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Covid-19 has provided us with a fresh perspective on the way forward & led us to re-evaluate our existing model and pave a new route to a better tomorrow

Interview with Al Bayan Magazine and Vince Cook, Chief Executive Officer, NBF

Did "Covid-19" pandemic affect Arab banks businesses in general and your bank in particular, and how did you manage to deal with its impact?

The “Covid-19” pandemic left an impact on the global economy due to the large fall in demand and as such, caused a strain on the Arab banking industry among many other sectors. The situation was exacerbated by the lockdown measures that many countries had to enforce in an effort to flatten the infection curve and halt the spread of the virus. The banking sector is a reflection of the underlying business activities, and due to the slowdown that many businesses faced, banks had to not only absorb the substantial impact, but also extend support to their customers and the wider economy.

As a bank that has long regarded the SME sector as a key economic engine to the UAE, we stepped in to help our business customers navigate the challenging market conditions. For instance, we deferred principal repayments as well as interest and reduced interest rates to help SMEs reduce their overall financial expenses. We also extended incremental facilities to clients who needed help to sustain their business and offered financial support by helping them to pay their employees’ salaries, utility bills, as well as rent through short-term bridge facilities.

We are fortunate to live in the UAE, where we have the backing of the government and Central Bank of the UAE (CBUAE), who have taken extensive measures to mitigate the impact of the crisis by extending financial programmes to help alleviate the effects on individuals and corporates. At NBF, we have always adopted the partnership-first approach with our clients, especially during challenging times, where our support and counsel is needed the most. Fortunately we were able to maintain good levels of capital and liquidity to meet the challenges without undue fear.

What are other challenges you are facing?

Just like other banks and businesses in the market, we are still absorbing the impact brought forth by the global pandemic and the inevitable slowdown in response times across all areas of activity, but we are now more focused on our recovery model. This has been a critical transitionary period and at NBF, our strategy has been not only to respond to these changes with agility, but to thrive on them, further enhancing and strengthening our offerings. The pandemic has provided us with a fresh perspective on the way forward and led us to re-evaluate our existing model and pave a new route to a better tomorrow. At NBF, our customer’s evolving requirements have always served as a guide to our development journey, and we will continue to grow our services to meet their ever-shifting needs.

How has digital transformation impacted any of your existing branches?

The movement towards digitisation was a focus of ours well before the pandemic, so we were well equipped to sustain the transition in an effective manner. Our new branches were increasingly becoming more digitised, and our customers have responded well to emerging technology. Moreover, we have been integrating automation and robotics to eliminate paper work from banking processes and on the corporate banking side, developed trade finance payment facilities and other digital platforms to continue enhancing our offering.

This early work enabled us to respond to remote operations very quickly and I am very proud to say we did not experience any downtime in our service provision throughout the pandemic. Similarly, customers have responded to the availability of many of our online services and the adoption rate has exploded to the point where some of the levels of utilisation that we are seeing now we had not expected earlier for another few years.

The retail banking sector has been affected a lot this year with the spread of the Coronavirus. What are the bank’s plans to deal with that and what are the most prominent products and technological banking services that the bank aims to launch?

While NBF is a corporate-first bank, we still have a retail offering that accommodates a range of customers. When we zoom in on retail banking, we can see how digital transformation is at the very centre of its development journey. This year in particular, the global pandemic has truly accelerated the movement towards digital transformation, and implementing digital solutions was absolutely critical to the continuity of the banking sector. We had adopted an agile mindset and we understand that things are now evolving at a much faster pace than they used to, and thus, tried to remain ahead of the curve.

For instance, NBF has made significant advancements in digitization resulting in improvements in customer experience, enhanced efficiency through automation and optimisation, improved security and better resilience.  We have pioneered many technology implementations such as automated DR (Disaster Recovery), moving towards open banking architecture with Service Oriented Architecture as a backbone and fully automated end of day business processes. Since 2017, we have also pioneered in Robotic Process Automation (RPA) and Intelligent Process Automation (IPA) for the major processes in the bank, far ahead of our peer banks in terms of the outputs.

We are also at the forefront of many of the country’s efforts to become a cashless society, as we have partnered with the Ministry of Finance to launch eDirham Instant, the latest digital payment method that allows customers to pay for governmental fees and services using online banking. We also went live with the Emirates Digital Wallet ‘klip’, a cashless payment application that allows customers to store, transfer and conduct payments in a seamless and secure manner.

What are the latest achievements and developments of your bank?

As a dedicated financial partner to businesses in the UAE, we have always recognised the value of SMEs as a key pillar for the UAE, and as such, wanted to extend our support to the business community at a time when they needed it the most.  We strove to be the first in the UAE to digitise this vital sector by launching NBF CONNECT - a bespoke platform that was co-created by SMEs, for SMEs. We wanted to create a one-stop shop for businesses and empower them with resources and foster a collaborative community to help them navigate the current environment. The results were highly successful and the response from the community was overwhelmingly positive.

Our efforts in the SME sector did not go unnoticed, as we gained special recognition as the ‘Best SME Bank’ at the MEA Finance Awards 2020. We have now served our SME clientele for over a decade, and over the years, our award winning SME banking team has carved out a reputation for a being committed partner that is there for its clients in times of adversity.

What is your outlook for the coming years?

Given the macroeconomic conditions, we have seen the banking sector operate in the toughest environment given heightened uncertainty levels. We still expect the relative slowdown in credit growth to continue, as industries right-size. Therefore, banks are required to maintain caution to navigate this evolving environment. At NBF, we believe we can move beyond these conditions and continue to fulfill our role as the financial partner for business, focused on our customers’ personal and professional needs.