ECONOMY

Hard work has paid off

A bright future lies ahead for NovaBank, according to its CEO, Giorgos Taniskidis. In an interview with Kathimerini, Taniskidis said that the purchase of Dimitris Kontominas’s stake by the other shareholder, the Portuguese bank Millennium BCP, strongly rebutted rumors about NovaBank’s sale to a rival group. He also promised the strengthening of the bank’s position in retail banking despite fierce competition. How do you interpret the change in the bank’s ownership with the departure of Dimitris Kontominas? NovaBank has progressed rapidly. I think it has not disappointed the people who trusted us by investing in the bank. I believe the time has come for people to reap the benefits of that investment and to decide to continue and maybe enjoy more returns in the future. In general, it is very important that today we have a large European bank wishing to play a significant role in Europe, with Greece included in its countries of choice. This says something about this country, too. Surely, after the acquisition of 100 percent of shares by Millennium BCP, speculation on the future of the bank will end? It is now clear that what we have been reiterating all this time, that we are interested in autonomous core growth, was true. The purchase of the other half of the bank’s shares by Millennium BCP is a strong rebuttal, I believe, of all those voices saying our bank would join another banking group. Will anything change in the course and the strategic planning of the bank after the share shift? No. I think we will proceed exactly as planned. After all, there never was any difference or opposition between shareholders. Hence the course we followed to date, with exceptional service to customers as our focus, will continue. However, the bank’s good progress is increasingly allowing us to examine the option of expanding to new markets. Once we have met our targets in the domestic market, we could also try in other neighboring countries as we have already done in Turkey. Given today’s situation, when do you consider the bank’s expansion into new countries will be possible? I believe that if in 2007 expectations are realized, we will see many more things. What is the experience of your investment in Turkey? More and more domestic banks are interested in becoming active in the neighboring country. Turkey is a very populous country, a massive market. The mentality is very similar to that here and we are optimistic that many benefits can accrue from the Turkish economy’s course toward Europe. We are very optimistic about Turkey’s market, which is why we chose to invest early on, as we believe this will bring greater benefits. To what extent were you assisted by the fact that you are a Portuguese-owned bank? Certainly the fact that our main stakeholder has been a Portuguese group has helped a lot, especially now it owns 100 percent of shares. There is some suspicion, but it is clear that resistance is gradually receding. Many steps have been taken in good faith compared to five years earlier. In 2004, you enjoyed core profits in the last quarter, long before expected. How did you manage this and what can we expect from now on? The recipe for success is this: work and target. We thought we could go faster, we did, and I think the market has rewarded us by seeing something different in the bank. For many of the bank’s employees there were no weekends, there was not a single minute that the bank was not in their minds. And the results are coming in. We believed we would go faster toward the desired result but just did not dare announce it in public, until we made a profit and we were particularly happy. So, from now on I dare say that we will not easily stray from the profitable course we are on. We are a bank that built itself brick by brick, so it is not easy to backtrack. Our profit comes from purely banking business. Where are you going to place emphasis in 2005, now you have a significant market share? This year is a decisive one for us. If in the first half we move at the pace that we dream of, I think there will be quite a big expansion in the network in the second half. It will also be a good year for us in terms of profit and development. We want to cover some points in retail banking and to develop even further our contacts with the small and medium-sized enterprises sector. Are you at all worried by the danger of the bank’s manpower slowing down after the hyper-effort of the starting years? It is a worrying point, indeed. Unfortunately, time for relaxation is limited as the competition is relentless. Banks today are the most competitive sector in our economy. Competition among them is tough, I would dare say tougher than those of electrical goods companies or car dealers. My reply to whether we can take a breather is yes, we can, but only for an instant. Unfortunately, this instant today has already passed. NovaBank should not relax because it still has a lot to achieve. People say that every year small banks find it harder and harder to compete with the big ones. What is your view? I think it is beyond doubt that size has some significant advantages. It is also undisputed, though, that if a bank or any enterprise has managed to get a grip on a niche market successfully, if it has become specialized or has some special component, it can always compete even with the giants. In NovaBank today, I believe we have a very important advantage as the bank has learned to focus on offering the best possible service to the client, making it a pleasant experience for the client to enter a bank. We work with the target of making banking transactions a positive experience. What is your opinion of household borrowing? We’ve had a great increase in loan issues. But do you know why? Because lending is still at a low level. The rest of the EU is far ahead. Banks still have a great lending scope. Some have branded the real estate market «a bubble» for some time now. Indeed, one can say prices in some areas have risen too high. They are not coming down, though, and the explanation is simple: More and more people are discovering mortgage loans. Half a decade ago, the number of people buying a house with a loan was very small. Today, a sizable proportion of the public know they can get a mortgage loan with simple procedures and a very attractive interest rate. My belief is that there still is great scope for developing banking products. Given that most people are now familiar with loans at a low interest rate, are you worried about the consequences of a rate rise? It would take a very big rise in interest rates to cause a problem: not one or two percentage points, but three and above. Were this to happen, it would make the situation unbearable. There is talk about a rise but no one talks numbers. A mortgage loan of 70,000 euros for 20 years with a 3.75 percent interest means a monthly tranche of 415 euros. So even if the rates rise by a whole percentage point, a particularly great rise, then this will rise to 452 euros. The fear of a rate rise is a myth. There might be a problem only if the rise was sharp as well as sudden; a gradual rise is easily absorbed.