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Stock Exchange Head Ivan Takev: Foreign Investors will Inevitably Find Bulgaria on the Map Again.

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ceoNovinite.com interview with Mr. Ivan Takev, CEO of the Bulgarian Stock Exchange – Sofia

What will it take to bring back to life the Bulgaria’s capital market, dented now by low liquidity and lack of quality stocks?

Nince the start of the crisis the stock market has been suffering from very low investors’ activity, which naturally results in low overall liquidity. The outflow of foreign investors marked the start of the crisis and my personal belief is that their return will mark the turning point in the recovery. Many of those foreign investors moved towards less risky markets and that is the reason why we saw some very strong performance on some exchanges in 2010 while some other, like ours, fell quite behind. But as long as the investors exploit all opportunities in those countries they will start seeking new alternatives and will inevitably find Bulgaria on the map because of its increased relative attractiveness.

What do you attribute the sorry performance of the capital market at the moment to?

Our market’s 1Q performance wasn’t that bad at all. SOFIX rose by more than 20% and that increase was accompanied by a sensible shift in the liquidity. These two facts fed the optimism of market participants and many of them reversed their otherwise negative forecasts for the rest of the year. Of course, we are still very far from the market conditions that prevailed prior to the crisis in terms of liquidity, but no one expects overnight recovery. As I said earlier, the main reason for that situation that is often expressed by all professionals is the decreased interest of foreign institutional investors not only in Bulgaria, but to a certain extent in the Balkan region. Currently the price discovery is being driven only by local retail investors and in the times of crisis it is understandable why they are very cautious. This can be easily observed when looking at trading volume’s structure: relatively small trades in size which are typical to retail investors and only occasional large trades attributable to institutional investors.

What should be the role of the Bulgarian state in lifting the country’s bourse to much higher levels of liquidity by bringing back investors? Do you expect the Bulgarian government to launch high-quality initial public offerings to enliven the market?

The government has various tools to stimulate the stock market. On-exchange privatization and IPOs are probably the most obvious answer and the most powerful tools at the same time. If we look back in time we can easily see that it was exactly the privatization that sparked the stock market in Bulgaria more than 8 years ago and marked the beginning of a period of growth. So we strongly believe that we can obtain comparable results if we go through a similar process again. This was also the case for many exchanges in Central and Eastern Europe which realized that such type of privatization will lead to a win-win situation for both government and market. The government will be able to acquire significant amount of money in times when budget deficits are an issue and the market will be able to attract new investors boosting the liquidity and increasing its strategic importance.

Is the sale of the minority stakes in the electricity distributors on the stock exchange a must-do task for 2011?

The procedure for one of these companies has just started and hopefully it will be finalized by the end of the year. Many hopes are pinned on the successful sale through the exchange since it is believed it will have a very strong and reviving effect on the stock market. The size of the company, the fact that the stake is relatively large, the attractiveness of the energy sector and, last but not least, the indication that there will be some serious foreign interest will more or less predetermine its success.

How do you view calls for listing the company, which is to be set up for Belene nuclear power plant, in a bid to test the economic feasibility of the controversial project?

I am relatively pessimistic about such an approach. The stock market is a place where capital is being raised but before that investors must be given adequate information in order to be able to decide whether to invest or not. If there’s no detailed information about the activity of a certain company, including its cost of operation, the investors will be reluctant to invest. In fact, it is not a secret that we have such companies listed in Bulgaria although their size is much smaller. From that perspective, if such company gets listed just because we want to test the feasibility of its intended business we will make a very controversial move that we’ve already made in the past. However, if there is a sound business model backed by detailed information, the stock market will always welcome and continuously support such a company.

Bulgaria’s capital market collapsed like many others, but why is it not recovering like many others? Does this mean someone has not done his homework?

