Nations Trust Bank is helping its banking clients to unleash their potential and unlock opportunities amidst a global pandemic and the unprecedented economic crises in its wake, explains Priyantha Talwatte in this interview with Echelon. As Chief Executive Officer at Nations Trust Bank Plc, he was instrumental in steering the bank out of the turbulent early months of the outbreak and recharting its course towards sustainability and growth.
What is your reading of the macroeconomic situation and outlook for the economy heading into 2022?
At this point, everyone is speculating. No one has a crystal ball to predict how 2022 will pan out. But we have to steer forward prepared for different scenarios. I believe it will be a volatile year, particularly in the first half. The three headwinds we see in 2022 will be the debt and forex crisis, rising inflation and the long tail of the pandemic.
There are concerns that these could trigger further rating downgrades and trigger a chain reaction. Encouragingly, we do see some green shoots. Tourism receipts are recovering well, and we see some tangible improvements because it is a sector that Nations Trust Bank supports. The vaccination drive is progressing well, promising fewer lockdowns and pressures on the domestic economy.
The pandemic brought with it multiple challenges unprecedented in form and scale. No country escaped unscathed, but developing economies were, and remain, the most affected. So, Sri Lanka is not alone. Some of the issues confronting us, like increasing commodity prices and food prices and logistic bottlenecks, are universal. For instance, in early 2021, a barrel of crude oil was $47, and it doubled by the end of the year, while the worst of the pandemic may be behind us, the economic fallout will outlast it. These are the realities with which every nation will need to cope with.
Often crises present an opportunity for a renaissance. People come out of these crises with a lot of new thinking, and by embracing change, they unlock new opportunities. As a financial partner to our clients, that is what we do.
The universal disruption in status quos caused by the pandemic has resulted in a new normal and unleashed new opportunities. Early in the pandemic, we at Nations Trust bank engineered a mindset shift and vowed not to waste a good crisis! While the tide may lift all boats, we took steps to stay focused on our core values and avoid the herd. We continue to work very closely with our clients. We remain inspired by many of our clients who epitomise the spirit of entrepreneurship by going to extraordinary lengths to create opportunities for themselves during the pandemic unlocking new markets and developing new supply chains. We supported them and facilitated their financial needs in a more structured way.
As a bank with strong and deep relationships with our clients and global partner networks we evolved fast suitable responses that were needed to navigate these turbulent times.
How does Nation Trust Bank help its clients navigate uncertainty and cater to their investment and financing needs?
Although we might seem a mass-market bank, we were very selective about the segments we serve. We have distinct and unique propositions for consumer and business clients. Our plans for growth and expansion revolves around that core strategy, and that, importantly, has resulted in holistic relationships with our clients build and natured over the years. We have a diverse portfolio that caters to the different needs of the consumer and business clients. In the consumer offering, we have segmented propositions for payments, investments, financing, and borrowings. Similarly, our approach to SME and Midmarket propositions are very different to the bespoke offering we provide our corporate clients.
We have been part of the government’s support mechanism to provide debt moratoriums for businesses and individuals impacted by the Covid-19 outbreak. However, Nations Trust Bank went beyond that. We allocated Rs25 billion toward a fund from our internal funding sources to provide support to industries. This was branded as Nations Diriya Fund. We also supported our clients restructure their loans, provided grace periods for repayment, considering their cashflows and continue to support them to get back to business.
How has 2021 been for Nations Trust Bank, and what are your plans for 2022?
2021 could be considered as the best of years, and the worst of the years. Nations Trust Bank was in a position of strength to create a positive influence on our customers during some of the most challenging periods. In early 2020 we took an early call the impact of the pandemic was unequal and took a view that the recovery would be a K-shaped path. Our strategy was to work with businesses already on an upward trajectory while supporting the most challenged and hard-hit. We conducted an extensive reprofiling and resetting of all our banking functions to be relevant to our customers and unleash opportunities for them and the bank. This strategy was followed throughout the pandemic and will help us in the post-Covid era. With the knowledge we have gained in the last two years of operating in a pandemic era, we will leverage digital technology and innovation throughout the value chain of our business.
Nations Trust Bank has been involved in building digital capabilities for a while now. We believe we have now achieved maturity to rake in returns and benefits.
We have digital platforms that are scaling. Our corporate banking has a new cash management platform that supports Corporate clients managing all their banking functions digitally. Our consumer mobile banking and online banking platforms, along with Frimi are some of the best in class capabilities in the market. Additionally, we have mastered the payments and credit cards market in Sri Lanka with our long-standing American Express franchise. We have learnt a lot on the payment side, and now we will leverage those capabilities to reach beyond traditional segments.
So, how important are innovation and technology to the bank? Can you tell us about their central role in the bank?
Nations Trust Bank was born to an already crowded banking market, so we had to differentiate ourselves to be competitive and grow. We did this by investing in technology from day one and placing innovation as a core value in our DNA.
Today, we operate more like a technology company than a bank, and it is both a rewarding and exciting area of focus for us. The digital drive, augmented with data capabilities, is helping us to invent a new kind of banking proposition. At Nations Trust Bank, digital channels account for 80 to 85% of our total banking transactions. We will continue to build on our strengths. That is the journey we are now on, and we have got into a very interesting rhythm, and the results are very encouraging.