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Q&A with WSBI President

Q&A with WSBI President

​​Isidro Fainé talks about digitisation, innovation, financial inclusion and more in a feature article in the latest WSBI-ESBG News & Views

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Published online: 20 February 2019

​How do you see savings and retail banks in a globalised world?

What we do as savings and retail banks can and will help address income inequality on a global basis. They are ideally placed to help calls from society to tackle the need for economic growth – no matter where – that is, economic growth, which is sustainable, deep-rooted and widespread. Just to be clear, when I say widespread, I mean growth that generates inclusive economic and social development, not just in big cities but also in sometimes hard-to-reach rural areas.

Our World Congress in New Delhi put on stage the special role played by savings and retail banks to ensure that Asian, Latin American and African economies become actors that stand side by side with all regions in the global economy, on an equal footing with Western economies. This crucial point was not missed by the WSBI members and stake holders during our panels and speeches, which reflected the essential role that non-OECD countries play in the world.

Connected to this, it is important to note that Asian and Pacific countries, for instance, represent around 40% of world GDP and estimates point out that by 2050 their share of the world economy will grow to well over half. This remarkable jump in share of the global economy will happen thanks to immense economic expansion driven primarily by China, India and Indonesia. Specifically, India, the host country for this year’s Congress, will double its weight from the current 7% to 14% of global output. And all this, without mentioning the vast build-up of know-how that India is harnessing in leading-edge, high-tech areas.

There is real economic and social value of retail banking, which will be increasingly important as the world faces seismic shifts. One example is mass migration of people – especially young men – from rural areas to urban centres. 

​That trend is changing the way farming is done, with more and more women becoming involved in farming activities. Another trend is smartphones that now penetrate all corners of the world. Internet is set to reach nearly everyone on the planet in the not-so-distant future while money flows continue to expand across the world and a new approach to banking is under way – especially for younger generations.

​So how are banks facing these mega challenges at local and regional level? What other forces do savings and retail banks face?

As I just alluded, banks are changing the way they approach customers, especially when it comes to the “when and where” of keeping in touch with clients. The changes are real and are transforming the banking world. For instance, the role of customers and their needs has become more active and“24/7”. New technologies are radically changing the way in which business is done. The smartphone is prime example. New players, subject to little regulation, are popping up and elbowing in to compete in the market. That said, new regulations also have an affect not only or our need for capital but our relationship with customers.

The context of all of these factors is within the chess board of globalisation. If you step back a bit, we notice that we are living in a period of unprecedented wealth creation worldwide. This is a disruption indeed. And it is gaining in scale and marked by downward pressure on price for goods and services that consumers and businesses buy. On top of globalisation’s effects, we see a “data effect”. A “data explosion” has taken hold. The level of data traffic has swelled dramatically. This is pushing us towards a future of smart networks while opening platforms for new services. The profound impact on banks and our customers cannot be ignored.

As a consequence of this, we as savings and retail banks have adapted to this digitally led ‘New Normal’. We have done it by improving the professionalism of our employees. That means they are smarter with their time, and as a result they have more face-to-face dialogue with customers, while giving them more than they expect. 

To make sense of all of this change, due to globalisation and technological breakthroughs, let me quote Pope Francis who said: “We are not living an era of change but a change of era.” ​

It’s important to describe the world around us, but it is necessary that we carve out a strategy from it. From a strategic point of view, the World Congress in New Delhi helped us identify our strengths and weaknesses as well as the threats we face and the opportunities we find. That is to say where we excel areas we perhaps fall short, and what we need to do to be leaders in an always-on, digital world.

How important is trust between savings and retail banks and their customers?

Trust is the foundation of savings and retail banking. It is based on three clear principles outlined in the WSBI New Delhi Declaration announced during the Congress. The first principle is “mutual trust”, a bond we must nurture. This mutual trust is to protect our customers’ savings and to engage with all our stake holders in a valuable way. Unless we enjoy a high level of trust with those we serve, our business … will never flourish. 

​​In banking, there is a main premise, “without trust there is no business”. And the trust of our customers is gained day by day, continuously and particularly in the most difficult times.

The second principle is “Excellence in service to our customers”, which has many aspects. It starts with having the right quality of service. 

It means relentlessly seeking excellence to provide a better valuable service for our customers, who must always be at the centre of our actions.

Putting the customer at the centre gives us greater competitive advantage, making us more sensitive to changes and allowing us to adapt to the needs of the market before our competitors. Furthermore, anticipating the market will lead us to become the best bank in quality and reputation.

Never forget, that a banker prospers when customers prosper. Achieving excellence in any profession not only depends on the characteristics of a leader or his staff but on the qualities they cultivate throughout their careers. That is why I think Aristotle was right when he said, “We are what we repeatedly do. Excellence then is not an act but a habit”.

​The third principle is aligned with the theme of our Congress: “Local banks can help bring the benefits of globalisation to society”. We cannot turn our backs on the social plights of our society. As far as we can, we must develop different programmes depending on the needs in each country or region. We have a social mission to help communities and economies to stand strong and prosper in a globalised world, particularly those communities facing real world problems like child poverty, unem - ployment, affordable housing, the elderly, palliative care, and financial exclusion.