The recovery of the market is not dependant on someone’s homework. Of course, there are always some minor issues that need to be fixed so we can say that we provide comfortable trading conditions to all groups of investors. But they are not so dramatic and they don’t repel investors who really want to invest in Bulgaria. The truth is that the market decline that we had over the last 3 years was so serious that very few retail investors are now brave enough to trade and, at the same time, very few institutional investors are really interested because of the small market size. And something very important, which is sometimes neglected when talking about recovery although it is more than obvious: in order to grow each market needs backup from the real economy. Until recently, it didn’t emit positive signals or at least they were relatively controversial. Once we have started to receive good signs from the listed companies’ financial statements we started feeling investors’ increased interest and optimism.

The privatization tender, through which Bulgaria sought to boost public revenues by some BGN 80 M, managed to sell state stakes in only eight companies on Sofia stock exchange at the end of last year. Do you think the heavy criticism against the government for its failure to rake in revenues into the budget by privatization is justified?

I don’t think the criticism for not collecting much from privatization was that heavy since the real revenues are expected to come from the electricity distributors. These companies are much larger compared to those that were offered last year and their sale will have considerably stronger effect on the state budget. There will be space for criticism if something prevents them from being completely privatized and such failure definitely will be very detrimental to the stock market.

Are you hopeful that Bulgaria’s stock exchange, which launched the sale of its shares in January, will attract a key European investor for its majority stake by the end of the year?

Yes, definitely. So far we had some preliminary talks with large stock market operators and their initial interest was encouraging. Also, recently the Council of Ministers passed a resolution according to which the government stakes at the exchange and the depository will be packed together and offered to a strategic investor. Such bundling will sweeten the deal and will ensure that the new owner will have the freedom to define its own policy on both trading and post-trading level.

What was the main goal in increasing the Bulgarian government’s share in the bourse and its self-listing? Sale of its majority stake to an industry investor, liquidity boost, restoration of market growth and investor confidence?

The increase of the share was just the first step in the privatization of the entire stake. Now the government has stronger bargaining power since it offers to sell full and unconditional control which was not exactly the case when it had 44%. The listing process ensured that the government would receive a fair market price when selling its stake plus a control premium.

When talking about the ultimate goal we must admit that the sale itself is not going to increase the liquidity or restore investors’ confidence. But it will ensure that all necessary mechanisms for this to happen are in place and there is a common policy focused on the market, which is in line with world’s leading practices.

What should be the next step?

The next step we expect to be the kick-off of the privatization procedure itself.

Does the Bulgarian Stock Exchange require central government control?

Yes, it requires such control but not through ownership. The exchange is constantly being regulated by the respective body – the Financial Supervision Commission, in terms of providing all necessary measures intended to improve the stability of the market. On the other hand, shareholders’ control has a completely different purpose; it is necessary to ensure that the management of the company tries to maximize its value.

Don’t you fear that investors will turn to other areas of New Europe, where there are fewer threats to their portfolios?

The investors will turn to those areas that are considered to be rewarding for the risk taken. There are no places that are permanently ignored by the investors since the risk/return profile of all markets changes over time. As I said earlier, as long as the other markets including those from New Europe increase in value and possibly overheat, this increases the relative attractiveness of the local market and will bring more investors to it. Of course, I am not saying that we should sit and wait for the investors to return but this is how the markets work and we can’t change it. At least, what we can do is to put some serious efforts to make sure these investors feel comfortable in terms of trading conditions and infrastructure when they are back.

Author: Milena Hristova

Photo by                                     Sofia Photo Agency

Interviews

Rising to the Challenge of the Pandemic

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For over seven decades, Development Bank of the Philippines (DBP) has been the Philippines premier development financing institution, supporting inclusive growth and development in the country. As a development financial institution, DBP is ready to help address both the immediate and long-term needs of the economy. Global Banking & Finance Review spoke to DBP President and Chief Executive Officer Emmanuel G. Herbosa to find out what the bank is doing now to help the Philippines cope with pandemic and their plans for the future.Rising to the Challenge of the Pandemic 1

  1. What is the mandate of the Development Bank of the Philippines?

“DBP is wholly-owned by the Republic of the Philippines and is classified as a development bank. Its primary objective is to provide medium and long-term credit facilities for the growth and expansion of the agricultural, industrial, and public utility sectors. Alongside its deposit-taking activities, the Bank fulfills its mandate in part through on-lending Official Development Assistance (ODA) funds provided by international development agencies, and by providing commercial loans to corporations and micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs).

