BBAC CONTINUES TO GROW DESPITE ECONOMIC CHALLENGES

Lebanon 2019 | FINANCE | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Ghassan T. Assaf, Chairman and General Manager of BBAC, on SMEs and the bank's performance, growth plans, and corporate social responsibility.

How would you rate the Bank's performance in 2018, and what are your expectations for 2019?

BBAC performed resiliently in a year that was marked by a number of sector-wide challenges. BBAC reengineered its financial portfolio to take advantage of new opportunities, posting 5.5% deposit growth that compares favorably to the alpha average of 2.1%. Assets grew 17.3%, comfortably surpassing the alpha average of 11.3%. Despite a growing deficit in the balance of payment, BBAC scored 9% growth in foreign currency deposits, compared to the alpha average of 5.61%. The bank's performance drove up BBAC's ranking in deposits and asset growth to number five nationally, compared to 10th place prior. While net interest income declined 2.95%, the bank boosted non-interest income by prioritizing recovery on non-performing loans, enhancing financial instruments and FX trading, and developing new banking services. This led to a 5.3% growth in net profits, comparing favorably to the alpha average, which declined by 3.36%. In 2019, BBAC will reinforce positive momentum by expanding its branch networking, accelerating a transformation to digital banking, and investing in qualified human resources. These programs will allow for a 6% expected growth in deposits, driving a similar percentage increase in assets and profits.

How does BBAC target SMEs?

SMEs account for some 82% of all companies in the Lebanese economy. They are a valuable target market. BBAC has pioneered SME lending since the late seventies and is now looking to strengthen its engagement with SMEs. By the end of 2018, the bank had made 42.5% of its performing loans to SMEs. The bank offers preferential terms and zero-commission structures for cheque and cash deposits. Apart from financing to facilitate company creation, BBAC cultivates a lifecycle relationship with SME clients, and services their capital financing needs as the business expands. A recent agreement with the European Investment Bank (EIB) facilitates BBAC in offering longer-term financing to SMEs at market-beating rates. The bank also sponsors trade unions, manufacturers, and farmers across the country to develop long-term relationships, understand their requirements, and better meet their needs.

In what ways do you intend to expand your customer base?

A caring ethos is embedded in BBAC's corporate culture. Our close relationship with our clients is the cornerstone of our image and all our activities. This has even been codified in our logo. The logo's interlocking circles portray perfect synergy between two partners—with BBAC represented in blue and the client in aqua—where they both bring value to one another and grow together in mutual harmony. The pursuit of steady growth is focused on building a solid customer base relying on developing a customer-centric approach that incorporates many factors. First, BBAC intends to develop tailored products with a better value for customers, through a Client Relationship Management (CRM) solution that provides a 360-degree view of customer relationship and data insights. BBAC also aims to deliver a higher quality experience to customers by investing in IT infrastructure and upgrading technology. BBAC is catalyzing a multichannel approach where the customer experience is connected across physical branches, digital, and app channels. Expanding digital banking services will be crucial to target different customer segments. Faster and more convenient personalized transactions will boost engagement with younger audiences. Equally important we will be improving the level of BBAC's already superior customer service to satisfy all clients. Finally, BBAC is undertaking a program of physical expansion, looking at new strategic locations in Lebanon and abroad. The bank already counts 41 locations in Lebanon, three branches in Iraq, and one branch in Cyprus, in addition to two representative offices in the UAE and Nigeria.

In what terms would you describe the bank's CSR approach?

BBAC is cognizant that a responsible approach to business is a decisive factor in determining the long-term viability and success of the bank. For over 60 years, BBAC has actively engaged in a range of well-selected and tailored CSR initiatives. Among some of its most prominent areas of engagement are health and the environment, economic affairs, humanitarian and social issues, in addition to contributions in the arenas of culture and arts, sports, education and youth programs. BBAC also counts on the valuable volunteering and fundraising efforts of its employees. As examples of a few instances of the bank's social commitment, in 2010 BBAC championed the case of women's rights by being the first bank in Lebanon to welcome mothers, acknowledging their right to open a bank account for the benefit of their minor children through the “Mother Account." BBAC also offers a credit card to support the Children's Cancer Center of Lebanon (CCCL), whereby a part of the earnings are channeled to support the NGO's missions and activities. In 2012, the bank entered a partnership with the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) on the 'Live Lebanon' initiative. The three-year partnership implemented 42 projects to reach 250,000 direct and 600,000 indirect beneficiaries across the areas of economic development, healthcare, youth support, and environmental protection in rural and underdeveloped communities. For its efforts in the Live Lebanon initiative, the bank received the 2013 Social Economic Award in the 'Rural Development' category. In 2019, BBAC signed a Memorandum of Understanding with Saint Joseph University to establish a joint fund in the name of late Sheikh Toufic Assaf, who founded BBAC in 1956. The fund aims at granting scholarships to deserving students in need of assistance to pursue higher education.