Tell us more about financial inclusion. What is the social mission of savings and retail banks in this area?

It is one of the most effective ways to address globalisation and a pathway to welfare and progress. Our role in financial inclusion came out loud and clear during the Congress here in New Delhi. Why? Because when financial inclusion improves, more individuals are empowered, more jobs are created and the economy grows. Knowing that, WSBI members have a strong will and purpose to broaden financial inclusion. 

This WSBI World Congress in New Delhi has provided plenty of examples of how we promote financial inclusion effectively – and profitably for the bank – while adding value to customers that other entities sometimes disregard. We tackle financial inclusion by being socially responsible retail banks that supply banking services to individuals, families, entrepreneurs and micro enterprises in rural or remote geographical areas. We also serve marginal neighbour - hoods in urban areas, from younger people to those who, due to their advanced age, lack access to basic banking services. We also support micro-entrepreneurs who cannot present more guarantees than: “their own word, talent and enthusiasm”. 

Our Institute signed an agreement with the World Bank in 2016 for the implementation of the Universal Financial Access 2020 pledge, consisting of a commitment to enable hundreds of millions of people to gain access to a bank account. I am happy to say that our members are continuing to make substantial progress towards accomplishing this goal.

Regarding this international commitment, the latest available data, as of 31st December 2017, show that we, the WSBI, contributed to this goal by providing financial access to 234 million new customers, who suffered from financial exclusion. Our total number of customers worldwide has reached 1.6 billion. These figures show the tremendous potential the WSBI has when it comes to linking retail banking with financial inclusion. And as I just said, we also know that our activity must be profitable. Without profit our members would not be sustainable in the long term. By contrast, being more profitable will allow us to deliver more financial services to the most vulnerable, social segments of society. 

You stated at the WSBI World Congress issues related to keeping banking a sustainable business. What are the challenges savings and retail banks face to continue to thrive?

We, as bankers, know that one of the greatest challenges we face daily is the need to generate more income through services and, at the same time, reduce operating expenses. Banks today provide an increasing number of services to customers. That includes standard banking products, advisory and investment services, multi channel and digital payments, and many other valueadded services, such as financial planning, stock analysis, budgeting management and expense control, among others. 

Providing these services, however, with the highest quality standards comes at a cost, which should be reflected in prices. In line with our times we should revise our costs, some of which can be found in: having overstaffed headquarters, streamlining our structural networks, closely watching our financial costs, and reducing the risk of defaults and thereby impairments. I have always kept in mind, as the risk manager that I was in the 1960s, the two Warren Buffet rules. First, when you give a loan, make sure you can recover the money, and second, never forget the first rule.

In addition, we should never forget market share. We must survive by growing, offering a wider range of services for families, SMEs, large enterprises and institutions while adapting our branch networks to the different segments of the market. 

How do you see the role of branch banks? What should the modern branch be doing?

As savings and retail banks, the role of our branch networks is another crucial component in our strategies. The importance of having a strong branch network is vital. Based on my experience, I believe that in branches, the ideal thing would be for employees to dedicate 90% of their time to commercial activity and speaking to customers, while leaving the other 10% for office and administrative work.

It is paramount to ensure that the branch network is a sales network and not an administrative burden. 

Bank branches play an essential role in the service mix within an integrated multichannel distribution model. Branches allow for a personal and a more human contact with customers. 

​I would like to explain to you an anecdote concerning branches. In 1996 I had met and discussed with the Bank of America Chairman Richard Rosenberg on the issue of closing branches. On my return to Spain, I had a meeting with Bill Gates in Madrid and we talked a lot about physical branches and internet banking. I asked...“Bill, which do you think is the right strategy?” And he responded, “Isidro, I think the best one is to have both: many branches and full-on internet banking.” 


​As branches evolve, there is a digital wave sweeping over banking. How do you view digitalisation of banking? 

Digitalisation is an opportunity we as savings and retail banks cannot afford to miss. Digitalisation means revolutionising our proximity to customers. It gives us a chance to be even closer to our customers, and make our relationship with them more profitable. It’s an extraordinary “once-in-ageneration” opportunity to include through digital and mobile banking large numbers of people, from around the world, in the global economy.

It is also an opportunity to learn more about the customer by better use of Big Data as a tool, which will allow us to offer our customers better, faster and more-targeted personal services, and customer-designed products through their desired channel, which results in overall cost savings and an enhanced customer experience. In a nutshell, digitalisation gives us the best of both worlds: branch and digital. In other words, it represents the combination of human intelligence and artificial intelligence. Digitalisation entails change in our business models too. ​There is a plethora of influencing factors that include: mobile telephony, 5G, cloud computing, blockchain, Big Data, social networks, augmented and virtual reality, robotics, virtual assistants, artificial and cognitive intelligence.