DBP has proven effective in managing public funds and channeling those funds into productive loans to four priority sectors – infrastructure and logistics, MSMEs, social services, and the environment. The Bank is particularly strong in providing term loan facilities to finance projects that help spur economic growth and contribute to national development. The Bank builds strategic partnerships with industry and businesses, financial institutions, local government units, national government agencies, and non-government organizations to fulfill its development mandate to be a catalyst for nation-building.

With more than seven decades of committed advocacy as the country’s premier development financing institution, DBP has further sharpened its development focus to be the Philippines’ Infrastructure Bank. With this enhanced mandate, DBP more aggressively supports infrastructure development towards inclusive growth and a more balanced regional development for the country.”

  1. What does the “Best Corporate Bank Philippines 2020” award mean to DBP?

“It’s a very welcome affirmation of the standards that we have set for ourselves as development bankers, especially during this time of a global health emergency.

In terms of deposit performance during the first semester of 2020, DBP was the fastest growing bank (in growth rates and in absolute amount of increase) among its peers. This was due to our working hard in the present pandemic environment to service our clients’ deposit and loan requirements. Ninety percent of DBP branches remained open during the imposition of community quarantines to continue our service delivery to the transacting public. We did not just keep our branches open, our account officers remained engaged with their clients in servicing their banking transactions.

Through end-June, total deposits of DBP grew 37% year-on-year to reach US$13-Billion (PHP637-Billion) led by a 52% year-on-year increase in Term Deposits and a 20% growth in CASA. Deposits of our national accounts comprising of government-owned-and-controlled corporations (GOCCs) and large financial institutions (FIs), serviced by our team of Relationship Officers, increased by at least US$1-Billion (PHP50-Billion) from end 2019 to July 2020 and even more creditable is the 98% year-on-year growth in our private deposits that was achieved.

We are proud of the work we have done for these GOCCs and FIs amidst the pandemic as we provided to them the full range of banking services particularly for their deposits and transactions.

Of particular significance is the work we have done for the state pension fund for private employees, the Social Security System, which the Bank has assisted towards making their financial operations more efficient, such as their cash management from the physical deposit pick-up collection from their branches nationwide to their liquidity requirements in assisting the maturity profile and rates of return on their deposits to assisting them in their disbursements that they used to do via issuing of physical checks and deposit to their Members’ accounts. We have transformed this electronically via our PESONet channel; they just send us the instructions and we electronically disburse their Pensions, Loans and other Member Benefits (e.g., maternity and other medical needs) to their Members’ bank accounts or through our Fintech partners (e.g., Paymaya) and other cash disbursement outlets. We have performed these services as well for our other Corporate clients.”

  1. What role is DBP expected to play to help the Philippines cope with, or bounce back, from the pandemic?

“DBP is poised to play a more catalytic role in the socio-economic recovery efforts for the Philippines. As a development financial institution, DBP is ready to help address both the immediate and long-term needs of the economy. We will continue to act with urgency in terms of investments focused on helping critical sectors of the economy in view of the negative impact of the pandemic on businesses, employment, and livelihood. Needless to say, it is important for DBP to provide additional financing to said sectors, be it working capital and loans to stay afloat during the pandemic.

In sustaining its development lending mandate, DBP will continue to expand and enhance its credit programs to further ease access to funds and promote an environment ripe for development intervention in hard-to-reach segments and areas.

Further stepping up to the challenge, DBP will continue to work closely with other government agencies, and the private sector, to meet the demands resulting from the pandemic. The goal is to find ways to boost the economy for a systemic impact on target sectors. This may involve reviving the capital market, keeping businesses solvent and operational, financing innovations to solve crisis-related problems, and even enabling the distribution of financial aid to the most vulnerable sectors of the economy.”

