Global Banking & Finance Review spoke with Mr. Vladimir Eftimoski, CEO of Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola to find out the current banking trends in Macedonia.
What are the current trends you see taking place in the banking sector in Macedonia? What are the challenges and opportunities?
Macedonian economy is in a specific and complex condition. Early parliamentary elections have been delayed twice so far and for a moment the political crisis overflew the banking system resulting in withdrawal of part of the retail deposits. What is positive and perspective is that retail clients relatively fast recognized that the banking system in the country is safe and stable, thus the deposit return process commenced, even increasing the scope before the crisis. Unfortunately in the beginning the will and responsibility of those who should have surpassed the political crisis was missing, but is now finally resolved by dialogue and arrangement. Other trends in the banking sector mainly depended on amendments to a range of regulations which directly and indirectly caused changes in the banking market. Starting from amendments to the Public Notary Law, Enforcement Law, up to the decisions of the Central bank related to the treatment of writing-off non-performing loans and foreign transactions. As a result, in the last period, the banking sector as well as the entire economy was rather inert. Crediting trend is not increasing but is anyhow stable and positive, while deposit portfolio, except for the short crisis period from April-May, can be evaluated as positive and exceptionally stable. These challenges for the group of medium-sized banks, as Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola, are extremely advantageous. They represent a possibility for greater increase of the market share and opportunity to clear our loan portfolio. We have quite successfully utilized the banking market inertness; thus by 30.06.2016 the Bank increased total assets by 14%, dominated by retail loans by 39% compared to the same period last year. The Bank has additionally cleared up nonperforming loan portfolio. The participation of nonperforming loans in the total loan portfolio is 2.97% and the nonperforming loan coverage ratio is 123.2%, being an extraordinary sound indicator for the Bank operation.
How are customer behaviours and the increased movement towards cashless transactions changing banking in Macedonia?
Related to this issue Macedonia is advantageous compared to the countries in the region. We have good communication infrastructure, strong mobile network coverage and Internet access throughout most of the country. Most of the population gravitates in the Skopje region, reducing even further the need of better infrastructure connections. In this setup majority of corporate clients are focused to electronic services and payments, while retail still prefers cash payments, especially aged groups of clients and retired persons. The trend of cashless payments and electronic services, is intensified with the renewal of the client base and replacement of pensioners with a new client base. The banking system, but especially medium-sized banks such as Stopanska Banka a.d. Bitola, are focused on introducing new and optimizing existing electronic services. In the past period, the Bank has upgraded the bank electronic system, introduced M-payment System, the website upgrade process is ongoing, and issue and processing of two new brands of MasterCard has started. To induce the trend of use of these services, in addition to introducing relevant bonus schemes and beneficial provisions for their use, technical support is provided to aged clients indicating their advantages, possibility of 24-hour access and facilitation related to fast services without queuing and personal presence.
Let’s talk for a minute about product development. What drives product creation at Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola? What role does technology play?
Our bank pays special attention to its permanent development in the banking industry, as well as to the needs of younger generation clients. It is of particular importance that this occurs in conditions where the clients have still not changed their habits entirely, and to serve them properly, a widespread branch network is required throughout the country. In addition to investing in new services and technologies we are oriented to their promotion and marketing. Product and service development is not a guarantee that they will be accepted in the market. The constant need for their promotion and clarification to the clients, is what differentiates us from the other banks in the market. Our promotion and sales are not oriented only in direction of meeting targets. Our basic mission with the promotion is presenting the benefits offered by the new services and technology.
Has the demand for credit from corporates increased?
Macedonia is a country with a small open economy, where as a principle, external economic movements do not have major impact on the domestic product demand and spending. In other words, we are a small-scale production country in absolute numbers, and irrelevant of how much we produce, the quantity can be absorbed by foreign markets, if competitive products are offered. Consequently, our corporate sector was not considerably affected by the world economic crisis, thus the need for borrowing did not reduce. However, in conditions of internal political crisis, the investors’ concern increased as numerous investment projects were postponed. Therefore as I mentioned in the beginning, the resolution of this political deadlock is a key factor for further development of our economy. Corporative loan cycle increased, but with different investment purposes. In the past long-term investment loans were required, but now the emphasis is put on liquidity, working capital and investment refinancing. These changes encompass further increase of corporate loans, which now estimates to 10% on annual level. Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola relatively fast adapted to the new situation. Now our credit conditions and products and focused on SME segment where there is greatest need for borrowing. In 2015 it raised by 15% which is over the market increase. This increase mainly occurred in the SME segment, which is more profitable compared to segment of large corporates.
