Central & Eastern Europe

Bank of the Year Awards 2021 — central and eastern Europe

Banka Kombëtare Tregtare

Albania

Albania’s economic momentum was hit hard by the Covid-19 pandemic, and gross domestic product contracted by 4% in 2020, according to the World Bank. Mirroring developments across the region, an increase in unemployment and a fall in private consumption exacerbated problems for the country’s banks. But the winner of the Albania country award for 2021, Banka Kombëtare Tregtare (BKT), demonstrated a mix of resilience and customer service excellence to ensure it beat the competition. Over the 2020 review period, the bank registered an increase in net profits, as well as total assets and Tier 1 capital position. This strong performance was reflected in a rising return on equity, which reached 20.1% from 19.7% in the previous year, along with an impressive cost-to-income ratio of 35.8%. 

“Covid-19 has validated our investments in technology in general and mobile banking in particular over the past couple of years. Similarly, our very liquid balance sheet offered us opportunities when the crisis hit, resulting in our most profitable year ever,” says Seyhan Pencablıgil, chief executive of BKT. 

BKT’s core banking system is in the process of being upgraded to a module-based system. As part of this process, the payment module – one of the most important components – has been removed from the original Oracle Flexcube and migrated to Oracle Business Payments (OBP). This change has permitted an increase in the straight-through processing rate, as well as a reduction in processing time and associated errors. Indeed, this marks a notable moment in the evolution of the bank’s capabilities given that OBP is a modern platform constructed on the ISO 20022 standard messaging framework. As a result, BKT will be able to comply with local and global payment standards while facilitating real-time payments. This upgrade will also permit the first use of Swift gpi in Albania. 

Meanwhile, BKT has worked hard to develop new products and services for the Albanian market. This includes the launch of a mortgage loan product in which the bank will provide 100% financing for the purchase of a second home, either as an investment or as a holiday home. 

Ardshinbank

Armenia

Armenia’s banking sector endured a number of difficulties in 2020. Not only were the country’s lenders faced with a global pandemic, by September of that year war had broken out with Azerbaijan. Though the conflict lasted just over a month, it put pressure on an already strained economy. Even so, Ardshinbank, the winner of Armenia’s 2021 Bank of the Year award, shrugged off these problems to register strong growth. In 2020 the lender’s net profits increased by 6%, while its total assets and Tier 1 capital rose by 27.2% and 4.2%, respectively. This was accompanied by an increase in the bank’s return on equity, which reached 13.1%, while cost-to-income ratio improved, falling from 38% to 31.1%. The bank credits this performance to, among other things, its ability to provide an outstanding customer relationships both digitally and in person. 

“We try to make access to digital products even more secure for our customers on a daily basis, but we do not abandon the traditional banking toolkit, as we are convinced that the behavioural transformation should take place gradually, without drastic actions in the customer-bank relationship,” says Artak Ananyan, chief executive of Ardshinbank.

Meanwhile, Ardshinbank’s $300m eurobond placement in early 2020 was a resounding success. The issuance received a rating of Baa3 from ratings agency Moody’s, while Fitch designated it B+ in line with that of the sovereign. The eurobond’s coupon of 6.5% was the lowest ever attained by a non-sovereign issuer in the Armenian market, indicating the bank’s strong fundamentals. Through this transaction, Ardshinbank has been able to halve its borrowing costs. Meanwhile, during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic, Ardshinbank provided a number of relief measures for consumers and businesses alike, including the extension of credit holiday deadlines by two and a half months. 

“We will continue to deepen our co-operation with international institutional investors and financial institutions, in particular, regarding commercial financing and small and medium-sized enterprise lending. We will maintain our leading position in the Armenian financial market both in terms of financial indicators and high quality of service with a wide selection of banking services,” says Mr Ananyan.  

ABB

 Azerbaijan

Azerbaijan’s economic fortunes dipped in 2020, in common with economies across the Caucasus, as the twin effects of the Covid-19 pandemic and lower oil prices hit the country’s growth momentum. Yet effective fiscal and monetary responses from Azerbaijan’s public authorities have ensured that the economy is well positioned to recover over the next two years, while improving global energy prices could also provide an uplift moving forward. 

The International Bank of Azerbaijan (ABB), the winner of the 2021 country award, has navigated this changing environment well. Not only has it managed to strengthen its capital position but it has also embarked on a number of exciting initiatives to promote social and economic development across the country.

Over the course of 2020, the bank’s Tier 1 capital position grew by 14%, following a 30% increase in 2019. Though its profitability took a hit over the review period, the lender seems well positioned to benefit from Azerbaijan’s economic recovery. Meanwhile, the launch of the ABB Tech Academy at the end of 2019 underscored the bank’s mission to support the country’s wider social development. With a mission to nurture human capital, especially in the field of information technology, the academy conducts coding sessions across a range of domains such as back-end and front-end web and mobile development, cybersecurity and machine learning, among many others. Students learn through theory, as well as practical, lessons and are trained by international experts. Since being launched in 2019, about 300 young people have passed through the academy, helping to address a lack of skilled IT professionals in Azerbaijan. 

Meanwhile, ABB has partnered with Azerbaijan Railways, Visa and the Central Bank of Azerbaijan to launch the country’s first contactless fare payment system on the rail network. Through a memorandum of understanding signed between the four parties, the measures will be deployed to develop contactless payments across the existing network, as well as Azerbaijan’s transport sector in general. Beyond these efforts, ABB was one of the first financial institutions in the country to launch Swift gpi, giving the bank’s clients a new suite of payment opportunities in line with international standards.  

