PANAMA - Finance
President, Banco General
Raúl Alemán Zubieta is Chairman of Banco General, S.A. He has a degree in Business Administration from the University of Notre Dame, and an MBA from Tulane University. He began his banking career as Operations Manager at Banco General in 1977; since 1986 he served as Executive Vice President and General Manager of Banco General, a position he left in 2018 to become the Chairman of the Board of Directors of Banco General.
Raúl Aleman: The banking system in Panama is solid. After all the challenges brought about by the pandemic, the banking system maintains good results and solid balances. The impact of the pandemic on the Panamanian economy was extreme. GDP fell by close to 19% in 2020; we are rebounding now, but it is going to take a while before we regain the level of 2019. There are challenges ahead for the growth of the sector, which is dependent on the growth of the economy itself. We were coming from good years of economic growth. Moreover, today there are new challenges beyond the pandemic. The impact of COVID-19 on employment affected SMEs, such as hotels and tourism, which needed to recuperate the consumer side of the business and are going to take a while to recover. In addition, the post-pandemic situation is impacting the world; the war in Ukraine, inflation, and real supply chains challenges present new problems, but we are prepared to keep working on them. If we need to draw a conclusion, it is that we came into the pandemic as a solid system and throughout we maintained good standards. Yet, today we face the challenges of growing our loan portfolio. Demand and supply are muted, and we need to work with our clients to resume regular activities.
Raúl Aleman: We have been the biggest private bank in Panama for many years and hold 18% of the loan market and around 27% on the deposit side. We currently cater to 1.4 million customers. For a small country like Panama, that is a large number. We are basically a 50/50 consumer-corporate bank. We cater to all lines of business. On the consumer side, we are especially strong in residential mortgage, but we also have credit cards, personal, and auto loans. We attend to the corporate, commercial, and small business client groups. Our subsidiaries all operate in businesses related to banking; insurance and brokerage, and investment and trust, which makes for a comprehensive operation. We also have another small-medium sized bank in Costa Rica, which is essentially a corporate bank. We also have representative offices in Guatemala, El Salvador, Peru, and Colombia, that account for about 10% of our portfolio beyond Panama. Our main area of operation, however, is Panama, and we have been an investment grade rated bank since 1997. Beyond that, this is an institution with a strong corporate culture and values, that have allowed us to go through many cycles and come out stronger every time. When I say that we are an institution with strong values, that means that they come top-down; the values that guide our business are: ethics, honesty, transparency, and all the other areas that everybody is talking about such as environment, social, governance, were commitments of ours, back in the 1970s. In 1996 we created our foundation, which works in alliance with 150 non-profit organizations, and we have worked with them for 25 years. Our philosophy is that this is a long-term business, and one of established relationships. This is not a transaction business, and there is an obligation to take care of the stakeholders, as well as the shareholders. That has been our view for many years. That means that the bank has to be responsible with our employees, clients, suppliers, and the wider community. Indeed, since the 1970s the general public has recognized us a “the good neighbor.” That principle was born in the late 1970s when we started growing the business through the branch network. And “good neighbor” meant that we made investments over and above what other banks did. This philosophy is one of the strongholds of this organization. Even though we have had two or three large mergers with other banks in Panama, the culture of Banco General of 1970 is still alive today. We are not merely reflected in a balance sheet, and what lies behind those numbers, our greatest asset.
Raúl Aleman: On the social side our digital transformation has allowed many people to be included in the financial system and the Yappy payment method has played a key role. In 2017, when we started planning our digital transformation strategy, Yappy was born. Yappy started as a person-to-person payment mechanism, replacing cash and phone banking, and being so much easier. And then we had a greater opportunity when the Banks Superintendency authorized the opening of simplified accounts through our app, with only an ID and subject to fewer regulations, aimed at small clients. Everybody started using Yappy because of the ease of opening an account and using the app. The product thus took a different route and created fresh relationships with the bank and exemplifies the digital transformation that we are talking about. And meanwhile, we brought new talent into the bank, and changed various internal procedures and processes for greater operational agility. We see this as the future of the bank; making it a simple matter for clients to do business with the bank, while reducing the use of cash.
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