In what ways does your corporate banking division assist clients in managing their risk and enhance their revenue?
Risk management is one of the key factors accounted in our Bank, in terms of balance growth and development of the Bank. We have a special sector and a special service in charge of risk management. Such operational organization is in compliance with the world’s banking standards dividing sales and risks. Sales Sector is responsible for monitoring business and clients’ plans by analysing their balance, while Risk Sector executes monitoring, but in terms of risks. This sector perceives soft-spots in their balances, makes analyses of the cash flow during the loan period and the financial repayment capacity of the relevant client. In this analysis, sales is mainly focused on advisory and analytical aspects of income increase, while the organizational part of risk management makes analyses whether the relevant client has dimensioned its business in optimum profitable range and whether its liquidity and solvency is sufficient to realize the undertaking. This symbiosis of both analyses are key for the client to undertake sufficiently acceptable risk to increase its profitability, and at the same time avoiding the exposure of the Bank to a loan risk.
Do you have any ongoing projects you’d like to share with us?
Stopanska Banka a.d. Bitola is continuously developing numerous projects. In addition to constant internal projects to optimize our operations and operational technology, we permanently develop projects in terms of introduction of new services and products. We are currently completing three key projects aimed at development of new, user-friendly website, introducing two new MasterCard products with contactless payment, M-payment service and a multichannel distribution system. And we will not stop here. We have a number of projects upgrading our information system. This will additionally simplify and accelerate the processes, helping us to become more competitive and efficient in the market.
What are your current development plans?
At the moment we are focused on an activity that has not been executed by any bank or company in Macedonia. We are in process of issuing corporate bond as a hybrid financial instrument. This idea is part of the strategy to attract strategic investors that will support further development and growth of the Bank. The assets from sales of the corporate bond will be used for credit activities in corporate sector which will support the Bank growth in the next five years. In this period we will intensify our performance, increasing our market share, profitability and efficiency. Our intention is to impose ourselves as a factor in the Macedonian banking market, with dominant domestic capital that will be interesting for acquisition or recapitalization by a foreign strategic partner. This approach, in the technology segment as well as the other financial operational segments, will distinguish Stopanska banka a.d. Bitola as a most innovative, modern and efficient bank in the Macedonian banking market.
Q&A with Clare George-Hilley, co-founder, Centropy PR
Clare George-Hilley is the co-founder of Centropy PR
Global Banking and Finance Magazine recently caught up with Clare George-Hilley, co-founder of fintech and financial services specialist PR agency Centropy, as the company toasts to three years of trading. We asked Clare about what life is like running an agency in the city, the trends she is seeing in the financial services space and what the future holds following the Covid-19 outbreak.
Why did you decide to set up Centropy PR?
I was looking for an opportunity to launch my own agency, both my husband and I had been in the public affairs and public relations industry for over a decade and we thought the time was right to go out on our own.
We could see that the financial services industry was surging, with challenger brands and new technology transforming traditional banks and setting new standards of customer service. There was a huge market opportunity to create and launch a PR agency that could provider first class comms support, alongside a deep understanding of complex regulations such as AML, KYC, and the GDPR. Likewise, many traditional technology firms are diversifying their offerings, to tap into the growing market opportunity posed by the fintech boom.
So, we worked on a business plan, designed a strategy for winning clients and officially launched in September 2017. Within a few months we had a growing portfolio of clients and a thriving business, since that point, we have never looked back!
How is Centropy doing now and what are you plans for growth?
The last three years have flown by and our client portfolio has grown and diversified quickly. We now manage PR campaigns for clients on everything from cryptocurrency, wealth management to payments and trading software.