Alfa-Bank Belarus 

Belarus

In the highly competitive Belarusian banking market, Alfa-Bank Belarus emerges as the clear winner based on its peerless advances in digital banking, as well as its commitment to supporting small and medium-sized enterprises in the country. Beyond these impressive achievements, however, the lender has also performed admirably under challenging circumstances in recent years. In 2020, its net profits jumped by 149.4%, while its Tier 1 capital and total assets rose by 45% and 22%, respectively. Encouragingly, Alfa-Bank Belarus’s cost-to-income ratio improved considerably over the same period, falling to 33.7% from 52.7%. Asset quality remained stable, with its ratio of non-performing loans steady at 2%. In addition, its return on equity climbed to 37.2% in 2020 from 19.7% the previous year. 

Beyond the numbers, however, Alfa-Bank Belarus has also made significant progress with its agenda to enhance customer service through digital change. “This year, the strategy of Alfa-Bank Belarus has been built around improving the digital customer experience. It has become clear that Covid-19 is here to stay and the world will never be the same. Our challenge was not just to digitise, but to rethink the online customer journey,” says CEO Sergei Malyshev. 

Alfa-Bank Belarus’s open banking project, known as Alfa Open API, has experienced swift growth since it was launched in 2018. Service development has been accompanied by a huge uptick in partnership activity, with the number of partners growing by about 200% over the past year. At present, application programming interfaces, or APIs, cover more than 75% of the lender’s total remote banking functionality. Meanwhile, the launch of Alfa-Checkout, an all-in-one digital solution for merchants, covering everything from instant checkouts to payments and cash accounting, has been a game-changing addition to the country’s banking market. 

“For entrepreneurs who have just started their business, we have offered convenient digital channels and free service packages. This is especially important for the development of small businesses in Belarus. The client of Alfa-Bank can receive prompt advice 24/7 at any point of contact, be it branch, chat, contact centre, social media, forums or stores,” says Mr Malyshev. 

Raiffeisen Bank Bosna i Hercegovina

 Bosnia and Herzegovina

Bosnia and Herzegovina’s fast-growing banking market may offer abundant opportunities for growth but it is also highly competitive. As a result, only the most agile and innovative lenders can prosper in the country. The winner of the 2021 Bank of the Year award, Raiffeisen Bank Bosna i Hercegovina, demonstrated a range of market-leading innovations, coupled with a notable commitment to sustainability, that ensured its victory in a challenging market. 

“We are proud that we have upgraded and offered new digital services, adapting to new market conditions and trends. It is especially important in conditions of the Covid-19 pandemic which emphasised the importance of business digitisation,” says James Stewart, chairman of the management board, Raiffeisen Bank Bosna i Hercegovina.

In 2020, the bank launched two premium cards that offer a range of new privileges for its customers. The Mastercard Elite debit and credit cards come with a concierge service for certain functions such as booking a holiday, access to more than 900 airport lounges around the world through a ‘LoungeKey’, as well as Boingo wi-fi on up to four different devices. In addition, customers can apply online for a range of products and services, including account opening, debit card applications, insurance services or an overdraft. It is also developing an online application process for mortgages. 

For its premium and small and medium-sized enterprise clients, the lender launched RaiConnect, a communication platform that permits direct video or phone contact between a customer and a relationship manager. This service also allows for the easy exchange of information and documentation between the two parties. It represents a first for the Bosnian market.  

Raiffeisen Bank Bosna i Hercegovina’s sustainability strategy continues to play an important role in supporting various social causes across the country. This includes providing financial support and education to the communities it serves. In 2020, the bank helped to fund 40 projects focusing on children’s wellbeing, while supporting various causes during religious festivities and New Year’s holidays that concentrate on children and those with special needs. 

UniCredit Bulbank 

Bulgaria

The Covid-19 pandemic has hit Bulgaria and its banking sector hard. Gross domestic product growth contracted by 4.2% in 2020, while profits across the banking sector dropped considerably. In this difficult operating environment, the winner of the Bulgaria country award, UniCredit Bulbank, stepped up to offer an almost peerless level of support to its customers and the wider market. This includes loan moratoria and bespoke solutions to clients in high-risk sectors, as well as the transmission of government support schemes for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). Beyond this, however, the bank also donated generously to the two biggest hospitals in Bulgaria, along with the national health ministry, to support efforts to combat the pandemic. 

“The pandemic added new challenges to the ones that the banking sector was already faced with, including low interest rates, pressure on margins and the changing dynamics of the financial sector with the emergence of new technologies and competitors. We are proud that in such a demanding context our bank was able to both maintain its leading position and continue to support our customers through a very challenging period for all of us,” says Tsvetanka Mintcheva, chief executive of UniCredit Bulbank. 

UniCredit Bulbank has also established a reputation for being a leader in the field of sustainable finance. To this end, it has rolled out a suite of environmental, social and governance (ESG) linked products and services to the Bulgarian market. Its Green Initiative provides loans to SMEs for investments in energy efficiency equipment, while its designated green mortgage is available to customers that purchase a home with a high energy efficiency rating. The lender also offers microloans with a discounted interest rate for underserved groups, including women and elderly entrepreneurs. 

