Petr Baron for Forbes.bg: Transformation is never-ending

In times of rising competition among financial institutions in Bulgaria, it’s crucial for banks to adapt and transform. Our CEO, Petr Baron, talked to Forbes Bulgaria about the importance of digitalization for giving customers maximum value. He also shared thoughts on how the industry will look like in the near future and explained why attracting great talent is a top priority for us. You can read below:

Mr. Baron, what did you learn from tbi bank’s transformation in the last five years?  

When I first took over tbi I had of course read many books by the greatest minds of our time. Forbes readers have also come across them. Authors like Harari or Gladwell and investors like Ray Dalio have long been writing about how new generations must change at least five job titles in their careers to learn new skills, and how businesses must adapt to the macro environment. We witnessed this in the past five years, especially in fintech. Consumer habits are changing all the time, as are the expectations towards banks and financial institutions. At tbi bank, we reacted to these shifts by adapting the products and services we offer, by changing the way we speak to our customers, by innovating the technology we use. What is equally important, we changed the profile of the people we wish to attract in our teams. All of this confirms what these great minds have already predicted – the world is speeding up and the ability to learn and to develop is becoming paramount. It’s no accident that our organization adopted “Kaizen”, a Japanese philosophy for constant development. This is the type of thinking that drives us forward in terms of business and culture – the lesson from tbi’s transformation is that transformations never end.  

Has your vision for tbi’s future changed during this time?  

Of course, it has inevitably changed. We took over a bank that focused on offline consumer and commodity financing. I recently went over the strategy that we presented when the investment in tbi was being prepared back in 2015. The main vision in the document was a rapid digitalization of the bank’s products and processes. It is valid to this day – we digitalize everything, we know where we want to be and what value we want to give to our customers. It quickly became clear, however, that the speed of the change we discussed above meant we had to be quick too. The team that we built made it easy to be flexible and to always try out new approaches. This led to creating businesses within the business. For example, this year we designed a successful product for financing vehicle purchases and our leading position in the BNPL segment proved we good at applying global best practices there too.  

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What other examples of the changes in your vision for tbi can you give?  

We started out with a model which had to digitalize the existing services for end customers, as well as for small and medium-sized enterprises. But tbi is among the pioneers of “commodity financing” both in Bulgaria and Romania. For years we have been helping big chains and small merchants sell more, and our customers – have access to services they can pay for in installments. As time went by, however, we realized that we could add value for our partners. Hence today we work with nearly 13,000 online and offline stores but at the same time, with hospitals, for example. We help them be more successful in their business by not only financing their clients, but also by providing data and other services. In other words, our commodity financing products are already digital and focusing more on B2B than on B2C. We are also in the process of building an entire ecosystem of services that we will be offering to our partners.  

You keep mentioning your team – many employers in Bulgaria complain about a lack of talent. How hard was it for you to find the right people to help you realize your vision?  

It was indeed a main priority that we attract the right colleagues – in business today we hear a lot about technology and marketing, but the reality is that people play the main part. It is a fact that it’s not easy to build your team in South-Eastern Europe because many of the most talented professionals have already gone to work in the Valley, London, Berlin, you name it. On the other hand, I think tbi has a unique proposition for the labor market – in terms of our approach, our culture, our leadership. We apply fintech and entrepreneurial thinking in every aspect of our work.  We are not looking to hire just about anyone—we want to attract people who recognize our culture as their own. Today, we are proud that there are 16 nationalities in our team because everyone makes a unique contribution to the organization. People who work or have worked with us appreciate this diversity and I believe it is something that the people we want to attract value too.  

What is your vision for the banking sector? You have said in previous interviews that while banks are changing, customers’ needs remain the same. 

My idea is that with time the financial business model changed – banks used to be at the center of the system, today the customer has taken that place. He can now choose among a greater number of different institutions. So the big picture in finance will soon be completely different. There will be the great tech players – Apple, Google, Facebook and Amazon who have already built their own payment infrastructures and a financial services system around them. Then there will be the fintech companies with a narrower focus. Let’s not forget about messaging platforms which are a popular money transfer tool, especially in Asia, and it’s a matter of time to see this model in other markets. In this way customers will choose which institution—and even which application—to use to take care of their financial needs and will be less and less loyal to big brands. Ultimately, what is left for banks? Naturally, they will remain on the market because our society needs regulated institutions. Banks must not forget, however, that they are the industry’s dinosaurs—ending up like them is inevitable unless they turn their focus on the customer.  

Perhaps as a result of these processes we recently saw another merger in the Bulgarian banking sector. Do you expect this to continue in 2022?   

There will definitely be more mergers and acquisitions, there are still too many banks on the Bulgarian market and established institutions either become very big or disappear. You probably heard that one of the big digital banks, N26, announced it will be leaving the USA and focusing on Eastern European markets. You know also that there is financing for specialized fintech companies, such as Payhawk. I expect that competition in Bulgaria will become fiercer, which of course is great for the end customer.  

Finally, what is your current vision for tbi bank? 

To help our merchant partners. This is our goal. We want to help them sell more through an ecosystem of products and services that provides more opportunities for our mutual end customers. The demand for our BNPL product shows that we are moving in the right direction. It is with this vision that we recently entered the Greek market. In the future, we want to be the leader in the BNPL segment in Bulgaria, Greece and Romania. 

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