  1. What has DBP accomplished to help the Philippines meet the challenges arising from this pandemic?     

“DBP continues to support the National Government in the fight against the pandemic in the country, ensuring the availability and accessibility of financial services nationwide particularly for adversely hit industries like construction, manufacturing, health care/ hospitals, education, transport and storage, among others.

To assist these businesses, the Bank granted payment moratorium of up to six months under its Rehabilitation Support Program on Severe Events or DBP RESPONSE. The moratorium is the Bank’s response to the National Government’s call to financial institutions for temporary credit relief to the pandemic businesses as mandated by Republic Act 11469 or the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act or Bayanihan I.

Under the Bank’s DBP RESPONSE Program, loan payment moratorium was extended to 726 borrower-accounts with outstanding principal balance (OPB) of US$2.80-Billion  (PHP134.94-Billion) or deferred amount of US$436.51-Million (PHP21.04-Billion) combined principal and interest. Also under the DBP RESPONSE, 19 borrowers were granted loan approval for new projects in the cumulative amount of US$86-Million (PHP4.147-Billion) while six borrowers were granted loan restructuring amounting to US$3.5-Million (PHP169.79-Million). We are also implementing a continued moratorium on the repayment of salary loans involving 52,490 government employees.

The Bank has also continued processing and approving applications for loans.  As of September 2020, we have processed loan releases for 1,025 enterprises, excluding 965 rollovers, in the amount of US$3.03-Billion, excluding US$7.24-Billion rollovers. While we have continued the processing of loan releases for supported industries and enterprises, we have continued as well as the processing of remittances and other financial transactions to ensure the continuous flow of goods in the country.

Further during the pandemic, DBP was also involved in the release of cash aid. The Bank assisted in the disbursement of cash assistance under the Philippine Department of Agriculture’s Rice Farmers Financial Assistance program where PHP1.48-Billion (US$21.7-Million) subsidies were distributed by the Bank through its cash pay-out partners, M Lhuillier and PayMaya, to 297,000 farmers. The Bank also facilitated the release of social amelioration funds under the Small Business Wage Subsidy program, where PHP50-Billion (US$1.03-Billion) was distributed by the Social Security System to 3.4 million employees of MSMEs who were left unemployed during the successive community quarantines, through DBP to their bank accounts and again through its cash pay-out partners.

DBP likewise encouraged investments in the National Government’s “Progreso Bonds” or the Retail Treasury Bonds Tranche 24, a five-year government-issued debt security to augment government funds for projects related to pandemic response.”

  1. Last year, you issued DBP ASEAN Sustainability Bonds. Can you tell us a little more about this issuance?

“As a development financing institution, DBP has always been at the forefront of sustainable development and environmental protection.  The DBP Sustainability bonds issuance last year affirmed our commitment to continue supporting initiatives that have an impact not only on communities but also on our environment.

We successfully raised PHP18.125-Billion or roughly US$362.5-Million from that initial tranche of our programmed PHP50-Billion or US$1.0-Billion Bond Programme. The initial tranche was aimed at financing environmental and social projects eligible under our Sustainability Finance Framework. Proceeds from the bonds have been exclusively used to fund projects that contribute to economic inclusion; environmental objectives such as climate change mitigation and adaptation, natural resource conservation, and pollution control and prevention; as well as projects that directly address or mitigate a specific social issues. In particular, 83% of the proceeds were allocated to fifteen projects in sustainable and renewable energy under the Bank’s FUSED Program, while the rest was roughly split between projects for water supply and health care under DBP’s WATER and SHIELD Programs. That bond issuance did not only provide for a sound investment but also provided an opportunity for direct investing in nation building.”