“Being the leading bank on the market is also a significant social responsibility, which means a constant commitment to contributing to the development of our society through different ESG initiatives and projects. This is a responsibility we take seriously with ESG embedded in how we do business and support our clients and communities on a daily basis,” says Ms Mintcheva. 

OTP Bank Croatia

 Croatia

In Croatia’s highly dynamic banking market, OTP Bank stands apart from the competition based on its commitment to innovation and customer service, as well as its commendable efforts in supporting the country’s economy through the difficulties of 2020. Not only did Croatia endure the social and economic consequences of the Covid-19 pandemic, but it was also hit by two powerful earthquakes. In this challenging operating environment, the bank provided a high degree of support to both its customers and society at large. This included donations to 10 hospitals worth a total of €670,000, while the lender also launched a programme called Round Up, in partnership with Mastercard, to contribute to improved healthcare for Croatian children around the country. 

“Social responsibility has remained at the heart of everything we do. In that spirit, we connected our core business with humanitarian actions, having created a unique Round Up programme engaging our clients and employees in using bank services to support Croatian hospitals’ children wards,” says Balázs Békeffy, president of OTP Bank Croatia. 

During the height of the pandemic, OTP Bank Croatia offered loan moratoria and other forms of support for its customers through its digital channels in what was a market-leading initiative. In June 2021 the bank went live with audio and video chat support for the full range of its digital channels. Biometric authentication and authorisation methods were added to OTP Croatia’s mobile banking service. Beyond remote channels, the lender has also revamped its branch locations by offering free wi-fi, as well as digital kiosks, to act as a central point of information for customers when they enter, coupled with a dedicated branch radio station known as OTP Jukebox. 

“While we will keep the focus on exploiting new market potential, we will advance the digitalisation of our services, both in transactional and lending services. As an environmentally committed company, the environmental, social and governance integration will remain among the bank management’s priority objectives. This will create the opportunity to develop new projects and services, which already include the transition to 100% renewable energy and the initiative to become a plastic-free bank,” says Mr Békeffy. 

Komerční banka 

Czech Republic

The Czech Republic’s banking market is one of the most advanced in central and eastern Europe. Competition between banks is high, putting pressure on margins, while high levels of customer sophistication require the very best in terms of products and services. Traditional lenders are also facing increased pressure from fintech and other non-bank players, meaning constant innovation and improvement are needed for mainstream banks to stay relevant. Komerční banka has managed to combine all of these attributes, alongside impressive balance sheet strength, to secure the Bank of the Year award for 2021. 

In 2021, Komerční banka selected Temenos Transact to fulfil its next-generation core banking requirements. As the lender looked to future-proof its growth, it chose this core banking system for the range of benefits it could deliver across an array of functions. In terms of account management, the system will reduce the time to market for new current, savings and deposit account services, as well as lending products, while enhancing straight-through processing across the full spectrum of its retail and corporate banking businesses. In addition, by simplifying information technology systems, the Temenos platform will permit the bank to generate new products and bring them to market swiftly. 

Perhaps most importantly, the core banking system’s application programming interface-first technology will allow the bank to fast-track the development and integration of new services internally and with selected partners, as it looks to increase its banking value proposition for clients. Komerční banka views the modernisation of its core banking platform as a vital step in underscoring its leadership in digital banking. 

Komerční banka’s response to the pandemic has been extensive. By mid-June 2021, 15.2bn koruna ($690m) in funds had been allocated across the economy under its Covid-19 programme. In addition, the bank’s Covid Invest initiative is open to legal entities across the country with up to 500 employees to invest in both tangible and intangible assets, while its Covid Plus offering is designed to help large local employers maintain the requisite liquidity positions to sustain their operations.

LHV Bank  

Estonia

Estonia’s LHV Bank seen an enviable period of growth over the past few years, thanks in large part to its ability to adapt to meet evolving customer needs. In 2020, the lender’s net profits increased by 57%, while its total assets and Tier 1 capital rose by 64% and 25%, respectively. Notably, all three of these metrics also expanded in double-digit terms in 2019. As a result, LHV Bank’s return on equity soared to 17.3% in 2020, up from 13.8% in 2019. Its ratio of non-performing loans remained steady over this period, at just 0.2%, while the bank’s cost-to-income ratio improved, falling to 41% from 53.2%. 

“LHV and the country’s financial sector are influenced by large trends like increasing expectations of technological solutions, the need to step up environmental, social and governance (ESG) implementation and dealing with the impact of Covid-19. In Estonia, a renewed investment boom has also triggered refurbishment of investment solutions, and we at LHV, as the market leader, have upgraded our wide range of services,” says chief executive Kadri Kiisel. 

Over the course of 2020 and 2021, the lender has worked hard to upgrade its investment services offerings for clients. This included launching a regular online webinar to educate retail clients, as well as a dedicated financial literacy YouTube programme for younger clients. The bank has also reduced its trading fees for local Baltic shares to zero, while dropping its safekeeping fee for these same securities, among many other initiatives. Meanwhile, LHV Bank joined the UN Principles for Responsible Banking in 2020 and lowered interest rates on green loan products, as part of its wider efforts to promote sustainability within the bank and across Estonia. 

“With the ambition of becoming the largest bank in Estonia, LHV is an influencer bank in our markets. In the future our customers can expect a stronger focus on environmental issues and ESG. As we aim to be the best banking partner to international fintechs, we also develop new solutions to complement our real-time euro and pound payment services,” says Ms Kiisel. 

