Sofia Echo


MANAGER PROFILE: Life through the banking lens

Author: Elena Koinova Date: Fri, Feb 15 2008 1632 Views
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The manager: Anthony Hassiotis
The company: Postbank (Eurobank EFG Bulgaria AD)
The job: Chief executive officer
In brief: Hassiotis joined Postbank, an arm of Geneva-based Eurobank EFG Group, as CEO in August 2004. He was instrumental in the takeover of DZI Bank and the subsequent Postbank/DZI Bank merger. He remained CEO of the newly-formed bank which is now called Eurobank EFG Bulgaria AD. Previously, he worked for banks such as Citibank, Barclays Bank, Agricultural Bank of Greece and General Bank of Greece.

Some life stories have that paradoxical characteristic of building suspense while still remaining constant. That constant, whatever it may be, appears early in life and draws its unpredictability on depth of interpretation. One can see how the main character matures as this constant gradually adds new and more complex meanings through continual use within unrelated settings and contexts.

That constant to Anthony Hassiotis, now CEO of Postbank (registered as Eurobank EFG Bulgaria AD), was banking. Born to the family of a Greek banker, "from day one" he knew he would be a banker, too. As did his elder brother. As if being the lifeline to his family, the idea anchored itself in his mind, despite leaving home at high school age and only returning to live in Greece 26 years later. Back in 1968, when the Prague spring and the student riots in Paris brought the world to the verge of war, Hassiotis' father thought it would be better to send his two sons to a safer place. Both completed their banking and finance under-graduate, graduate and post-graduate studies in the US and have never left the field since.

Banking on banking
Banking has refracted through many a prism in Hassiotis' professional life. Studies helped him understand the profession of his father, while experience transformed an academic background into across-the-board practical knowledge. There have been dozens of different positions at half-a-dozen financial institutions with proprietary models in as many culturally different geographical locations.

Past appointments saw him focus on corporate and investment banking, business risk review, loan restructuring and credit card management, among others. He worked at Mellon Bank, Citibank, Barclays Bank, Agricultural Bank of Greece and the General Bank of Greece. Citibank, where Hassiotis worked for 17 years, sent him to its Los Angeles office, to the Middle East (Riyadh, Saudi Arabia) and Latin America (Costa Rica, Venezuela) and then to his homeland, Greece.

The years also saw his gradual rise to offices such as president, CEO and member of the board of directors as the banks increasingly realised his talent and strategic abilities. And no wonder, he returned regional operations that had been in the red for 25 years to profitability (in Costa Rica while with Citicorp and in Greece with Barclays Bank), successfully restructured a country's external debt (Costa Rica, Citibank) and partook in preparing a bank for sale (General Bank of Greece sale to Societe Generale of France).

His uptake of strategic decisions is ongoing now as well. During his three and a half years in Bulgaria, Hassiotis has been a key figure in the takeover of DZI Bank and its subsequent merger with Postbank. The merger of the new entity, that will assume it's Eurobank EFG Bulgaria AD in the second half of 2008, was completed within less than a year. The operational merger took place in May 2007, half a year after the takeover, the legal merger on November 1 and the full integration of the IT system a week after. The legal name of the new bank is Eurobank EFG Bulgaria AD, while the introduction of the brand Eurobank EFG will most likely happen during the second half of the year.

Merger thoughts
On revisiting the process, Hassiotis is satisfied and rates it as a success. Yet to view success without considering the underlying challenges is not the position of a seasoned banker. Hassiotis recalls his team identified them and handled them at an early stage.

Both Postbank and DZI Bank were universal financial institutions but they drew on different business models that produced "different ways of approaching everything".
"We had to make changes in structures, in behaviour, in methodology and in the way we approached the business," Hassiotis says.

Next, he adds, came internal communication, to be able to explain the goals and bring two disparate teams into one. Successful internal communication can pre-determine the success or failure of a merger. For this reason, there was a major focus on communications with goals explained to "the top and then communicated on down to the bottom" through hundreds of hours of meetings in Sofia and countrywide.

The banks were also careful to watch the impact on customers ensuring that the merger did not affect them and that an appropriate selection of new products was made. Maintaining the financials of both banks was also important.

