Over the past three to four years, Saradar Bank was being developed as a universal bank with a full range of services in corporate, private, and retail banking. The process was aimed at engineering one differentiated banking entity out of two smaller banks, Near East Commercial Bank and Banque de l’Industrie et du Travail. Although, or perhaps because the procedure entails the creation of a new three-to-five year vision and strategy (implementation of which is currently ongoing) on top of the refurbishment of the bank’s brand and network, since 2016 Saradar Bank had been anything but forthcoming with information about its state of affairs and plans for further development. Until now.
“By end of 2017, we grew our assets by 26 percent versus a market [growth] of 6 percent and our deposits grew by 26 percent versus a market [growth] of 3.5 percent. Also, at the end of 2017 we became an Alpha bank [with deposits above $2 billion]. The growth in deposits was an ambition and objective because we wanted to reach Alpha bank [status],” says Sami Abou Jamous, Saradar Bank’s chief strategy and planning officer.
“In 2017 our focus was to implement a new strategy, improve efficiencies, optimize cost structures, [and] invest in technology and people. Moving forward, our focus is on profitable growth. Our ambition is to continue growing fast but claiming that there will be the same high-paced growth [as in 2016 and 2017] would be an ill assumption,” he tells Executive in an interview on the eighth floor of the bank’s head office building.
On the corporate side, the positioning of Saradar Bank is targeted toward a segment that Abou Jamous calls “mid-corporate.” The competitive edges of the bank in this business line include its factoring service, as well as project finance and corporate lending approaches with a strong emphasis on long-term and personal relationships with their client base that extends beyond mid-sized corporates to small and medium enterprises (SMEs).
In private banking, which is the bread-and-butter business of Saradar Bank as it had been the primary strength of the previous Bank Saradar (before a merger into a joint group with Bank Audi in 2004), the bank pampers its clientele with investment advisory, wealth management, and “premium services” that appear to be a banking equivalent of ‘I want to read every wish from your eyes.’
Most innovative, however, might be the lender’s new approach to retail. The bank is surprisingly more than content with the size of its physical network in Lebanon, which currently entails 17 branches. This number is puny when measured against the what Bankdata states is a total of 1,037 domestic branches operated by Alpha and Beta banks at end of 2017, and is negligible when compared with other contenders in the Alpha group of banks (ranked 14th by deposits, its peer Creditbank, for example, has 25 branches while branch networks at the ten largest banks easily run into counts above 50). However, the small geographic footprint of Saradar Bank is the foundation for shaping the retail line of business into a digital bank that is close to being as “digital native” as possible (see overview piece for more).
In the structural organization context of the family-owned Group Saradar, the bank is not a top-level corporate entity, but rather a unit of Saradar Finance House (SFH), which in turn is one of three units that comprise the group. SFH, according to Abou Jamous, bundles partial or full ownership interests in several financial enterprises, such as micro-lending provider Vitas, money transfer operator CashUnited, and asset management arm Saradar Family Office (SFO). Of the two other units in Group Saradar, the first organizes all property investments and real estate development activities in Lebanon and abroad; the second unites under its umbrella what internally is called other investments, which include postal services provider LibanPost as well as ventures that, according to Abou Jamous, range from artistic enterprises to some that are not-for-profit.
Abou Jamous, who besides his position in Saradar Bank is also is chief operating officer of Group Saradar, reveals that strategic plans on group and bank level include investments into at least one Fintech-oriented startup fund, acquisition of an insurance company, the possible creation of sister banks to Saradar Bank abroad (most likely in Europe and Africa), and expansion of real estate investments in Europe and the United States.