  1. We understand that DBP will be undertaking its second issuance of DBP Bonds. Why are you issuing these bonds now?

“Even before the onset of the pandemic, the Bank already planned to raise additional funds from our Bond Programme to augment our funding requirements as the Bank pushes to lend more to our priority sectors. Now with the current crisis, there is an even greater call for DBP to increase our funding base to be ready to provide much needed financing to those affected by the pandemic and for recovery efforts especially for those hit by recent natural calamities. We also believe our Bonds can be considered a safe-haven for those looking to invest during these uncertain times.

The net proceeds of the second issuance of DBP Sustainability Bonds will be used and/or allocated by the Bank to finance and/or refinance DBP’s loans to customers or its own operating activities including those in Eligible Green and Social Categories as defined in DBP’s Sustainable Financing Framework: (a) Eligible Green Categories –(i) Renewable energy, (ii) Green buildings, (iii) Clean transportation, (iv) Energy efficiency, (v) Pollution prevention and control, (vi) Sustainable water management, (vii) Eco-efficient and/or circular economy adapted products, production technologies and processes and (viii) Terrestrial and aquatic biodiversity conservation; (ix) Climate change adaptation and (b) Eligible Social Categories –(i) Affordable basic infrastructure, (ii) Access to essential services, (iii) Employment generation, (iv) Affordable housing, and (v) Socioeconomic advancement and empowerment and (vi) Food Security.

Proceeds of the fund-raising activity will further enable us to support and spearhead projects in line with the sustainability development goals and allow us to reach a wider network of stakeholders especially in the countryside. It will also take DBP “one step closer” to its target of becoming a PHP1-Trillion (US$20.8-Billion) bank by 2022.”

  1. What can we look forward to from DBP in the coming years?

“Looking ahead, DBP‘s post-pandemic interventions will be carried out through programs supportive of recovery and expansion as well as new investments to stimulate economic activity. These programs will continue to channel growth in the four priority thrusts of DBP, which are infrastructure and logistics, environment, social services, and micro, small and medium enterprises.

The policy and regulatory framework for the Philippines’ recovery is in place. A national recovery and rehabilitation strategy has already been signed into law by the National Government to address and provide for the funding needs of distressed economic sectors.

This pandemic has given us at DBP a new perspective on how our development work can still be done, and done well, despite the challenges. We stand always ready with our programs of assistance and initiatives to support the requirements of the different sectors — in consonance with the thrusts of the National Government — from boosting their readiness to pursue growth and competitiveness opportunities to reinforcing their resilience as they embark to restart, rebuild and recover from this pandemic.”

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Award-winning CIO shares insight on personal and company success

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Fred Swanepoel, Group CIO, Nedbank Limited

Fred Swanepoel, Group CIO, Nedbank Limited

Nedbank Group, one of South Africa’s largest banks, celebrates five technology-related awards from Global Banking and Finance 2020.  With a company vision of becoming the most admired financial services provider in Africa by staff, clients, and shareholders, it’s clear that Nedbank Group is well on their way. In this interview, CIO Fred Swanepoel, who was recognised as CIO of the Year South Africa, shares his journey to becoming an award-winning Information Officer as well as his personal methods, tips, and advice for those interested in IT management.

Briefly share with us your journey to becoming CIO of Nedbank Limited.

My career began at the Small Business Development Corporation, from where I later joined Nedbank in 1996. In 2004, I became the divisional director of Group Technology and Support Services. I subsequently gained experience at the highest levels of Nedbank’s technology cluster, holding divisional director positions of Finance, Risk and Compliance; Projects and Programme Management; and Group Software Services.

In November 2008, I was appointed as Group CIO and a Nedbank Group Exco member.

What’s your top tip for staying ahead in your field?