We’ve also hosted parliamentary debates with key industry figures, including Members of Parliament (MPs) on topics such as the future of the financial services industry and the impact of challenger banks on traditional providers. The team is expanding quickly and we’re investing heavily in the latest training and support to ensure our team members are equipped to reach their full potential.
How do you see the next 12 months?
The Covid-19 outbreak has crippled the economy, forcing millions of people to work from home due to the very serious health risks. The knock-on effect of this crisis will lead to companies cutting costs where possible to save jobs, so tech will play a vital role in ensuring many businesses stay afloat.
We are already working with contactless payments specialists and other fintech companies that offer solutions to help companies survive and thrive despite the inevitable challenges ahead.
We aim to continue building our portfolio of expertise, testing ourselves with new challenges and delivering the best possible service to clients
This is a Sponsored Feature.
Lessons from past recessions and advice for business owners during the coronavirus pandemic
By Neil Davis, managing director and co-founder of Sterling Networks
What is Sterling Networks?
“Sterling Networks is a professional organisation founded in 2014 which facilitates networking events for businesses across the Midlands, Oxfordshire, Wiltshire and the South West. Over 300 members attend our fortnightly breakfast and lunchtime meetings.”
What is your background prior to establishing Sterling Networks?
“During the 1990s, I worked in the corporate team for Halifax. My wife, Tracey, and I went onto own a manufacturing business, which was also called Sterling, and produced a range of gifts, merchandise and promotional items.
“We soon realised tradeshows were a great way to meet distributors and clients. From there, the business grew exponentially, and we managed to build a network of around 500 distributors. Eventually, we became ground down by the manufacturing business – in part because the local manufacturing sector was being devastated by competition from China – and took the decision to sell the business and relocate to Spain.
“After spending several years living abroad, we moved back to the UK to set up Sterling Integrity (EXPO’S) & Sterling Networks (Networking) We were inspired by a desire to help businesses make meaningful connections with one another, and we haven’t looked back since.”
The UK has recently entered a recession, brought about by the coronavirus pandemic. What have you learned from past recessions and how are these experiences helping you to navigate the current crisis?
“I’ve lived through a number of recessions and have seen the pain that insolvency causes companies on a large scale. It’s taught me that there are those who win and sadly those who lose, and that businesses must adapt to a rise in demand for certain products or services at a time of financial crisis.
“Given the nature of what Sterling Networks offers [an opportunity for business owners to connect and grow together] I decided we could build upon the brand due to the demand for new business during the pandemic. We therefore moved our networking events from face-to-face to virtual via tools like Zoom and have gained a steady stream of new members in recent months, reaching an overall total of well over 300.
“On top of that, we’ve taken new staff on during the crisis and have launched a number of new regional groups across the country. I was determined that Sterling should come out of the pandemic with a head start, so my attitude to the recession has been much more positive than those who are forecasting nothing but doom and gloom.
“We can’t pretend high street retail wasn’t suffering long before the pandemic came along, and thousands of new businesses are sure to start up to meet the demand for the products and services that people require at a time such as this. In order to develop and grow businesses need to focus on where changes need to be made to meet this demand.”
Sterling Networks has been providing emotional support to its members throughout the pandemic. What advice have you been giving to members that could be useful to other business owners?
“I try not to be too opinionated and respect other people’s views when giving advice to members, as there are always two sides to every circumstance. I’ve been careful not to say to people that they should be doing one thing or another, as I don’t know their business and its needs quite like they do. The only thing that I have been telling members is the importance of setting up one-to-ones with one another. By doing so, they can listen to the needs and concerns of other, like-minded business owners and work out ways that they might be able to help one another.
“The pandemic has meant we all have a bit more time on our hands, so the advice I would give to people is to use this extra time wisely. Not having to travel physically from one meeting to another means there is a greater opportunity to connect with more people. It’s important to remember that individuals outside of your business can be just as valuable as those within it.”
What makes you hopeful for the future and are there any words of encouragement you can give to budding entrepreneurs?
“The key events that have happened to this country during my lifetime – whether wars, recessions, or the pandemic – have enabled me to take stock of things. While these experiences are certainly challenging, we all become stronger for living through them, and it gives me great confidence that the world will ultimately improve as a result of the pandemic.