TBC Bank 

Georgia

Georgia’s economic recovery from the Covid-19 pandemic has been swift. Between January and August 2021, economic output expanded by 12% year-on-year, according to the World Bank. The country’s full year gross domestic product growth is expected to hit 8%. Yet major scarring to the economy can still be seen in some areas. In particular, high levels of unemployment persist, with about 22% of the population out of work. Over the medium term, however, Georgia’s economic outlook is expected to return to its pre-pandemic potential of between 5% and 5.5%, according to World Bank estimates. In this context, the future looks bright for the winner of the Georgia country award, TBC Bank.

In 2020, TBC Bank launched a mobile application for its business customers. The app offers identical features to its existing online banking proposition, but allows business clients to conduct their banking operations on the go. In addition, the app can facilitate the digital onboarding of newly registered enterprises in Georgia. By May 2021, the business banking app boasted 23,800 users, which represents about 29% of the lender’s total active business clients. Meanwhile, throughout 2020 and 2021, TBC Bank launched a number of new features on its mobile and internet offerings for retail customers. These include a fully digital onboarding process, as well as a digital card on the app to complement their physical cards. In addition, pre-approved consumer loans are now available. 

In terms of its international expansion, TBC Bank has made significant progress with the launch of its Uzbek unit in 2020. The bank is primarily serving clients through its digital channels, although it also boasts three smart, next-generation branches and 25 outlets in terms of a physical footprint. The bank is currently catering to the retail segment of the market, although it will soon expand to serve micro, small and medium-sized enterprises across the country. TBC is also active in Uzbekistan’s payment market through the bank’s subsidiary unit Payme. Throughout 2020, Payme increased its revenue by 95% year-on-year.  

OTP Bank Hungary

Hungary

OTP Bank Hungary produced a strong set of results over the past 18 months, despite the challenges that the Hungarian economy has endured. Crucially, asset quality remained steady over 2020, with the bank’s ratio of non-performing loans staying just north of 3%. Though the pandemic took its toll in terms of profitability, the lender nevertheless benefited from strong total assets growth as well as a rock-solid capital position over the period. Beyond its performance figures, however, OTP Bank has consistently demonstrated a market-leading approach to product and service innovation.

The launch of OTP Target Date Funds in May 2021 is a case in point. Designed as a tool to serve its clients’ long-term saving and financial objectives, the offering consists of six fixed-term fund of fund products. Subscription to the funds can be made through the OTP Regular Savings Programme, which opens up the possibility of investing only small amounts on a monthly basis in any of the six funds. The maturity profile of each fund ranges from five to 30 years and they boast a globally balanced investment mix. As the funds move closer to their maturity date, the investment mix becomes more conservative. 

Meanwhile, through the course of the pandemic, OTP Bank Hungary launched a series of online campaigns to assist customers on their digital banking journeys. In terms of lending, constant monitoring of different economic sectors and specific customers ensured that lending conditions could be adjusted to help clients through the crisis. The bank also donated 1.7bn forint ($5.21m) to healthcare institutions across Hungary. 

“As a frontrunner in digital innovation and one of the most stable banking groups in the region, OTP was well positioned to cope with the unprecedented challenges of the past 18 months. We had introduced several end-to-end digital processes, including online account opening and in consumer lending, before the pandemic struck in 2020. As the pandemic sped up digitalisation trends, OTP responded in kind. We have launched completely redesigned mobile applications and our internet bank in 2021, meeting the most recent digital demands of our clients,” says Gábor Kolics, managing director of group acquisition and integration directorate, OTP Bank. 

Banka Kombëtare Tregtare Kosova  

Kosovo

Banka Kombëtare Tregtare (BKT) Kosova’s growth trajectory has been firmly on the up in recent years and 2020 was no exception. The lender’s net profits increased by 80.8%, after expanding by 39.8% in 2019, while its total assets and Tier 1 capital grew by 25.1% and 32.4%, respectively. These figures were accompanied by improvements to the lender’s cost-to-income ratio, which improved to 41.4% from 56.3% over the same period. Its ratio of non-performing loans, meanwhile, registered a small decrease to 2% from 2.04%. This success stems from BKT Kosova’s ability to constantly innovate and provide the highest levels of customer service to its clients. 

“The bank pursued the strategy of supporting Kosovo’s economy, with an acceleration of a full range of digital banking solutions, both for businesses and individuals. BKT Kosova has been a pioneer in implementing numerous products and services in the Kosovo market. All these efforts are aligned to be close to customers in every mode they choose, be it physically or digitally, offering all sorts of banking services and solutions,” says Suat Bakkal, chief executive and board member.

Over the course of 2020, the bank updated the user interface for both its internet banking and mobile offerings, on iOS and Android. The aim was to make the customer experience easier and more intuitive, and BKT Kosova achieved this by including interactive banking dashboards for enhanced user information viewing and management. The lender also improved two-factor authentication security components, ensuring that customers felt secure when using these channels. 

In a first for the Kosovar banking sector, BKT Kosova also launched a digital loan product through its mobile banking app. “Continuing with efforts to bring innovation and opportunities to the customer, the bank aims to focus on disruptive technologies which provide banking needs, such as e-commerce platforms which will bring innovation in terms of purchasing options, product variety and payment methods. The platform will provide e-commerce investments to a wide network of business partners in the field of real estate, vehicles, home appliances, furniture and technology,” says Mr Bakkal. 