I have a passion for mentoring and sponsoring high-potential talent, accordingly, if I may, I’d like to list three:

  • Never stop learning. I believe education and continuous learning to be the bedrock of success. I am privileged to have had the opportunity to study a B. Com Honours at the University of Stellenbosch, an MBA at the University of the Witwatersrand as well as a SEPSA and AMP from Harvard Business School. But learning extends beyond formal education and training. In the prevailing fast-changing and hyper-competitive environment, leaders have had to commit to ongoing agility and learning as we pivot our strategies in response to systemic developments. In short, to remain ahead of the game, you need to keep on educating yourself.
  • There is no substitute for hard work. True passion for technology and innovation is a vital ingredient for a successful tenure in the fast-moving, highly competitive financial services technology ecosystem.
  • Developing a strong network to leverage at critical ‘moments of truth’ is important. Like any asset, this network requires nurturing and investment. Having sponsors who genuinely care about your wellbeing and success has, over time, proven to be invaluable to my career trajectory.

What are the most important functions of a CIO?

Performing a conduit role between business and IT is, in my opinion, a critical component of my role to enable coordination and synchronicity of enterprise execution efforts. Brokering of ‘trade-offs’ has increasingly become an important part of my role as we seek to navigate the prevailing volatile and uncertain competitive economy by maximising the benefits from our substantial IT investments across the various components of our business. Advancing our digital aspirations has, over the preceding years, been top of my radar, given the various benefits emanating from digitisation (revenue uplift, cost-saving, client experience uplift etc). Having ‘the correct people in the correct seats on the bus’ is incredibly important and people remain the biggest component of an effective IT value chain. Only by having the right people will any IT initiative be successful. We have experienced this firsthand with our big transformational programme, Managed Evolution, and witnessed the positive impact that having the right people leading our efforts has on execution effectiveness and operational efficiency.

What’s the most important part of your job and what advice would you give to young people interested in a career in IT management?

‘We have become educators.’

There is a digital revolution taking place. I believe that our role is to consistently educate business partners and key stakeholders about how tech can support, enable, and transform traditional operations in support of sustainable business outperformance. I have a critical role to play in brokering collaboration between the IT and business fraternities in support of accelerated execution, the adoption of digital, system rationalisation, the onboarding and leveraging of new technology deployments, etc.

For young people with a keen interest in IT I would advise the following:

  • You get out of life what you put into it: passion, pride, commitment, and heart. These cannot be taught but they are without a doubt differentiators. Doggedly pursue what you aspire towards – you are the architect of your own future.
  • Be genuine: far too often, I see people living separate personal versus professional lives. It is my considered opinion that being genuine is what will endear you to key stakeholders in this day and age.
  • Learn to become ambidextrous: survival in today’s fast-moving, highly competitive, global technology ecosystem, requires one to be able to manage high levels of complexity, various interdependencies, and various moving parts on a daily basis.
  • Pick your team well! Having a team composed of determined, self-motivated and multi-skilled players to support you in particularly difficult times, is critical.

Can you surface a recent highlight of your career?

In 2020, Nedbank has been recognised by Global Banking and Finance by winning 5 significant industry-leading technology-related awards, namely:

  • Best Banking Technology Implementation South Africa
  • Most Innovative Digital Branch Design South Africa
  • Most Innovative Retail Banking App (Nedbank Money App) South Africa
  • Best Retail Bank South Africa
  • CIO of the Year South Africa

I am humbled to have been recognised as the CIO of the year in South Africa for 2020. The performance and commitment of my diverse IT leadership team, the support from our CEO Mike Brown, the Board, my Group Exco colleagues, and our staff are the drivers behind us winning these awards.

What are the biggest trends impacting your field in the decade ahead?

  • Client experience focus – delivering leading client experiences, at an innovation cadence that exceeds that of our peer group on a relative basis is, in my opinion, what will separate the winners from the losers going forward.
  • Remote working – the enablement of staff to work effectively remotely is critical to support core business operations and the ongoing profitability of the enterprise.
  • Cybersecurity remains one of the most important trends, in an increasingly digitised ecosystem, as we have a responsibility to our clients to protect them from sophisticated cyber-related attacks, which continue to persist and grow in volume.
  • The pervasiveness of digital / Internet of Things (IoT) – with more and more automation, connected devices will dominate the industry and enable enterprises to cross barriers they have previously not been able to. Nedbank has well-defined plans in place to leverage our vast API network in support of improved client experience and feature functionality offered to our clients.

