JOSEPH ABRAHAM

Qatar 2021 | FINANCE | VIP INTERVIEW

TBY talks to Joseph Abraham, Group CEO of Commercial Bank of Qatar, about his tenure as leader, digital initiatives, and customer service.

How has the bank evolved in the four years since you took office?

The bank has always had a strong franchise and brand, with a 45 year history. What we have done over the last four years is re-energize that franchise by focusing on a number of key client experience and creativity projects primarily in the digital environment. We have won several awards for our digital innovation in the Middle East and we believe that more and more transactional banking will be done on a self-service basis through automation and digital access. We have also transformed our core operations and technology engine and created our own dedicated subsidiary, namely Commercial Bank Innovation Services, to manage our technology and operations in a unified manner to enhance our digital capabilities so that we can come to market very quickly with new innovations and products. We believe the agility this provides a long term competitive advantage The third area of focus is making sure everyone understands that risk control and compliance is everyone's responsibility and has to be embedded in the DNA of the Bank. Part of a prudent risk approach is diversification by sector and we have increased our business with the public sector from less than 6% to currently 12% of our loan book, the target being 16-20% in the next four-year period. We also have subsidiaries and associates in Turkey and Oman with whom we work much more collaboratively today. Finally, four years ago we had a cost-income ratio of 45%, which was higher than the market average, but today we are at 28%, which is much better and closer to the market average. We will continue to focus on each of these areas.

How has COVID-19 accelerated digital initiatives within the banking sector?

COVID-19 has accelerated the adoption of digital technology, products, and services by clients across all age groups. For example, we have implemented an online appointment system that allows clients to say what service they need in advance and what date and time is most convenient for them. This helps us to become more efficient and better manage peak hour traffic, and has reduced waiting times for our clients and has brought about a rise in client satisfaction. We would have not taken this measure so soon if COVID-19 hadn't forced us to innovate. We will also introduce more digital capabilities related to wealth management, brokerage and fund investment services.

What is the role of the banking sector in the recovery of the economy and the protection of vulnerable clients?

The implementation mechanisms for the government support package are channeled through the banking system. For example, we were the first bank to defer principal installments for six months for SME clients. Second, the government came out with the National Response Guarantee Program loan program guaranteed by the Qatar Development Bank, which allowed loans to be taken by companies for rental and wage payments for a period of time. This was also dispersed through the banking system. Similarly, the government, working through the banking system, has given deferment of principal and interest payments for a number of months for affected sectors such as hospitality, tourism, and retail. We have given a reduced rate of interest and also a deferral of loans for a period of six months to allow these sectors to manage this difficult period and get back on their feet soon. We collaborated with the Qatar Central Bank, which acted as the apex controlling institution with regular meetings with the Governor and the other bank CEOs. To us, this is an important time and we must work collaboratively for the benefit of the economy, our clients and the overall banking sector, which is of key importance to the country.

What are your growth plans in terms of new products and services to enhance your retail and corporate experience in Qatar?

Digital adoption is going to continue, so we will also continue to roll out new products and services to make transaction banking easier. For example, we have been the first in Qatar to launch digital deposit of cheques, where you just have to take a front and back photo of the cheque to be deposited into your account. Our goal is that the customer should be able to do 100% of their banking tasks without having to visit a branch. As people diversify their investments and wealth from real estate they are now looking at alternate forms of savings and investment options, whether it is, equities, bonds or annuities through insurance products. We have to be ready for this type of customer behavioural change. In Qatar, we have one of the highest concentrations of high-net-worth individuals, but we also have a lot of expatriates working here for 20 years who have built up savings. We have to focus on this diversity in demographics with different needs. Regarding corporate clients, COVID-19 will drive changes in capital structures and they may be looking at longer maturity dates in bonds and other issuances, which will change their focus from only bank debt. Across both retail and corporate, people are going to look at their cashflows, wealth, and investments more carefully and we are there to support them with a better understanding of their needs and relevant new products and services.

How would you assess your association with the Commercial Bank Qatar Masters and the larger local sport industry?

Qatar has a vision to build a diversified economy with sport as one of the key focus areas. Golf is a very international and high economic value sport so Commercial Bank is a sponsor of the Qatar Masters, which has been a European PGA event for the last 15 years. In doing so, we are supporting the National Vision as it highlights and showcases Qatar's strong travel and hospitality infrastructure, excellent golf courses. Secondly, we have started supporting Al Shaqab, a very high-profile local equestrian event. Horsemanship is a core part of the local culture so again, we are in compliance with the National Vision through sports. Both of these events have huge visibility and profile and are a great partnership supporting Qatar's visibility as an attractive sports and hospitality destination.