Signet Bank 

Latvia

Latvia’s Signet Bank has enjoyed a robust period of growth over the past few years. In 2020 alone, net profits increased by 47.6%, while total assets and Tier 1 capital rose by 7.4% and 6.2%, respectively. These strong numbers contributed to the bank’s return on equity increasing during a global pandemic, reaching 5.7% over the year, up from 5% in 2019. In tandem, Signet Bank’s cost-to-income ratio improved, falling to 76% from 85%, while the proportion of non-performing loans fell from 3.45% to 1.14%. 

This success is partly down to the bank’s expansion in the domestic market over the past two years, where it has focused on servicing local entrepreneurs and their businesses. In addition, Signet Bank emerged as one of the early adopters of instant payments in Latvia. In 2020, in an effort to deepen its offering to corporate customers, Signet Bank became a certified advisor on the Nasdaq First North Market in Latvia. Nasdaq First North Market is an alternative exchange for small and medium-sized enterprises. This permits Signet Bank to help emerging Latvian companies through the First North application process and guarantee their compliance with all market requirements. 

In 2020, five issues of fixed income securities were arranged by Signet Bank, which helped these clients to generate more than €20m on the stock market. The lender’s role has positioned it as a key leader in the domestic market and an important player in the wider Baltic region. Indeed, in the first six months of 2021 Signet Bank worked on three bond transactions worth a total of €60m, meaning it has secured a prominent position in the issuance of securities in Latvia. 

In 2021, Signet Bank plans to facilitate financing to Baltic issuers through bond transactions worth more than €100m. This plan is nothing if not ambitious, both from a macroeconomic perspective and in terms of company financing. In 2020, for example, the total amount of new loans provided to non-financial corporations in Latvia was less than €700m, according to the bank.  

Siaulių bankas

 Lithuania

Unlike much of the rest of Europe, Lithuania’s economy contracted only mildly during the peak of the Covid-19 pandemic in 2020, with gross domestic product falling by just 0.9% over the year, according to rating agency Fitch. For the country’s banks, this good news is underscored by the fact that economic prospects appear bright: growth is expected to exceed 4% over 2021 and 2022. In this dynamic market context, the winner of the Lithuania country award, Siaulių bankas, is well positioned to build on its recent successes and prosper even further over the medium term.

Although the lender’s net profits dropped in 2020, it expanded its Tier 1 capital by 59%, while total assets grew by 21%. Its cost-to-income ratio remained steady at 42%; however, its non-performing exposures worsened slightly over the course of the year. Beyond its performance figures, the bank has taken a number of notable steps to progress its suite of digital product and service offerings. This includes the launch of a mobile application that permits secure log-in through mobile signature or smart ID, in addition to a biometric fingerprint or PIN code. Upon launching the app, a client’s account information is readily accessible. Moreover, instant payments are available through the app at any time, including weekends and public holidays. 

The bank has also received a licence to offer term deposits in Austria, the Netherlands, France and Spain, while it is already offering this product in Germany through third-party deposit platform Raisin.

“In 2019, Siaulių bankas presented its positioning strategy based on customer needs. It is not just part of our brand image, it is a measure of all our actions, the daily question of ‘is it closer to the customer?’ and, of course, a personal contribution of every bank employee to make the customer feel our bank is closer. Being closer to the customer is also the focus of our future, because all the bank’s plans and strategies are primarily based on the slogan ‘Your bank – closer to you’,” says Vytautas Sinius, chief executive of Siaulių bankas.

Moldova Agroindbank 

Moldova

Moldova’s economy has bounced back quickly from the difficulties of 2020, even after gross domestic product contracted by 7% over the course of the year. By the second quarter of 2021, private consumption had reached close to pre-pandemic norms after a strong increase in wages was accompanied by a healthy flow of remittances and social transfers, according to the World Bank. In addition, investment activity was also strong, partly as a result of the favourable monetary environment that has prevailed across the country. As a consequence, Moldova’s economic outlook appears bright. 

The winner of this year’s Moldova country award, Moldova Agroindbank, has charted a course through this changing environment well. Much of the bank’s success is down to its clear and well-executed strategy, which is built around peerless customer relationships. Over the years it has also developed a reputation for the quality of the innovations it has delivered to Moldova’s banking market. The bank is not resting on its laurels, however, and continues to play an important role when it comes to product and service offerings for its customers across the country. 

The success of MAIBank, the lender’s mobile banking app, is a case in point. The number of clients using MAIBank has doubled since the end of 2019, with more than 230,000 active customers making use of the platform. 

Meanwhile, in pursuit of the ambition of being available 24/7 in any location across the country, Moldova Agroindbank has also launched currency exchange ATMs. Through this service, both customer and non-customers are able to change euros, US dollars or Moldovan lei without having to queue at a bank branch and at a time that is convenient for them. The lender also offers the ability for customers to cash in and out of ATMs using a code generated through their mobile apps, in cases where a card is not available. 

Beyond these additions to ATM offerings, Moldova Agroindbank has also made peer-to-peer payments easier. Through the MAIBank application, customers can simply scan a QR code or even choose a beneficiary from their phone contacts to transfer money. 

