioration of SMEs ‘ perceived risk.

Provide technical assistance to financial institutions to enhance their risk assessment approaches to better analyze the impact of the pandemic and reduce the SMEs’ risk perception gap.

  1. In your opinion, what role should financial institutions take to support the social economic development in Africa?

Financial institutions need to increase their support to SMEs by increasing SME lending and designing products that are better adapted to SMEs’ needs.

  1. Are you launching any new products and where do you see AGF in 5 years?

We are constantly improving our product offering to better serve SMEs and achieve the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Our new products mostly follow a thematic approach to close financing gaps in climate finance, women finance, agribusiness, etc.

In 5 years, we see AGF covering all countries in Africa, dealing with most of African banks and managing a guarantee portfolio of USO 5 billion.

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Interviews

seedtag’s Co-CEOs discuss their most recent acquisition success

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seedtag's Co-CEOs discuss their most recent acquisition success 3

By Albert Nieto, Co-CEO of seedtag & Jorge Poyatos, Co-CEO of seedtag

Q: What does the acquisition of Recognified mean for seedtag?

The acquisition of Recognified is a highly strategic move for seedtag as Recognified is the contextual advertising leader in Germany. It has greatly impacted our business, specifically in three different ways. Firstly, it has consolidated our European leadership which has allowed us to expand our contextual solutions to Germany, the second-largest European market in advertising spend. Secondly, it has reinforced our contextual AI (Artificial Intelligence) technology, strengthening our computer vision capabilities. Last but not least, it now means we can push our ambitions even further to consolidate more companies under seedtag’s umbrella, embedding us as a global leader in contextual advertising.

Q: How will this expand seedtag’s services and technologies?

In terms of services, seedtag offers several contextual solutions, which are completely integrated into the content. We are currently expanding our options so that our clients can move from delivering contextual advertisements in-image and in-video, and also in-article and in-screen. The key is to allow our proprietary contextual AI to optimise among a different set of placements, depending on which is going to be a more effective way of respectfully catching the attention of users.

In terms of technology, our contextual AI has incorporated the strong computer vision capabilities of the technology built by Recognified. The combination of computer vision and Natural Language Processing algorithms allows our technology to be extremely precise when categorizing online content and determining its brand safety, which is absolutely critical for our clients.

Q: What is contextual advertising and why it’s so important in modern marketing?

Contextual advertising is a form of targeted advertising in which the content of an advertisement is in direct correlation to the content of the website page the user is viewing. We have applied AI to our digital advertising to develop our most advanced contextual analysis technology. Today, our algorithm has been learning for more than seven years, enabling us to offer the most powerful contextual AI on the market. Furthermore, we offer advertisers an effective alternative to the use of cookies by targeting users based on their real-time interests.

More and more players are positioning themselves in this sector to meet the demand of internet users, authorities and advertisers, so contextual advertising represents a growing share of the market worldwide.

Q: What’s the next step for seedtag? Will seedtag continue its international expansion?

Seedtag has a lot of growth opportunities ahead. Contextual advertising will keep developing in the coming years and we must be sure that we can offer the best product and service to our clients to capitalise on this growth. Organic growth is our number one priority.

Today we are leaders in Europe and Latin America, but our ambition has been to be global since day one. We will definitely continue to analyze both organic and inorganic opportunities to continue our international expansion, mainly to the United States.

Q: How do you see the advertising market, regardless of your technology, in 5 to 10 years?

It’s not easy to predict how such an innovative sector like advertising and the technology around it will look like in 10 years. However, there are some clear trends that we believe we will see over the next few years.

Media consumption across the globe is increasing across many digital platforms and this will only keep growing. The more time we spend online, the bigger the share of investment for digital advertising there will be.

Relevancy and attention will become the true currency in advertising. Only the brands and solutions that will be able to respectfully catch the attention of users and be relevant to them will survive in the long run.

We also foresee an increase in market duplicity. On the one hand, we will have the ‘walled garden’ platforms led by Google, Facebook, and sooner than later Amazon as key players. Alternatively, we will have an open internet that will be very relevant in terms of time spent but will have higher challenges in terms of addressability. Seedtag is moving towards being one of the key players in the open internet to help brands win the attention battle in a privacy-first world.

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Interviews

Bank CenterCredit – the best bank for business in Kazakhstan

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Bank CenterCredit is recognized as the best bank in Kazakhstan for work with small and medium-sized businesses according to the results of research by the international rating publication GLOBAL BANKING & FINANCE REVIEW. To answer how the financial institution managed to earn this award and establish itself as the best in the market for SMEs, we interviewed the Chairman of the Bank`s Management Board, Galim Khussainov.

Galim Khussainov, Chairman of the Management Board, Bank CenterCredit

Galim Khussainov, Chairman of the Management Board, Bank CenterCredit

Galim Abilzhanovich, the title of the best bank for SMEs speaks of a serious tilt of the Bank towards entrepreneurship, is BCC a bank for business?

