AMONG THE SEVEN

Lebanon 2017 | FINANCE | INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Fadi Assali, Chairman of Cedrus Bank, on channeling the best technologies toward each of its banking sectors, remaining as transparent as possible, and bolstering SMEs.

 Fadi Assali
BIOGRAPHY
A former director at Barclays Wealth, Fadi Assali has extensive and diversified banking experience with a focus on wealth management and capital markets activities. At Barclays, Assali led a team of bankers covering the MENA and Gulf region. Prior to Barclays, Assali spent more than 12 years at Bank Audi-Audi Saradar Group. He was last a Regional Manager at Audi Saradar Private Bank (ASPB), where he was also a member of the latter’s management and investment committees. In this position, he covered Lebanon, the Levant, the UAE, and Saudi Arabia, and worked on integrating ASPB with other entities of the group after the Audi/Saradar merger. During his time at Bank Audi, he was also assigned to Audi Saudi Arabia, co-heading the wealth management and brokerage units. He played a key role along with Raed Khoury in preparing and following up on the application for a financial institution license with the Capital Markets Authority.

How would you evaluate the current position of Cedrus Bank in the market?

The bank quickly secured its position as an important player, both in the private banking and investment space, as well as in commercial retail. We are improving our market share at every level. In 2016, we managed around USD1 billion in assets. We have on-balance sheet business and off-balance sheet business. In the latter we are exceeding USD1.3 billion, while the consolidated figure for the former is around USD650 million. Meanwhile, we are still pursuing our organic growth strategy and improving our delivery channels. The most important of these is digital banking, human resources, and direct sales techniques. We are also focusing on the SME market on the commercial side. We also have an inorganic growth strategy that we are pursuing actively, i.e. to acquire and grow inorganically. That is why we have raised our equity from USD120 million to around USD300 million. As for branch expansion, we now have five branches. We opened two branches in the first three months of 2017. We started the process at the end of 2016. We are opening another three branches this year. Hopefully at the end of the year, we will have eight branches.

What are the main challenges that the Lebanese banking sector is currently facing?

The market for banks, deposits, and loans in Lebanon is growing less than before. There is still interesting growth in deposits, and we have a big deposit base in Lebanon. However, growth has slowed even though it is still positive. The same goes for the loan market. Banks are competing on existing business. This makes competition, pricing, products, ideas, and services quite intense. On the other side are interest rates. The interest rate on USD in Lebanon went up, as did the cost of funding in the last five months. The balance of payment in Lebanon is not as positive as it was previously because of the geo-political situation, mainly because of oil prices. Lebanon used to rely a lot on transfers from the diaspora living in oil-producing countries. This has slowed down lately because of oil prices and the difficulties business people are facing.

Why is Cedrus Bank a partner of choice for local and international players in Lebanon?

Cedrus Bank understands what private banking means. Therefore, we are quick to respond to clients' requests. Whether the answer is positive or negative, we tell people why. We provide a high level of transparent service, and we are working on alternative delivery channels to lower the reliance on our branch network. This is the global trend. Financially, it is a strong bank, given that it has a large equity of USD300 million compared to its balance sheets.

What are your priorities for 2017?

The main target is to open new branches and launch the new digital banking services we have been working on. We currently offer digital services that already exist in the market, such as third party transfers and account-to-account transfers. We are working on advanced solutions that will make the leap in the digital banking offering. We also want to launch several products targeting the SME market. But our human capital is the most important aspect for the bank. This is why we are working to establish an internal academy where we train people in everything, starting from compliance, risk, and legal issues up to business issues like different lines of private banking and commercial lending. We have a course for each subject where specialists from the bank teach the teams enrolled and are working to have Cedrus among the top seven players in the market, covering different aspects of banking.