Crnogorska Komercijalna Banka

Montenegro

Montenegro’s tourism-dependent economy contracted by close to 15% in 2020, as the influx of foreign visitors came to a halt. Yet Crnogorska Komercijalna Banka (CKB) has continued to register robust growth figures despite the economic slowdown. Over the course of 2020, the bank’s total assets expanded by close to 67%, while its Tier 1 capital position increased by 56.5%. Encouragingly, the bank’s cost-to-income ratio and ratio of non-performing loans both decreased over the same period. Though its net profits took a hit as a result of the economic situation in the country, CKB is nevertheless well positioned to benefit from an expected economic turnaround over the next two years. 

In December 2020, CKB successfully completed the integration of Podgorička Banka, a fellow Montenegrin lender acquired by Hungary’s OTP Group, which also owns CKB. Given that the bulk of the merger occurred during the height of the pandemic, most of the operational procedures were executed remotely. The synergies that have resulted from the merger should help to elevate CKB to the next stage of its growth story. Meanwhile, the bank has continued to unveil a number of market-leading offerings. In January 2020, CKB became the first bank in Montenegro to adopt Apple Pay. As the only lender offering this service, CKB considers it to be a significant advantage when it comes to the acquisition of new clients. 

Meanwhile, in partnership with the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD), CKB has launched an energy efficiency programme for homes in Montenegro to support green investments. This forms part of the EBRD’s Green Economy Financing Facility, with a credit line of €2m which homeowners can use. Investments made through the programme will be used to assist households to become increasingly energy efficient while reducing their greenhouse emissions and improving their standards of living. The bank’s clients are able to choose the technologies they would prefer to invest in by looking through an online catalogue of pre-approved energy-efficient equipment that is available in Montenegro. This includes technologies and fittings like solar water heaters, high-efficiency boilers, thermal insulation and double-glazed windows.   

Komercijalna Banka AD Skopje 

North Macedonia’s economy contracted by 4.5% in 2020, as the Covid-19 pandemic took its toll on both private consumption and investment. Even so, some sectors of the economy managed to sustain growth throughout the year, including agriculture, real estate and information and communications technology (ICT), according to the World Bank. In this environment, Komercijalna Banka AD Skopje registered an impressive set of growth figures. Net profits expanded by 6.2%, while total assets and Tier 1 capital grew by 7.8% and 4.8%, respectively. The lender’s return on equity, which hit 13.9%, as well as its cost-to-income ratio and ratio of non-performing loans, improved year-on-year. 

Over the past 18 months, the bank successfully completed a new ICT collaboration platform that permits not only the digital signing of documents, but also the exchange of these files in digital format. This completely paperless functionality can be applied externally with the bank’s clients and also as part of its internal operations. As a result, the lender’s workflow processes have been dramatically shortened while compliance with international standards has been maintained, creating a more efficient and dynamic bank. 

Meanwhile, in the last quarter of 2020, Komercijalna Banka AD Skopje launched a new type of loan in the North Macedonian market; a hybrid product known as a SMART loan. Through this offering, which is a combination of a consumer loan and credit card, customers can use the funds for multiple uses with a maximum loan figure of 400,000 denar ($7428). According to the lender, the product is the first of its kind in North Macedonia’s banking market. 

“The bank will undertake all necessary activities to adjust to the new situation related to the economic recovery in the country while focusing primarily on maintaining the quality of the portfolio in the next period and finding flexible solutions to meet the requirements of our clients. Our focus will remain on digitalisation in all segments of operation, continuous improvement of the organisation of operations, further improvements in e-banking and mobile banking, and corporate social responsibility,” says Hari Kostov, chief executive of Komercijalna Banka AD Skopje. 

BNP Paribas Bank Polska 

Poland

Poland’s status as a central and eastern European financial hub is gaining traction. The size and sophistication of its banking sector is testament to this development. As a result, the winner of the 2021 country award, BNP Paribas Bank Polska, has demonstrated a truly outstanding level of innovation and product development to see off the competition, and it has done so while recording an impressive set of financial results in challenging conditions. In 2020 the bank’s net profits increased by 19.3%, while its total assets and Tier 1 capital grew by 8.8% and 6.8%, respectively. These figures were accompanied by an expansion of the lender’s return on equity, which reached 6.3%, while its cost-to-income ratio and ratio of non-performing loans both improved over the same period.

BNP Paribas Bank Polska has worked to ensure that its branches meet the requirements of all of its customers, including individuals with hearing or speech impediments. From June 2020, the bank has successfully deployed the free assistance of a sign language interpreter across its physical locations. This has been achieved through the use of a tablet in each branch from which hearing-impaired individuals can connect with an interpreter to learn more about the bank’s offerings in Polish sign language. Notably, this service can also be secured through a customer’s smartphone by scanning a QR code in the branch. For visually impaired customers, bank branches come equipped with magnifying glasses and signature frames. 

In a sign of how seriously the bank is taking its sustainability goals, BNP Paribas Bank Polska launched an AgriEmission calculator in 2021. Through this offering, agricultural companies and farmers are able to determine the greenhouse gas emissions that are generated through their activities. This is completely free of charge and takes only 15 to 30 minutes to calculate. The only information that is required from livestock or crop producers concerns the input of simple breed and cultivation data. The final report includes total carbon dioxide equivalent emissions from production, among other useful data points. 

