Macau Business | July 2021 | Interview
Well Link Bank has established a network comprising seven branches across the city and is introducing new technologies to improve customer service and seize niche market opportunities amid heated competition from bigger players. CEO Chong Sio Fai shared his vision for the bank’s future development, which is set to be intertwined with the development of the Greater Bay Area. In the coming two years, Well Link Bank hopes to inaugurate branches in neighbouring Guangdong cities. Meanwhile, the bank’s group, controlled by key shareholders from Macau，Hong Kong and Portugal, is also keeping an eye on business opportunities in the Lusophone world, building on the networks of its predecessors.
Well Link Bank was established, taking over from Macau Novo Banco Asia (formerly Banco Espirito Santo do Oriente). Tell us about this journey so far.
C.S.F. – It has been our key strategy to establish an optimal distribution network in Macau. We now have seven branches in Macau and have pretty much completed the first stage of distribution planning in this kind of development. We thought that we had to be there to serve our major communities, and we manage to cover most of them nowadays.
We have also been preparing to extend our operations to the Greater Bay Area.
Our Board of Director has approved a resolution to set up branches in the Greater Bay Area and we just kicked off our preparation. We are going to see when we can have branches in the Greater Bay Area. Maybe in one or two years’ time, one or two branches in Shenzhen, Zhuhai, Hengqin and even in Hong Kong.
What is the rationale behind your Greater Bay Area plan?
C.S.F. – We saw good opportunities now, apart from the Greater Bay Area development, the local administration is also trying to moderately diversify its economy from tourism and gaming. There is a good mix that we can move on to, as long as the integration between the cities in the Greater Bay Area intensifies and our expansion plan into the GBA is realized, the chance of providing customer centric service to these cross-border customers is there.
We have to position ourselves in the integration process of the Greater Bay Area. We have to focus on wealth management opportunities between Macau and cities in mainland China and Hong Kong.
We have a larger mission to integrate ourselves in the Greater Bay Area development. With or without us, the Greater Bay Area will be integrated. We are ready and preparing ourselves for that to happen.
Gradually, I believe that more and more financial activities shall be carried out between the cities of the Greater Bay Area. For instance, we are offering mortgages to Hong Kong and Macau citizens to buy homes in mainland China, but not just from developers. We are talking about second-hand mortgages to Macau and Hong Kong citizens to buy homes in the secondary market of the mainland.
Macau is a pretty crowded place when it comes to the banking industry, with some 30 licensed banks in operation. How do you fit in the local market, and what are your competitive advantages?
C.S.F. – We invest a lot in Fintech and IT-related systems. We think that this is the key to the financial future. We worked hard setting up those scenarios for our customers to use our financial services and coping with their daily lives. We are building our e-wallets and we have our other initiatives, such as providing online account opening services with facial recognition technology, and applying big data analysis for customers’ needs assessment , as well as AI to improve customer service and operational efficiency.
We have also installed smart teller machines: integrated ATM machines that can open accounts and issue cards.
In terms of customer service you face the competition of a few big players. How do you navigate in this market?
C.S.F. – We are not among the major market players, so we have to be different. We started by setting up branches at local community centres and gained customer recognition through quality services. We are evaluating the efficiency of the current network. We just opened two more branches earlier this year, and these are barrier-free branches. We have been receiving very positive feedback on this.
We can also better serve our clients by focusing on smart-banking.
The first thing is to serve the local community well. We have enhanced our operational systems and streamlined our processes to cope with that. There is always some customer segment in the market that might not be the interest of the larger players. There shall be different angles in exploring how to satisfy customers’ needs and the niche markets.
We are providing a little higher interest rate to remunerate our customers because we chose not to invest too much in advertising and marketing and we are getting some positive recognitions from our clients.
Though, we think that customer-centric service is the only key, that leveraging fintech and IT infrastructure development shall equip ourselves in achieving this target. .
Having barrier-free branches is related to this concept of Corporate Social Responsibility. What is your approach to nurturing local talents?
C.S.F. – We believe that we ourselves have to contribute and support the development of Macau’s financial industry, especially when it comes to our responsibility towards the youngsters. Every year, we employ fresh graduates from universities in Macau. It is our clear human resources policy that internal promotion is always the first choice.
If there is really no suitable candidate internally, then we go for external., We have to communicate a clear message to our staff that career development opportunity is there, for the good performers and capable staff.
The joint development of Hengqin is seen as the way forward for the local economy. And you have already gotten your foothold in the neighbouring island.
C.S.F. – Yes. We have a research and development centre in Hengqin. We are trying to expand it this year, in three to six months’ time. We have been allocated a greater place and thanks to the support by the local government. That’s also good for the development of our fintech and IT staff. We don’t have that many skilled local professionals here, so we look to those from Shenzhen and Zhuhai., The best place for them is Hengqin, as they don’t have to cross the border.
The COVID-19 pandemic has also accelerated this. Our staff can just go to Hengqin and work together with the experts there, that they can learn and develop their skills and professionalism. This way, we can help youngsters in Macau to build their career in the fintech industry.
Talking about the pandemic. How have you been coping with its impact?
C.S.F. – We have some customers asking for loan repayment holidays, but that’s not the major part of our customers. We deal with them and prudently assess their repayment capability. We have tolerance in this kind of short-term impacts, and are to support our clients in bad times. We look for building a long-term relationship with our customers.
The impact of the pandemic on our business operation has been quite minimal, because situation in Macau is remarkable as compared with many places around the world. We have Macanese staff, and some staff from Hong Kong and the mainland. Nowadays, the mobility of those coming through neighbouring cities in the mainland is almost back to normal, but it’s still quite difficult for those staff from Hong Kong like myself.
What kind of improvements could be adopted in terms of the city’s regulatory environment?
C.S.F. – The local regulatory environment is not 100% identical as other financial centres., I just think that it is quite natural because the scope , the volume and the major market players are different. .
I have strong confidence that when we expand our financial development, our regulatory infrastructure would be readily comprehensive and supportive.
What direction do you foresee?
C.S.F. – The infrastructure has to be in place to facilitate the future development. I guess we shall position Macau as a wealth management and financial centre. We might need some enhancement in legislative and regulatory infrastructures. Also, more supporting services like solicitors, accountants and others. Education is also crucial, locally university graduates shall be comprehensively trained to fuel this development, especially in the fields of finance and fintech.
We see some limitations because youngsters in the past were not that keen on establishing their career in the financial industry, as it was not difficult to make money else where. But now, after COVID-19, I saw some of them changed their views.
Your predecessors, Novo Banco and Banco Espirito Santo do Oriente, had a historical linkage with Portuguese countries. How important is this for you?
C.S.F. – It’s in our heritage. We still have shareholding from Novo Banco, and we have experienced Portuguese top management personnel such as Executive Director Artur Santos (former CEO of BNU) among others. And we still have a number of Portuguese customers.
This is an advantage we have, having this kind of connection and heritage with Lusophone countries. This shapes our further development.
How could this be translated?
C.S.F. – Our group is quite keen to develop the whole network and is looking at different opportunities. That could mean Portugal or Portuguese-speaking countries in the future. Sooner or later, we do anticipate that some good coordination and connection with Lusophone institutions could be established.
Linking the Greater Bay Area and Lusophone markets is our direction. We may do that. We have a strong connection, and our group is very active in exploring opportunities.