As APS Bank approaches the market to raise equity capital for the first time in its 112-year history, CEO Marcel Cassar discusses the bank’s business model and how it has been driving its growth strategy. He also talks about the Bank’s philosophy and shares his views about banking in Malta, and how he sees APS Bank positioned in the financial sector.
What differentiates APS Bank in the way it serves the community at large, engaging with its clients and maintaining their trust?
The Bank owes its origins to Gozitan Jesuit Fr Michael Vella, who in 1910 brought together a group of professionals and merchants motivated by a desire to help the working classes, at a time when Malta barely had a welfare system and with the aim of encouraging savings habits amongst the population. More than a century later, our mission is still rooted in the community and in making the banking experience simple and accessible. Of course, it’s an entirely different world in which we are delivering the service today, but the fundamentals haven’t changed. What differentiates us are our values of authenticity, contemporary, excellence, passion, and inclusivity which we carry with us in a tiny, fold-out booklet.
It is indeed an entirely different world today, with Maltese banks on the receiving end of regular criticism from consumers and business associations. What’s your take on this?
Banks have been operating in an atmosphere of heavier regulation and compliance requirements, often disproportionate to their size. This is due to international developments, increased business risks and reputational challenges, among other factors that are often outside our control. Technological disruption on the traditional channels adds to the burden on the service. On the other hand, customers, whether retail or business, bear the brunt and feel that they are not being served efficiently, if not outright mistrusted. We bankers need to be sensitive to all this and I impress on my colleagues that the customer is at the centre of all that we do, what we exist for.
As the world grappled with a global pandemic in 2020 and 2021, APS Bank announced strong results for both years. To what main factors do you attribute the consistency of your performance?
We approached the pandemic determined to protect the interests of our key stakeholders - our employees and our customers - at all costs. From flexible work schedules, to safeguarding their wellbeing, to supporting them with technology and resources, we kept our employees motivated. As for our customers, we kept our branch network fully operational, continued to invest in our digital banking services, and tried to anticipate their financial constraints and moratoria requests. Management can lay claim to good results but ultimately it boils down to having happy staff and satisfied customers.
As a business leader, what is the most important lesson you’ll take away from the pandemic?
More than a lesson, a reminder to always lead from the front, remaining close to our stakeholders and responsive to their needs. I am known for my strong ethic of working long hours, even on weekends, and the pandemic demanded all of this and more. But leading an organisation is about team effort, not a solo performance, and I proudly look back at how my colleagues were also responsive 24/7 to the exigencies of our employees, customers, and the community in general
Sustainability has been on APS Bank’s agenda for many years, long before it became trendy. In what way do you feel that this has created value for the Bank and your stakeholders?
Sustainability is about meeting the needs of the present without compromising those of future generations. As a Bank, we are at the heart of business decisions that drive social and economic development, but not at the price of environmental degradation and general well-being. Look at challenges that impact our daily lives on these islands; traffic, pollution, waste management, population changes, urbanisation, and water, compounded by a lack of planning and over-development. These also threaten other industries like tourism which, as the pandemic has exposed, in a small island state is particularly vulnerable. Bankers must play a leading role in adapting and promoting new models to overcome the sustainability challenges.
Over the coming years, how do you see APS positioning itself to continue being a catalyst in the country’s transformation?
I’m usually allergic to cliched mission statements but I believe that ours resonates with what we have been doing for years. Making the banking experience simpler and more personal, inspired by our commitment to social, economic and environmental progress, while providing our stakeholders with opportunities to grow.
Today APS Bank is a significant player in the nation’s development and will play an increasingly important role going forward. My mantra is that unless we keep up with the changes, we will become irrelevant; unless we grow, our customers will outgrow us. We kept the forthcoming IPO local, as a sign of trust in the market community which has brought us to where we are today; and the response is proving overwhelming, taking the Bank to its next phase of growth.
Marcel Cassar joined APS Bank as CEO in January 2016. His extensive career started in 1987 with Price Waterhouse Malta, followed by MIBA/MFSC, now the MFSA (1991-1996). He was general manager at Lombard Bank Malta plc (1996-2004) and First EVP and CFO at FIMBank plc (2004-2015). He has been a board member of the Malta Bankers’ Association, serving as deputy chairman (2017-2018) and chairman (2018-2020), leading to a seat on the board of the European Banking Federation. Cassar is a CPA, a fellow member of the Malta Institute of Accountants, holds an MBA from the University of Wales and Manchester Business School (1995) and has lectured at FEMA and in the MA Financial Services course, University of Malta.
APS Bank plc is regulated by the Malta Financial Services Authority as a Credit Institution under the Banking Act 1994 and to carry out Investment Services activities under the Investment Services Act 1994. The Bank is also registered as a Tied Insurance Intermediary under the Insurance Distribution Act 2018.
The views and opinions expressed in this interview are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of APS Bank plc.
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