Raiffeisen Bank Romania 

Romania

Raiffeisen Bank Romania has achieved a number of outstanding milestones with respect to its sustainable finance agenda over the past few years. Among them was the issuance of a first green bond by a Romanian bank in the local market in May 2021. Addressed to institutional investors, the transaction attracted strong demand and raised 400.5m leu ($93m). The bonds have a maturity of five years and a fixed coupon of 3.086%. This places them just 0.5 percentage points over the yield of sovereign securities in the country. The issuance was almost 1.6 times oversubscribed and brought in an orderbook of 650m leu. The funds generated through the transaction will be used to fund the bank’s list of eligible projects as it shepherds the Romanian economy’s transition to a more sustainable and environmentally-friendly future. 

Moreover, in June 2021, Raiffeisen Bank Romania issued its inaugural minimum requirement for own funds and eligible liabilities (MREL) 7NC6 (contractual maturity of seven years, callable after six years) 1.2bn leu senior non-preferred green bond. As such, it was the largest corporate bond ever issued in Romania and the second green bond issued by the lender. As a consequence of this second green bond issuance, Raiffeisen Bank Romania became the first bank in the central and eastern Europe region with two green bonds outstanding. Together, they have a total volume of €320m. These achievements, and others, point to the seriousness with which the bank is taking its work in facilitating the transition to a low-carbon future. 

Beyond these endeavours, Raiffeisen Bank Romania registered an impressive set of growth figures over 2020. This includes growth in total assets of 20%, while its Tier 1 capital position increased by 18%. Meanwhile, the bank’s asset quality improved as non-performing loans fell to 3.8% from 4.1%. Though the bank’s net profits dipped considerably year on year in 2020, Romania’s economic outlook remains robust, leaving plenty of scope for future growth as the country emerges from the worst of the Covid-19 pandemic. 

Tinkoff

Russia

Tinkoff’s growth trajectory has been nothing short of meteoric over the past few years. The fully digital lender has gone from strength to strength through a process of relentless innovation, and few banks in Russia, or the wider region, can keep pace. This success is reflected in its performance figures, with net profits increasing in 2020 by 22%. More impressively still, the lender’s Tier 1 capital position and total assets expanded by 29% and 48%, respectively. In 2020, Tinkoff launched its new strategy, called AI Banking, with which it intends to transform its customer offerings through the deep penetration of artificial intelligence (AI) across its products and services. In service of this objective, it created the Centre for AI Technologies, where more than 100 scientists are working to develop the technological infrastructure to support the bank’s vision. 

“We have seen an unprecedented acceleration in the adoption of digital services unfold over the past year, helping contribute to Tinkoff’s continued profitable growth as we expand into a wider array of financial and lifestyle services,” says Oliver Hughes, chief executive of Tinkoff Group.

In June 2021, Tinkoff launched a security platform called Tinkoff Defence that combines typical banking security features with new tools developed by the bank. Not only does this platform deliver enhanced security to Tinkoff and its operations but also to the bank’s customers across all user use cases including opening an account, conducting transactions and logging into online banking. Tinkoff Defence also boasts a fraud monitoring system that is enhanced by machine learning and AI. Beyond its impressive cyber security efforts, Tinkoff also launched a programme to assist start-ups and technology projects in 2021. Under this initiative, the bank will become a strategic investor or partner to promising new companies, with the potential to be included within Tinkoff’s business lines or wider ecosystem. 

“Going forward, we will continue to leverage our more than 17 million-strong customer base and our many years of experience as a digital-only player to provide best-in-class services in Russia, as well as look for additional opportunities further afield,’’ says Mr Hughes.

AIK Banka AD Beograd

Serbia

In relative terms, Serbia’s economy shouldered the challenges of the Covid-19 pandemic well. Gross domestic product contracted by just 0.9% over 2020, and by the end of the first quarter of 2021 had recovered to its pre-crisis levels, according to data from the National Bank of Serbia (NBS). The country’s outlook, meanwhile, appears bright as the NBS expects growth to reach 6.5% in 2021. In this environment, AIK Banka AD Beograd has combined personalised customer service with outstanding innovation to secure an impressive set of growth figures over the 2020 review period. The lender’s net profits increased by 19.1%, while its total assets expanded by 5.1%. Encouragingly, its return on equity increased to 19.7%, while its cost-to-income ratio remained steady. 

“Global trends in the banking industry are directed towards delivering a high-quality user experience. It influenced our strategy in two ways: first, we adopted personalisation by offering services tailored to client needs; and second, we provided comfort and availability by enabling banking in an online environment,” says Jelena Galić, chief executive of AIK Banka.

Improvements to AIK Banka’s mobile application have expanded the suite of services available to the bank’s clients through digital channels. Customers can pay their bills through QR code technology, and can also transfer funds, open new accounts and activate credit cards, among many other services, through their mobile phones. Meanwhile, the approval and placement of cash loans can be executed by a client in as little as 10 minutes. Beyond its digital offerings, AIK Banka continues to play a vital role in supporting Serbia’s small and medium-sized enterprises. During the height of the health crisis, the bank offered direct support through moratoria on loan repayments, among other measures. 

“We will continue on our path of digital transformation, focused on providing end-to-end digital services to our clients, but, at the same time, offering strong advisory support. Investments in data analytics will play an important role in our process of upfront identification of client’s real needs, helping us to better understand their habits and provide more personalised financial advice based on experience and know-how,” says Ms Galić. 