Not really. Bank CenterCredit is a universal financial institution, and a significant part of its portfolio is devoted to retail. But we have traditionally strong and reliable relations with business. If a businessman comes to our service, we always have something to offer him. Starting from the opening of an account, we carefully guide the entrepreneur throughout his time at the BCC. The accumulated experience and rich product line allow us to make his business and cooperation with the Bank comfortable and profitable as we are always ready to support you with practically zero service cost, inexpensive loans and high deposit rates. Also, I would not divide our bank like a pie, as many banking divisions are investing in the success of our SME clients, which cannot be listed in the interview.

What do clients look for when choosing a particular financial institution?

Every year people are becoming more financially literate. You can get information about the bank by opening just a few websites. It is enough to have the Internet and some free time. All key indicators are available in open sources. It is also easy to compare service and product line fees. Well, no one has disregarded the opinion of colleagues and friends who already have experience of cooperation with one or another financial institution, often their opinion is key, because these people have already experienced the quality of services of our bank. There is also advertising and marketing, and potential customers should see high-quality and conscientious bank advertising, where certain services and products are presented interestingly. Another important factor is the amount of time that the bank has been on the market, the ratings of independent agencies and the compliance with the Regulator’s standards. Our Bank is already 32 years old, we have successfully survived several global financial crises, and we continue to work successfully despite the slowdown in business activity associated with the Covid-19 pandemic. This is thanks to a balanced approach, a somewhat conservative policy in terms of risks, as well as with the appropriate indicators, including the NPL.

Based on your words, it becomes clear why Bank CenterCredit was recognized as the best bank for SMEs in 2020. What else, besides the above, was offered to business clients last year?

First of all, we continued to work in the same way that has worked previously, while trying to improve and speed up the existing processes as much as possible. Plus, under strict quarantine conditions, we considered all incoming applications from financially impacted applicants and provided deferrals for payments to everyone whose business was affected by the pandemic. During this time, Bank CenterCredit also continued to actively lend to SMEs, which helped a lot of organizations to survive. Despite the decline in business activity, we continued to develop new services and products with an pivot to online service. Thanks to the effective Internet banking and the multifunctional mobile application StarBusiness, customers performed transactions without visiting the Bank’s branches. In terms of new products, it has been a record-breaking year. If I may, I will tell you about them in the order they are listed:

Let’s start with the “Number”:

Online opening of a current account for business clients – now there is no need to visit a Bank branch to open an account.

Online opening of deposits is also a very useful service, both in isolation and in everyday life.

Online issuance of guarantees within the limits through the Internet banking system is an indispensable tool for entrepreneurs participating in tenders.

Online opening of a blank limit for issuing tender guarantees through the Internet banking system is also a very useful and relevant product, when it is possible to make payments even without funds on the account.

“Growing Business” loan for legal entities and individual entrepreneurs is a very convenient and profitable loan product for small business.

The program of portfolio subsidies and guarantees – for lending to small entities, including micro-entrepreneurship within the framework of the State Program for Support and Development of Business “Business Road Map – 2025”.

We are also long-term partners with foreign financial institutions such as the Asian Development Bank and the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development.

Within the framework of cooperation with the EBRD, in 2020 tranches were carried out under the SME support program, as well as another large-scale project – “Women in Business”. This one-of-a-kind program was created specifically to support women entrepreneurs.

An agreement on unfunded risk participation was signed between BCC and the EBRD, and not so long ago the financing of the first project in this direction was carried out.

Given the difficult situation in the economy sector, does the Kazakh government somehow help domestic business?

Of course, the state provides all-round support to entrepreneurs, and we, for our part, fully support the anti-crisis measures of the country’s government, putting the needs of the SME sector at the forefront. From the very beginning, Bank CenterCredit actively participates in almost all government programs implemented by DAMU Entrepreneurship Development Fund JSC, regularly receiving awards from this organization. Indeed, in cooperation with this fund, a huge number of projects in various sectors of the economy have been financed. At the moment we can offer business people loans at a minimum rate of 6% per annum. The loan is issued for investment purposes – up to 20 million tenge, and for replenishment of working capital – up to 5 million tenge. A highly demanded product.

What plans does the Bank set for itself for 2021?

We will move in accordance with the strategy approved by the Board, which, as we see, is bearing its fruit. We very much hope that the epidemic will decline and economic activity will increase significantly. Businesses will start operating at full capacity, people will start traveling, and we need to be prepared to offer them the most convenient services and products for every situation. We are planning an even more serious pivot towards online services, because digital products are truly products of the future.

Nonetheless, we will not forget about those clients who are more accustomed to classical banking services in the offices of the BCC. Now we have branches in absolutely all regions of the country, but the targeted opening of new and modernization of existing branches will continue. It is important for us to be closer to people. Our task is not only to follow trends, but also to create them.

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