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Petr Baron for Forbes Romania: Against the tide

Petr Baron, our CEO, is in the spotlight of the latest issue of Forbes Romania. He shared how we’re on track for our best business financial results ever, what makes our team & mindset unique, and much more. You can read below:

PETR BARON doesn’t look like your typical banker. He wears sneakers and a short-sleeved shirt that reveals his tattoos. But tbi, the regional challenger bank he runs, is on track for its best business financial results ever.

Sneakers, colourful rimmed glasses, jeans and a sleeves wrapped shirt that reveals his wristbands, athletic build and tattoos. This is probably the profile of a tech founder, not the Head of a banking group with a regional presence. But nothing in Petr Baron’s story is as you’d expect. 

Born in Moscow, Russia, Petr grew up and was educated from the age of 13 in the UK, and worked most of his career in Ukraine, the country of his two grandparents. “People are always fighting other people. But when it comes to your  own people… At first, it was shocking and tough to believe. Then we got involved straight away as an organization in trying to help the people of Ukraine. It’s the tragedy of our lives. And you (in Romania – ed.) feel it too, but (…) for people like me, it’s a nightmare. (Vladimir Putin – ed.) has made the biggest mistake of his life and potentially Russia’s biggest mistake in history”, sincerely says Petr Baron, CEO of tbi, the company that controls tbi bank in Romania,  Bulgaria and Greece.

He states that there are currently 50 Ukrainian citizens working at tbi.

Romania, Bulgaria and Greece are our main markets. Also, we operate in Germany, Lithuania, but remotely, we don’t have people on the ground. We also have 2 satellite offices. We have an office in Kiev, where our research and development (R&D) team is based. Then we have data, product, UX and UI team working in Tbilisi. Being multicultural and international is something extremely natural. We have 16 nationalities and we pride ourselves on that. Also, it brings that knowledge from different markets which is widely shared within organization. Moreover, what glues the team together is our unique culture and shared values as we are all Brave, Passionate and Caring in our work.

At the age of 42, which he was about to turn a few days after his interview with Forbes Romania, Petr Baron already has an experience that very few bankers in Romania can boast about. 

I can honestly say, hand on heart, that the budget for 2023 is the most difficult I have ever had to do (…). I have many friends in private equity and they tell me that, for the next six months, everybody is ready to talk about business, to look at business, but nobody is ready to take a decision. Because there is no visibility yet. Nobody knows, says Petr Baron, who has already been through another major crisis, more than a decade ago. 

“I was running a big bank at that time in Ukraine. And the crisis came. It was a total disaster in terms of market functioning. And the legal system was a mess. So was the Central Bank, the government, or the president. I was 28 years old when the crisis started”, adds Baron, who believes that the things he learned in his years of crisis in Ukraine, he could not have learned anywhere else. 

“It was hell. I was so tense that I was going to bed shaking. I didn’t know if we were going to stay afloat. The Central Bank froze withdrawals, so the customers couldn’t withdraw money, but we had cases of people in serious, even desperate situations – they had lost someone in the family, or they needed medication”, Petr Baron sums up his experience in the Ukrainian banking market during the post-2008 crisis, but notes that the bank came out much stronger. Moreover, the successful restructuring of operations allowed the bank’s main shareholder, TBIF Financial Services, owned at the time by the Kardan group of Israeli shareholders, to sell its business in Ukraine. Petr Baron remained as vice president responsible for strategy at TBIF, which operated in Romania, starting 2002, tbi leasing. It was 2012, and TBIF was taking another step and was officially entering the Romanian banking market, after a year earlier it had bought the Bulgarian subsidiary of Nova Ljubljanska Banka in Slovenia. 

But the Kardan group was determined to get out of all its financial business, so, Petr Baron played an important role in the 2016 acquisition of TBIF by the Latvian 4finance group, one of Europe’s largest players in online affordable consumer credit. 

27.5 MILLION EURO WAS THE NET PROFIT RECORDED LAST YEAR, THE HIGHEST IN THE BANK’S HISTORY

“I knew Kieran Donnelly very well (CEO of 4finance at the time – editor’s note), so I was a very good link between the people who worked here, who I knew, and this new vision, because I was very exposed to the fintech sector and banking challenges in general”, Petr Baron explains his appointment since 2016 as CEO of TBIF Financial Services.

“I have joined the new team that has started to be formed in 2016. During this time, we have grown our business five times and quadrupled our deposit portfolio, leading to become one of the most successful regional challenger bank”, Petr Baron sums up tbi bank Romania’s results since his arrival as the bank’s leader. 

More specifically, tbi bank closed last year with a profit of EUR 27.5 million, the best yearly result in tbi’s history. It was mainly driven by above the market business growth with more than 30%. The bank managed last year almost 1.25 million financing applications and granted almost half a million loans. 