How would you describe your communication skills and how do you cope with stress?

I’d best describe my communication skills as ‘radically candid and people-centred.’

In the prevailing and tough Global environment, we, as leaders, have had to communicate with care and empathy whilst still being radically candid in the content of our communication. Balancing the sincere care we have for our people and delivering the cold hard facts is something my leadership team and I have not shied-away-from. We have deliberately focused our communication across digital platforms without losing the human touch.

This caring and radical candid communication approach gives rise to a workforce that grows together in and out of these tough times.

Developing skills to manage stress is an important tool in everyone’s armoury.

How do I personally cope with stress?

  • I fly. I’m an avid pilot and love the alone time in the air to reflect on past, current, and future challenges.
  • I leverage a core group of family and close friends to support me in times of need.
  • I prepare. The more stressed I am, the harder I work and, in my experience, the luckier I get.

Who do you most admire in business or who has been your biggest influence, and how have they affected you?

  • Elon Musk – It is inspiring to see how he has transformed a vision into a revolutionary reality by combining technology and business.
  • Mike Brown – Mike’s attitude, aptitude, and energy are, quite simply, extraordinary. His application and consistency over a 10+ year tenure is impressive. His ability to consistently display high levels of IQ and EQ is rare and is what sets him apart from his peers.

What 3 books would you recommend people read?

  • The Platform Revolution by Geoffrey G, Parker and Marshall W, Van Alstyne
  • Goliath’s Revenge: How Established Companies Turn the Tables on Digital Disruptors by Scott Snyder and Todd Hewlin
  • Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t by Jim Collins

What do you look for when you’re building a team?

‘Strategy precedes structure.’

Having the right strategy to build a team around is the first step. Nedbank’s IT strategy is anchored around 3 pillars: Digitise, Delight, and Disrupt. Each pillar has specific strategic technology focus areas. The right team is an outcome of the strategy. At Nedbank, we have come to realise that our secret to success is the use of technology as an enabler whilst harnessing the power of our people. With these two ingredients, Technology + Our People, we create agile teams that deliver delightful client experiences whilst driving our strategic mandate to Digitise, Delight, and Disrupt the financial services industry.

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How businesses can respond effectively to the second wave of COVID-19

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How businesses can respond effectively to the second wave of COVID-19 2

By William Copley, Founder and MD of leading business telecoms and connectivity solutions provider, Armstrong Bell is focused on helping other business in response to the pandemic. In this interview he provides advice to businesses on how they can response effectively to the second wave of coronavirus.

Tell us about your background. What were you doing prior to establishing Armstrong Bell and how did the business come about?

Prior to working within the telecoms industry and establishing Armstrong Bell, I was actually the frontman of a signed band for about 10 years. In between recording albums or playing shows, I worked varied hours for a company owned by a mate’s dad, pulling cables as a telephone engineer. So when the band wound down, I took on the role full-time.

After a few years, that business actually changed ownership, and they didn’t share the same focus on providing quality end user experience and in working with new technologies that I was both used to and valued as part of my role.

Ultimately, I knew I could improve a number of processes to make the organisation better, whilst cementing long-term relationships with customers. However, I also knew that the new management didn’t value my ideas, so I took the leap and founded my own telecoms systems business with a partner in 2001.

Although the business looks very different now, our values and my inspiration remain the same: To deliver tailored business telecoms solutions with exemplary customer service.

How has Armstrong Bell grown over the last 20 years? What do you attribute your success to?

Over the last 20 years, Armstrong Bell has grown from a start-up into one of West Midlands’ leading telecoms and connectivity solutions providers for businesses and other organisations across the region.

I think our success has been down to a number of things. The first is that we have always focused on solving a problem and delivering exemplary service to our customers as opposed to looking at where the next sale is coming from. Although establishing a strong sales operation is a key focus now as we aim to double our revenue in the next two years, our resolve to listen to our customer’s needs, create new and efficient solutions and help businesses find new and innovative ways of working through telecoms and connectivity solutions has and will continue to be fundamental to our growth.