“The whole world is effectively rebooting right now, as is the business community. I like to think entrepreneurs will recognise this opportunity to take better care of their peers, and this translates to greater collaboration between organisations. Speak to as many people as you can, ask all the questions that you need to and do your homework. This might well be a difficult time for us all but planning for the future must start now if it is to become as prosperous as I know it can be.”
Exclusive Interview with Ugo Loser, CEO of ARCA Fondi SGR
Arca Fondi SGR is a mid-sized Italian active asset management company. Founded in 1983 by a consortium made up of 12 regional banks, the company has grown in time, expanding its network of distributors and its client base. Nowadays Arca manages Mutual Funds, Pension Funds and Institutional Accounts with total AUM exceeding 30 € bln, reaching more than 100 banks and financial institutions and serving more than 800,000 final clients.
What are the key contributors to ARCA Fondi SGR’s success over the past 35 years?
Arca has always put clients and distributors first. That is to say we have always privileged fair pricing for funds and developing high quality products and services for our customers. This requires constant innovation as an objective and looking for people’s talent to be free to produce its effect
Why are people the founding element of ARCA Fondi SGR and how have you sustained this vision over the years?
We work in small teams, people are young and motivated and can perform duties with a high level of autonomy and responsibility. Innovation is asked to everyone, everyday
What makes Arca Fondi SGR different from other asset management firms in Italy?
Arca is a company focused on doing what it can do very well, that is to say mutual and pension funds, services for clients and banks. We never follow short term trends but always look for long lasting impact on the industry, like we’ve done may times in the past
What products/services has ARCA Fondi SGR pioneered?
Arca has been the inventor of “Arca Cedola”, fixed-horizon, coupon paying funds, which have been with no doubt the greatest product innovation of the past 12 years on the Italian market. This type of funds, at first strictly based on bonds and later as a balanced product, has encountered an enormous success both with clients and distributors due to its simple and effective value proposition. Arca is a market leader also in the “PIR” segment of funds, a range of product focused on mid and small sized companies, that have been the best performers in the Italian stock market for the last few years. In services, Arca is a leader in technology applied to asset management. Our website, app and digital services for clients and banks are award winning, state of the art combination of data, technology and channels, and the best is yet to come on this side.
What strategies do you have in place to sustain your market position and withstand professional competition in the country?
As I mentioned, we do not waste resources on projects with dubious results, instead we constantly invest on people, products and services. The high level of profitability that Arca has been able to maintain even in difficult years for the markets of the banking sector is a further testimony that this strategy works very well
How do you use technology to create meaningful experiences for your customers?
First of all, we have created a whole new division, Arca InnovAction Lab, dedicated to technology, data and processes. This ensures projects are delivered quickly and they are free to leave bad past practices behind. Arcaonline.it, Arca’s website, provides distributors with detailed information on clients’ portfolios, asset under management and subscription/redemption requests. It monitors aggregate selling data offering to our partners a suite functions and analytics to track commercial campaigns. And if the banks branches need assistance, they may ask Sara, our digital chatbot. A broad and timely multimedia production, covering exclusive reports, comments, presentations, videos, webinars and newsletters is also available on the website.
Customers, subscribing Arca’s funds through its distributors’ network, may access Arcaclick, a dedicated area on Arcaonline.it. With Arcaclick the client can easily browse through her portfolio of funds, analyze its characteristics, view transactions and historical funds’ performance in customizable views. Arcaclick is also a powerful source of information on Arca product range: Prospectus, KIIDs and other literature is easily accessible along with news, comments and reports. Arcaclick may also be accessed via Arca Fondi App, a free application for mobiles and tables, running on both iOS and Android. Available 24/7 and in mobility, Arcaclick gives clients the opportunity access information, news and details of their personal portfolio anytime and anywhere.
What key trends will drive pension growth in 2020 and beyond?
The Italian market for pension funds is still very small and therefore there is a great opportunity to grow. Arca Fondi manages the biggest open ended Italian pension fund and it’s been constantly at the top of its rankings. As people and workers are looking for yield and to weather short term volatility, the pension fund is very well poised to profit from this trend.
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