365.bank

Slovakia 

When 365.bank was established three years ago, it was a purely digital sub-brand of Potová banka, a brick-and-mortar mainstay of Slovakia’s banking landscape since 1992. Yet, in June 2021, their roles were reversed. The challenger brand took over the parent branch network while maintaining its brand. As a result, 365.bank is now the main banking operation of the group, with an enviable digital footprint as well as a strong physical network across the country. Potová banka, meanwhile, has kept its point-of-sale positions at the post office locations (Slovenská pota) to assume a model closer to that of a postal bank. This organisational shake-up provides the combined group with unparalleled reach both geographically and across different demographic strata.

Following this change, 365.bank wanted to apply its digital-first philosophy to the internal processes of the group. To this end, the bank has been able to introduce automation to its back-office operations, resulting in a level of automation 10 times greater than that which existed in 2018. In addition, the lender has partnered with Backbase and Mambu to onboard a new core banking platform, covering both back and front ends. 

In 2020, 365.bank became the first lender in Slovakia to launch a digital card. Operating as a fully-fledged bank card, it allows clients to use their account without having a plastic alternative to hand. Customers can add this feature to their Apple Pay, Garmin Pay and Fitbit Pay digital wallets, and subsequently use their smartwatch or mobile phones to pay at stores or other point-of-sale locations. In addition, digital cards can also be employed for e-commerce transactions or even deployed at ATMs to withdraw cash. All 365.bank ATMs boast contactless technology. 

Meanwhile, the bank is taking its commitments to sustainability and environmental progress seriously. In particular, it is aiming to become carbon-neutral by 2025. To achieve this goal, it intends to employ renewable energy sources at its branch and office locations while encouraging higher levels of remote working. 

SKB Banka  

Slovenia

Slovenia’s SKB banka has strengthened its capital base considerably in recent years. Over the course of 2020, the lender’s Tier 1 capital position expanded by 21.3%, following an increase of 5.3% in 2019. A prudent approach to growth ensured that the bank has been able to weather the challenges of the Covd-19 pandemic well. Despite its profitability numbers being hit, an experience shared across the domestic and regional banking systems, SKB banka has played an important role in supporting businesses and households through the worst of the crisis. Moreover, it has taken impressive steps to accelerate its digital transformation plans in a dynamic market. 

“Banks in Slovenia operate in a very competitive environment with low interest rates and high liquidity, where the long-term sustainability of profitability is being tested. The pandemic has shown how important it is to take advantage of digital transformation and possibilities of using new technologies. On the other hand, the pandemic highlighted the importance of being close to our employees and clients to support them in the recovery from the Covid crisis,” says Anita Stojčevska, CEO of SKB banka.

In 2020 SKB banka, in conjunction with other lenders in Slovenia, launched an instant payment service known as Flik. Through Flik, bank customers are able to execute immediate payments between two individuals using a mobile phone number or email address. Meanwhile, in 2021 the bank, with the support of its parent entity OTP Group, pushed ahead with plans to widen its presence in the agribusiness sector of the economy. SKB Bank plans to focus on supporting supply chains in this industry. 

“The vision of SKB banka is to keep putting the customer first, digitally and mobile. The goal is to become an ever-present but invisible financial partner which responds to customer needs, with the offer that gives customers the best advice and supports them through any banking channel. Therefore, digitalisation of banking operations, as well as internal processes, is the main strategic priority of SKB banka and is inevitable for operating successfully in the future,” says Ms Stojčevska. 

Alfa-Bank Ukraine

Ukraine

In 2020, Alfa-Bank Ukraine brushed aside the difficulties of operating in a global pandemic, coupled with a challenging domestic political operating environment, to launch a new digital bank called Sense SuperApp. Created in a mere nine months, Sense SuperApp started operations in November 2020 and has since shaken up the Ukrainian banking market. New users of the app can rely on fully remote account opening through video chat in under five minutes. The speed of this service is due to the integration of Diia, an e-government portal and identity system. 

Both retail and business users can benefit from Sense SuperApp. Inside its first month, the app had more than 100,000 users, and seven months later this figure had jumped to 886,000. By July 2021 the share of active Alfa-Bank clients using the service had reached 60.4%. 

Meanwhile, in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, Alfa-Bank Ukraine adopted a number of measures to protect and support its customers and staff. This included remote working arrangements for its staff, with about 70% of all office personnel able to work from home. In addition, the bank has opened a co-working space for its clients in Lyiv, which includes meeting rooms and a relaxation area among other amenities. A second client co-working space is due to be opened in Kiev. 

In terms of customer support, Alfa-Bank Ukraine offers 24/7 chat support through the Sense SuperApp, as well as via popular social networks and messaging services. Communication is live and bot-free, meaning the lender’s 119 support agents are able to deal with customer enquiries quickly and efficiently. Notably, the average first response time is just 60 seconds. 

In conjunction with its improved service offerings, the bank has also strengthened its balance sheet. In 2020, Alfa-Bank Ukraine’s Tier 1 capital position expanded by a sizable 19%. Over the same period, cost-to-income ratio improved, falling to 57% from 62%, while its return on equity came in at 12.7%. As Ukraine recovers from the Covid-19 pandemic, there remains scope for the bank to achieve far higher returns moving forward.

Visit TheBanker.com

Global Financial Intelligence since 1926