Romania, the largest market, was the leader in terms of growth and contribution to the company’s performance overall, 

We definitely want to expand more. But any new expansion involves investment, and investment increases costs and decreases profitability. And we still have a lot to capitalize on the opportunity to conquer more of the markets we are present in Romania, Bulgaria and Greece. We are also looking at other adjacent markets in South-East Europe, at Serbia, for example, a market of seven million people that is under-penetrated, and which is still lagging behind the EU regulations. They don’t have comparative levels of data access, automated processes, data exchange and so on. This is why currently EU markets offer better opportunities for investment by  either setting up a subsidiary from scratch or acquiring some of the smaller players that have fintech businesses or consumer finance businesses so we can build the rest of our operations.

Under these circumstances, should we expect new record results this year? The banker’s answer comes immediately: “This year is even better. Our financial results for 9 months of 2022 show EUR 30.2 million net profit – which is already higher than the overall results achieved in 2021. 

With above the market business growth, very strong liquidity position (LCR-511%) and constantly improving operational efficiency (CTI -48%), the Bank has achieved very strong ROA – 5% and ROE of 23%. Such results allow us to maintain the position of one of the most profitable and efficient banks in the SEE region. 

And, yes, we know that next year there will be many dangers and uncertainties on the horizon, but our aspiration is to continue to grow because we see a great opportunity in being a challenger bank across the region. We believe we have the right culture.”

[quoteblock content=”Being multicultural is extremely natural. We have 16 nationalities and we pride ourselves on that; many people have experienced very innovative solutions in their markets and can bring them into the organization.” author=”Petr Baron” author_position=”CEO of tbi fs, Founder-In-Residence” author_avatar=”https://tbibank.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/rsz_microsoftteams-image_237_v2.png” section_id=””][/quoteblock]

However, how did tbi bank manage to achieve these results in an overcrowded Romanian banking market, which marked several important exits in recent years? “We saw the opportunity to build a different type of organization from the ones we are competing with. We are designed and think in a similar way that many fintechs think, while taking into account the regulatory framework, as we started as a bank, but we’ve always had the consumer in mind.” Basically, he says, as the bank grew, it found that instead of selling loans and using stores and retailers as a sales channel, it has the opportunity to build an ecosystem that will include merchants (and their interest in growing their sales and look for partners who can engage and who have market experience to help them boost their sales) and consumers, who are looking for the best deals.

“The journey started from tbi, a business intended for consumer finance, which later evolved into a banking business, and now we’re taking the next step in the evolution, where we need to transform it into a customer and merchant focused ecosystem. In large part, to put together all these elements represent fintech. Fintech is about culture and, first and foremost, the people who want to make things differently, who don’t just think about a process per se, but see process as a backbone of the customer experience. It is also a question of mindset and people who join our organization. “, says the non-conformist banker, who divides his life between Bucharest, Athens, Sofia and London, the city where he lives. 

“The reality is that people are running out of time. We live in an environment where the speed of data exchange is overloading our brains, and as a human species we haven’t evolved fast enough as data exchange has evolved. Think about how much time you spend on WhatsApp or email now compared to 10 years ago and how, 20 years ago, we memorized the phone numbers of everyone we knew.” Only, in the meantime, banks were rather concerned with their own development and regulations. “This may have happened because of the principle ‘We will build and they will come and buy’.” So, even if the whole cycle of innovation and expectations of our customers grew so much, banks are still very rigid. 

“In banks, people are afraid to make decisions. What differentiates us is our unique culture in which people  are allowed to make mistakes,  learn from them and further innovate. Simply put, we strongly believe in continuous learning, the Kaizen philosophy.  But not big mistakes, because I think in banking it’s very difficult to make a really big mistake because there are so many risk management safeguards, from the regulator to the internal frameworks to a kind of separation of responsibilities. (…) I am reading  a book right now called Startup Nation, about the secret of innovation in Israel. And they describe an interesting culture: in the military, you don’t get blamed for a mistake, as long as it wasn’t a stupid and uncalculated risk,” says Petr Baron, who mentions that a change needs to happen, because without it, the reality of the banking industry would become increasingly outdated. 

[quoteblock content=”In banks, people are afraid to make decisions. What differentiates us is our unique culture in which people  are allowed to make mistakes,  learn from them and further innovate.” author=”Petr Baron” author_position=”CEO of tbi fs, Founder-In-Residence” author_avatar=”https://tbibank.com/wp-content/uploads/2023/09/rsz_microsoftteams-image_237_v2.png” section_id=””][/quoteblock]

30.2 MILLION EURO WAS THE NET PROFIT IN THE FIRST 9 MONTHS OF THIS YEAR, A RECORD LEVEL FOR tbi bank 

The merger between fintech and banking has not yet fully occurred on a large scale. It can be said that some groups do a good job, such as ING, Santander or JP Morgan. But do we see these examples in our part of the world? Not enough, and this is where we believe that our approach is that of the future and we see that this is already happening. I like the expression “The future is already here – it’s not evenly distributed.” – by William Gibson, and we have fantastic examples of successful banks like Kaspi Bank in Kazakhstan, Monobank in Ukraine, and we can go further, in Asia, where we have Alipay and others. There are a lot of real innovations that are interwoven in the way companies interact with consumers, in how they are preparing to be the businesses of the future, instead of becoming the dinosaurs of the past.

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