Jacques Tournebize, the new managing director of General Bank after the acquisition of a majority stake by France’s Societe Generale (SG), thinks Greece is fortunate to be in SE Europe, as the region is projected to show very high economic growth rates in the coming years. In an interview with Kathimerini, he insists that the French group was resolved to acquire a foothold in Greece because of the country’s advantageous geographical position. He says this was a strategic option and General Bank will form a significant part of SG’s potential in the region, after a rationalization of its loan portfolio. The SG group, which acquired a 50.01 percent interest in General last year, is the sixth-largest financial group in the eurozone. It has more than 4.7 million customers and employs more than 80,000 staff in dozens of countries around the world. SG’s decision to buy a controlling stake in General Bank, at a time when no significant foreign investment is being made in Greece, created something of a sensation. What brought you to Greece? In one sentence, I would say the country’s geographical position. SG has one of the largest networks in Eastern Europe and Greece is in the center of a wider region which is expected to show very high economic growth rates in the the coming years. The prospect of many countries in the region joining the European family creates an entirely new reality. Following the privatization procedure, we noted there was considerable reaction to the process. SG was really interested in the acquisition of a bank in Greece. We followed the procedure through an adviser, with whom we had an exclusive relationship and cooperation. There were certain reactions, but they did not pose substantial problems and all procedures were completed according to plan. Many continue to point out that General Bank is in a bad situation as regards the quality of its loans. What is the real situation? During due diligence, before the sale was completed, we found out that the risk-evaluation procedures in General’s loan portfolio were not the same as the ones we follow in SG. We know full well what we bought. There are indeed serious problems in the loan portfolio, but we are dealing with them. The process of recording the size of problematic loans is still underway. We are certain that we shall have a complete picture by the end of the year. Do you intend to show any problems in the bank’s financial statements immediately, or will this take place in stages? Our aim is the bank’s immediate and radical rehabilitation. Any problems with bad loans will surface directly. We are resolved to make public all the requirements resulting from the bad loans immediately after the completion of the audit. The half-yearly results will contain quite a clear picture about what is happening and I assure you that the annual results for 2004 will reflect the exact financial situation of General Bank. Have you had any pleasant surprises in these first few months in General? Certainly. We have found many positive elements, which we did not expect. One is the quality of clientele and the long-term relationship which a large number of clients maintain with the bank. Another element is the willingness of staff to actively participate in our effort to change and modernize the bank. This is really a source of joy for us. The quality of the bank’s network is also noteworthy. What is the business plan for rehabilitating the bank? As an initial phase, we shall focus on adapting General Bank’s model of operation to that of SG. For this to succeed, we must insist on our goals with consistency and discipline. This does not mean the particular local characteristics of the bank will change; its Greek character will be maintained and strengthened. Our intention is that after two years, when SG’s operating model will have been incorporated into General, for a large part of the management to pass on to Greek hands only. Beyond economic rehabilitation, what are your immediate plans for General? Where will you place emphasis for growth? Our aim to develop the bank across the full range of banking activities. We shall reapproach all individual clients, professionals and firms of all sizes. Improving the relationship between network and clients is a top priority for us. Being a member of a big international group gives us an important advantage. For instance, all Greek enterprises that have a relationship with General will have direct access to SG’s dealing rooms. As regards individual clients, SG is aiming at the development of a particular relationship, with the client at the center. We shall tap the large range of the products of the parent group, which will soon be available to the Greek public. We believe that SG’s great experience and knowhow will allow us to bring new, innovative products to the Greek market which will really make a difference. When can we expect these moves? You must expect to see a new bank as of September. A radically new General Bank. Our aim is to project the bank’s new profile dynamically, to show the changes and enlarge our presence and market shares. Our goal is to convince our present and future clients that we are the best bank. General’s branch network is a very good base, which we intend to strengthen. This will be done according to the development of the country’s demographic and economic situation. How do you see bank competition in Greece? Very strong, I would say, in all sectors. The quality of the big banks is high and we must continuously strengthen and improve the quality of our services so as to be the best bank in Greece. Are there any thoughts about SG increasing its stake in General? Is there any consideration of delisting the share from the Athens Stock Exchange? General Bank will remain listed on ASE. We are fully happy with our present stake and the fact that the Army Providence Fund is the second largest shareholder.