"The merger was smooth," Hassiotis says, "because the customers did not suffer, we picked the best products immediately, our employees to a large extent worked well together and we are still training them to do things together, and the results are good."

Growth-geared merger
Unlike mergers aimed at cutting costs and improving efficiencies, the merger between Postbank and DZI Bank was intended to "ignite and support growth", according to Hassiotis. Naming this type of merger "1+1=3", he explains: "We have everything we need in Postbank, we have everything we need at DZI Bank and because of that we need even more."

For this particular reason, the merger did not lead to staff cuts or branch network optimisation. On the contrary, poised for growth, the new entity hired 500 new staff to bring the total to 3000. In cases where branches of Postbank and DZI Bank were next door to each other, employees of either entity were re-located to whichever was the better or elsewhere, Hassiotis says.

Already this year, according to him, the intent of the merger should materialise into growth of several per cent. At present, the new entity controls 10 per cent of the Bulgarian banking market, which places it in about third or fourth position overall. It has the second-largest mortgage lending portfolio and the fourth-largest consumer lending portfolio. Though lending was the activity to report the fastest growth last year, up 60 per cent on the year to 2.2 billion euro, Hassiotis does not pull out individual segments as growth drivers. "We plan to excel across the board," the CEO says.

Postbank will rely on an expanded product offer at an appropriate pricing for its wholesale and retail activities alike.

Last week, for example, the investment banking division introduced two families of mutual funds. In the last five years, the mutual funds industry experienced high growth in the Bulgarian market. "This is why we consider the timing for the launch of our mutual funds very appropriate. The investment products market has progressed considerably in the last few years. At the same time, the growth potential is big and we expect mutual funds to develop as a viable and attractive investment alternative to other investment products." 

The retail division, for its part, introduced the Mega Savings account offering an annual interest rate of six per cent.

The product launches will not stop here as the dream of Hassiotis' team is to achieve a market share of 20 per cent in five years' time.

"In a market like this when things are moving faster every day," Hassiotis says, "we need new products because our clients will need new products that will fit their needs at a specific time in the future."

The timing of the mutual funds is deemed appropriate because the market is becoming more risk-averse. "When the environment is less clear clients are likely to seek products that are less risky," he says. Mutual funds give precisely that balanced investment approach.

Risk-conscious times
Offering these risk-averse products does make sense at this particular point in time. The sub-prime mortgage crisis that rattled international financial markets has had its indirect impact on Bulgaria and it is uncertainty. The majority of local banks are owned by international financial institutions, whose presence on affected markets has led to a more responsible and risk-conscious behaviour, Hassiotis says.

The direct implications from such behaviour are the more expensive - and scarce - cost of funding for banks within a volatile market that "can ultimately affect [banks'] growth strategy within a specific country".

"This is something that we have been looking at very carefully from Eurobank's point of view," Hassiotis says. "We have made sure that we have the funds that we need to grow."

Uncertainty is not to be neglected, "we intend to be cautious, to grow responsibly and make sure we protect both our clients and ourselves".

He calls on individuals and companies to exercise caution as well. "In times like this people should try to make sure that they do not over-extend themselves until the situation becomes clear," he says.

"I think now everybody is waiting to see how the dust will settle in the international arena so that no one jumps into something he that he has no idea of how it will end," the CEO says.

Responsible sourcing by those offering and receiving banking services, combined with a watchful central bank and governmental policy, should protect the banking system from shake-outs because "the last thing you need is a problem with the banking system", according to Hassiotis.

Protecting customers is just one facet of the customer-centric model of Postbank.

"Addressing the needs of specific customer segments very directly, on the spot, at the branch level and throughout the various parts of the country is Postbank's competitive edge," the manager believes.

And one needs the people to make that happen. "Everybody says it's the people. It is true, however, that it is human resources who make the difference so we spend a large amount of time on product knowledge training and on conveying the message that we are in the service industry," Hassiotis says.

"We also have the marketing people who `read' the needs of the people and then translate them into products to be in demand at a specific point in time."