To face this challenge, WSBI members must cooperate with other digital actors, setting up partnerships with financial institutions, including banks, as well as Fintechs, telecommunication companies, and even the big players in the digital world. 

It seems those who lead and manage banks are facing unprecedented forces from digitisation, demographic shifts and globalisation. What is the best formula for managing banks in this ‘New Normal’?

Good management is an essential component to successfully carry out our business activity. Managers must exercise active leadership. A high responsibility position is defined by the type of leadership the manager exercises. The role of the manager should be to empower and promote employees and set goals permanently and to encourage the spirit of improvement, perseverance and permanent updating.

Managers do not work alone, but in a team. A team, in line with my experience, is made up of people who should have the following strengths: the critical experience of thinkers; the capacity of technicians; the creativity of artists, and the sensibility of poets. For this to work, the leader and the team must engage in permanent and mutual trust. 

In terms of internal organisation, I believe that a flatter organisation creates greater operating efficiency and more focus to achieve the commercial and business goals employees must have. The basic characteristic of decentralised organisations is the delegation of authority to people at lower levels, to make decisions and take action in a more direct way. In this sense, it is important to keep in mind that authority resides in people, not in positions.

On the other hand, employees must be empowered to take quick and intelligent decisions when the satisfaction of a client needs or his loyalty is at risk. Employees should have five main attributes. First, a driving entrepreneurial spirit. They should embrace a culture of work and service with respect for people and their ideas. They should engage in dialogue based on reality and truth and be driven by social responsibility and solidarity. 

To prevent confusion and facilitate quick and right decisions, employees should have clear hierarchical lines. By doing this, the management process becomes simpler and more efficient.

If I had to summarise management, I would conclude that management is about making our people grow and helping them take decisions. Management also needs to create a good work climate with strong communication flows. And finally, management means paying people adequately.

​Our employees need to know what they do, why they do it, and what lies behind their actions. Seneca once said that “If a man does not know to which port he is sailing, no wind is favourable”. This is so true.


What management style can help bring about a ship sailing in the right direction?

Jack Welch’s leadership policy probably sums it up best. The best manager of the last century, he required the 4 “E”s from his people:

  • Energy: He wanted his employees to have energy. 
  • Energise: He wanted his people to instil energy in others. 
  • Edge: He wanted people who knew how to work on a knife edge in other words, in complex situations. 
  • Execution: He wanted people who knew how to do things and do them well.

What are the main goals that you would like to pursue during your WSBI presidency?

First of all, I will make reference to three objectives, which have been approved by the President’s Committee. The first one is focused on retention and acquisition of members. We know that customer loyalty is a key priority. Consequently, bolstering our membership base will help make WSBI stronger. Furthermore, we would like to enlarge our Institution with new members to reach countries where we do not have a presence. The more we are, the stronger we will be.

The second goal is related to global advocacy. Our target is to raise WSBI’s visibility on a global level. To achieve this milestone, we will dedicate our efforts to reinforce our profile and influence in the regional and international fields. We also want to strengthen our advocacy profile vis-à-vis international policy makers and organisations. In this sense, financial inclusion through the Universal Financial Access Goals 2020 is also part of our advocacy goal.

The third objective approved by the President’s Committee involves an exchange of best practices and know-how. Our purpose is to involve non-European Members in Committees, Task Forces and High-Level Groups to foster the exchange of practices, knowledge and experience to promote cooperation between Institution members.

Beyond the main goals, are there any specific initiatives that you would like to see through during your presidency? 

It will be important to promote financial education. This is an area where many members from the WSBI excel with strong programmes already going on. 

​I think that makes a lot of sense to get the best out of them and create specially designed programmes for WSBI members. ​These programmes could be implemented in those countries where members believe they would make a greater impact. 

The second initiative that needs to be pursued is to highlight the importance of retail banks before regulators and policy makers. We need to emphasise to them that saving and retail banks enjoy a key role in supporting local economies. We have to highlight our contribution in the real economy before national and international authorities. 

​​And third, reinforce the regional Groups of WSBI: the Asian, African and Latin American ones without forgetting the great potential the American community banks have.

What would you like readers to know about savings and retail banking? 

Retail and saving banks are always willing to support those activities and initiatives, whether public or private, that pursue human development and the improvement in the quality of life.

Not only can we do that, but we must also remain faithful to the basic 3-R Principles of WSBI, which guide our activity: Retail banks with a regional presence, and a responsible attitude towards business and society. In other words, we are deeply rooted in every corner in every country in the world.

​I see it time when saving and retail banks are obliged to give the best of themselves and to demonstrate to society that solutions to big problems exist and are within our reach. We need to show society, with projects and facts, that economic and social progress is not only possible but we can and want to achieve it. We will be absolutely committed to reach that goal.

I firmly believe that opportunities exist. All we must do is find them and give them life to continue offering our collaborators and citizens the hope of a job, the chance to feel useful, and the necessary energy to forge with their daily effort, a life with purpose and direction, a family, and a fairer society.

Digitalisation; Financial inclusion