Having been in business for 20 years, I also believe that persistence and tenacity have attributed to the success of the firm. I have worked through multiple recessions and survived and I’m always looking at new ways to solve any business problem, but without that sense of perseverance and drive to just keep pushing, I don’t think the business would be where it is today.

Besides the coronavirus pandemic, what are the biggest challenges that Armstrong Bell has had to face throughout its history? How did you respond to these challenges and what did you do to overcome them?

I think one of the main challenges I have had to work through is ensuring Armstrong Bell is as robust and resilient as possible. In the early days, we secured three main clients by being as responsive and helpful as possible, which meant all three grew into decent sized accounts. However, during the 2008/09 recession, one of the firms went into administration which made me realise how exposed to risk we were in relying on just three businesses for the majority of our monthly and annual revenue. As a result, I made the decision to spread the risk and work hard on driving new sales, upselling existing clients and establishing a strong client base, which meant if one left, we wouldn’t experience financial difficulty.

In the year that our biggest client went into administration, we ended up growing both in turnover and profit and were able to cement Armstrong Bell as a robust business, with robust foundations.

Do you think these experiences meant you were better equipped to approach the coronavirus pandemic than you would otherwise have been? How has the crisis affected the firm and what have you done in response?

I think when you have been in business for a long time, you learn not to panic regardless of the size of the challenge ahead. COVID-19 or no COVID-19, we all have cycles in business, which means there will be times when things are running smoothly and you are continuing to progress and others when sales are slow due to seasonal dips or growing pains.

However, building a business is a journey and it is in times of challenge and hardship that we learn the most, come up with our best ideas and create new ways of working that we otherwise wouldn’t have thought of before. At Armstrong Bell we’ve heard there’s a recession, but we’ve chosen not to take part – and that’s not because we haven’t been impacted by COVID-19, but because we are continuing to push forwards with our growth plans regardless of the destruction caused by the pandemic.

What support have you been providing to other businesses in response to the pandemic?

William Copley

William Copley

We have helped businesses in a number of different ways during the pandemic. When lockdown initially hit, we took the time to proactively contact our most impacted clients, such as those in events and hospitality, to see if they needed us to dial down their service or even turn it off, which the majority agreed to and were grateful for.

In addition, we have helped many businesses move to mass remote working by creating Connected Workspaces, which allow team members to collaborate with anyone, at any time from any place through simple, fast and flexible telecoms and connectivity solutions. For many businesses, it is the development of a Connected Workspace that has enabled them to continue to adapt and respond to the changing COVID-19 landscape, without impacting operations and resulting product and/or service delivery.

What must businesses learn from the first wave of coronavirus in order to survive the second? 

COVID-19 hasn’t stopped at any point, but I think how business owners now respond to the ongoing pandemic has completely changed. Initially, I think there was a clear divide between reactions, with many business owners panicking and pausing activity to ‘wait and see’ what would happen and others pushing on full steam ahead so that as markets started to recover, they would come out on top. However, now there is no definitive end to the pandemic, businesses have no choice but to continue to push through the challenges and find new and innovative ways of working that ensure they will survive for the long-term.

What gives you hope for the future? Are there any words of encouragement that you can give to other business owners who might be struggling/fearful for the future?

There will be an end point to COVID-19 in that we have either learnt to live with it and can control it or that we would have found a vaccine that works to protect the most vulnerable members of our society, at the very least.

In the meantime, despite how challenging the last 6 months and the next 6 months may seem, there are so many positives that can be taken from this situation. In business, this includes the opportunity it has provided to evaluate operations and to find new, innovative ways of working and, in life, to remind you of what is most important.

The power of mindset is an incredible thing, meaning if you focus on what you can control, what you change and what you can achieve, you are far more likely to experience a better outcome.

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