One should not forget the parent company, whose head office is in continuous communication with Postbank management. "In this way we don't have to reinvent everything from scratch but rather we leverage on the good our parent has done in the past," Hassiotis says. "We learn from their successes, avoid possible pitfalls they may have fallen into in the past and that close relationship gives us a bigger size than we are today. It's like we have a bank with the 22 000 people that the total group has."

It is as if approach, mindful of the past, has been mirrored in what Hassiotis has grasped as Bulgarian mentality. "I've been in many countries but what impressed me throughout my three and half year stay in Bulgaria is people's determination to succeed, their discipline in whatever they are trying to undertake while always keeping an eye on the past to ensure they do not make the same mistakes. This is a very good way of protecting yourself," the Postbank CEO says.

3000 Bulgarians, four Greeks, one team
Success-driven and people knowledgeable of the local environment are always welcome at Postbank. Hassiotis' impressions seem to be shared at the parent bank because the combined entity has only four Greeks on the payroll, the rest being Bulgarians.

"It is a Bulgarian-run company," Hassiotis says. "[The head office] says we're here as a source of ideas, a source of products, a sounding board sometimes but you guys know the country."

Postbank CEO also relies on the knowledge of people and does "the unthinkable" of listening to and accommodating their ideas.

At executive committees all functions are present, the auditors, compliance and legal officers included, Hassiotis says. The need to do that stems both from the fact that people should have the platform to speak out and at the same time to make sure "that people are informed at the same time and they hear the same thing".

The team is there, "but it has to have a strong head because especially in a team if you're not careful then you can lose control and then… you have really lost it". "I am there to help solve problems, to give strategic direction and to make sure that I see the big picture and keep proposals within the scope of overall strategy," Hassiotis says.
"For example, I always advocate controlled growth," he adds. "Not growth at any cost but controlled growth. You control the number of people. You control the financial and cost aspect of it, you control the compliance and auditor areas and then you define the framework within which they can work. Within their own framework they can do whatever they want but at least you have defined the parameters."

Success belongs to the team, the failure is mine
Integrating the team into the goals of the bank occurs through convincing them and involving them, Hassiotis believes. "Even if I come up with an idea, I will make sure they are bought in and try to make it seem as if they have originated within the entire team," the CEO says.

And through knowing that the head is always there to assume responsibility. "I always say as a manager that success belongs to the team and the failure is certainly mine," Hassiotis says.

A job at the top is time-consuming and Hassiotis has little spare time for leisure activities. In the past he used to read a lot under his father's encouragement and later on his own initiative, to learn languages - French, Italian, Arabic and Spanish while in the country speaking the respective language, or to play tennis. "That was more possible in the past than now," he says.

Now on workdays he spends his evenings either at business dinners or at home relaxing. Weekends he commutes to Athens to be with his three children - Anastasia (15), Maria-Christina (13) and Konstadinos (11).

"They are my life and it is important that they get my total attention," he says.

That tight work-children routine is not an easy one but it is Hassiotis' personal choice. "It is best for me as a person that I have a challenging and ingratiating job," he says. "It is my belief that by being happy in my professional life they can transform my happiness into their personal life. Time will show if I was right or not. With regards to my personal life, I need some time to put it back in order."

Personal example goes hand in hand with little parental guidance. For the time being, he wants them to dream and to know that good grades will enable them to have choices later in life. "We will think how to fulfil their dreams and utilise their choices later but first they have to be strong to win that right to choose whatever they want," Hassiotis says.

High start
A corporate social responsibility initiative of Postbank's carries the same message. High Start awards high school students who have excelled in a uniform foreign language test. The project, ongoing for three years now, is run in conjunction with the Ministry of Education and has resulted in 500 scholarships and spending of 250 000 leva.

The goal of the initiative is to show "that somebody appreciates their aptitude for studies, their efforts at a young age".

"It is important to recognise that these are the future ambassadors of the country, literally throughout the world, so we have to push them to accomplish," Hassiotis says.

Another programme catering to university students is being put together and will be started in one to two years. "We are waiting for our children to grow," he adds.

Growth is on Postbank's horizon as well. How enriched Hassiotis' life constant will emerge from the stay in Bulgaria will depend on the scale of this growth.

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