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Friday February 23rd, 2024

Nanda Fernando: building on Sampath Bank’s pioneering legacy

Nanda Fernando, Managing Director/Chief Executive of Sampath Bank

Sampath Bank has a reputation for pioneering the use of cutting-edge banking technology and established itself as a tech-driven bank quicker than any of its peers. During the Covid19 outbreak, the bank fast-tracked and deployed several new initiatives during the lockdowns: among these was a tie-up with a ride-hailing startup for cash deliveries to people’s homes.

The bank has been tech-driven since its inception in 1986. Long before the pandemic, it embarked on a digitalisation drive to bring transformative improvements in operations and customer satisfaction. The bank is built on the commitment to bring high-quality banking solutions to all Sri Lankans.

Over the past three decades, the bank has diligently worked towards making banking a simple and effective process for all its customers. Today, Sampath Bank is among the largest private banks in the country, backed by an asset base exceeding Rs1.1 trillion and a solid AA- (lka) credit rating from Fitch Ratings with a Stable outlook.

As its Managing Director/Chief Executive, Nanda Fernando endeavours to build on the pioneering legacy of Sampath Bank in a volatile, uncertain post-pandemic world.

Can you tell us how Sampath Bank has evolved over the years to what it is now?

Innovation, customer service, and a reliance on technology have been the key competitive strengths of Sampath Bank ever since it opened its doors to Sri Lankans in 1986. Furthermore, strong morals rooted in Sri Lankan values are deeply etched into the culture at Sampath Bank, creating a unique experience that customers have come to love. Add to the mix an incredibly talented, dedicated, and loyal employee base and the result is the youngest bank to have reached the Rs1 trillion mark in total assets, joining the league of systemically important banks, and becoming one of the biggest private banks in the country in a relatively short time.

Sampath Bank has not only recorded impressive growth during this period, but it has done so while winning over its stakeholders. The visionary leadership of every member of the board and management team, both past and present, have contributed immensely to this evolution.

What are the factors, opportunities, and challenges shaping the future of banking in Sri Lanka?

The business environment today is highly volatile. Opportunities and threats can suddenly appear, influencing deep-impact changes only to disappear as quickly. Therefore, it is imperative to be agile and have all senses of the organisation well-attuned to detect the slightest change in the environment: the keys to both exploiting opportunities and facing challenges successfully.

However, underlying this volatility are some trends shaping the long term outlook of the banking industry. For instance, digital technology and remote banking are here to stay. Evolving social behaviours and the resultant change in financial priorities, preferences, and attitudes towards banking are here to stay. The threat Banks face from tech platforms is here to stay. Each of these can create opportunities or challenges depending on how a bank decides to respond. Therefore, facing short term volatilities successfully while piloting the venture in line with long-term trends will be the winning formula for the banking industry.

In that context, what is your vision for Sampath Bank? Where do you want to see the bank five years from now?

Our vision is to be the Growing Force in the Financial Services Industry in Sri Lanka, as Sampath Bank has done in the past. However, what we have done in the past and what we need to do in the future are quite different. In that sense, while we have already cemented our place as a Growing Force in the Financial Services Industry, our journey is still ongoing. For instance, recent opportunities such as the Colombo Port City can become springboards towards further consolidation.

We have some exciting steps ahead, such as investing in cutting edge technology, venturing into new markets, exploring innovative ideas, and establishing opportunities for collaboration to transform banking.

How is Sampath Bank influencing change in the financial sector?

From its inception, Sampath Bank drove change and influenced the transformation of the financial industry in Sri Lanka. We are the pioneers of automated and digital technologies in banking. We changed the way banks treat customers by eliminating rigid procedures and intimidating formalities with Sampath Smile, and placing the customer at the heart of everything we do.

Banks investing in research and development, deploying digital banking technology, and focusing on innovation have become the norm due to our achievements on these fronts. Today, peer banks and even the banking regulator acknowledge that Sampath Bank is influencing change for the better in the financial services sector in Sri Lanka.

How are you building a bank for the future, and what will differentiate Sampath Bank from the rest?

While we all can be philosophical about the certainty that the future is uncertain and be wary of the constant volatility in the domestic and global economies, at Sampath Bank, we have a purposeful strategy to explore and open up multiple opportunities across different verticals. We are enabling the bank to not only survive the ongoing pandemic-led economic downturn but also engineer growth for the bank and all its stakeholders in the future.

We have open discussions and ideate, and we encourage everyone in the bank, from management to junior-level staff, to be a part of this process.

We are investing in our people and their development, empowering them, and harnessing the collective brainpower of all 4,000 employees of Sampath Bank to build a bank for the future. How will we differentiate Sampath Bank from the rest? We spend very little time thinking about that as we are too focused on our customers, our people, our stakeholders and creating real value for the people of this country by being a catalyst for economic growth.

Technology is transforming banking everywhere. How will banking be different five years from now in Sri Lanka?

As I mentioned earlier, the rapid upheaval caused by digital technology is one of the long-term trends shaping the future of banking. The banking industry globally is shifting more towards technology and innovation-led services. The banking industry in Sri Lanka is no exception. The emergence of fintechs and competition from outside the industry, like telecommunications and ICT, have pushed banks to reconsider their traditional business models and strategise afresh.

All banks today are investing heavily in technology platforms to keep up with this trend. Customers are increasingly demanding convenient, superior, and personalised services at a decreasing cost. Trying to imagine how banking might be in five years when things are changing at such a rapid pace might be a futile exercise. However, at Sampath Bank, we diligently monitor the market pulse and constantly evaluate and reimagine the future we envision for ourselves.

Leaders need to keep an eye on the future while managing everyday challenges. How do you balance these competing demands as a CEO?

The primary duty of a CEO is to chart the future of the business. To be effective in this role, a leader must develop an acute sense of every development in the market and the domestic and global economic factors behind them that will also shape future events. Then comes preparing the strategic direction for the business. One needs to formulate thoughtful short-to-medium term strategies making allowances for any exigent demands while discerning long-term trends. Needless to say, this is an incredibly challenging task.

Fortunately for Sampath Bank, we have an exceedingly capable and dependable team right from senior DGM level to Junior Executive level who are willing to take on responsibilities for day-to-day operations. This team takes care of everyday challenges allowing me to concentrate on the strategic direction and vision of the bank.

What is one leadership lesson you learned the hard way?

Breach of trust is probably the most common and most painful lesson that leaders confront, and I am no exception. As a leader, you need to set an example for teams to trust and depend on each other.

Any leader experiences at least a few instances where someone falls short of expectations, but the first time is always the hardest. A leader must learn how to quickly defuse the toxic situation and take affirmative action to solidify trust so that people can continue to work together and depend on one another to get things done. No matter how many times people let you down, you need to weed out the problems and continue to believe in yourself and your teams. With experience, a leader develops an instinct about people and has backup plans to deal with people falling short of expectations.

As a leader, when you look back, what do you think will matter to you about your legacy?

Well, thinking of a legacy is a distraction for a leader, in my opinion. A good leader would focus on doing the right thing and at the right time to secure the futures of the business, its employees, its customers, and other stakeholders. That was how leaders of Sampath Bank forged a lasting legacy for the bank, and to continue in that great tradition is my fervent endeavour.