Antoun Sehnaoui, who became Chairman and of leading Lebanese bank Société Générale de Banque au Liban (SGBL), in October 2007, believes in organic growth over radical change. “It is about evolution rather than revolution,” explained the youthful chairman, who succeeded his uncle Maurice Sehnaoui as head of what many regard as Lebanon’s most innovative bank.
One of the most recognizable on the Lebanese banking landscape with its familiar red white and blue logo, SGBL’s activities are organized into a three-core business: retail banking, corporate and investment banking, and private banking. It also has a presence in Jordan, where as SGBJ it operates 18 branches, Cyprus with six branches and in Syria, where it offers specialized financial services through its affiliated companies, Fidus and Sogecap.
But it is the future that has injected a new buzz – not to mention new capital – into the bank which is embarking on an ambitious expansion plan. The monies will finance local and international acquisitions, the opening of more local branches with a new look and what Sehnaoui calls “more maneuverability” to SGBL’s banking operations. This with no doubt means that SGBL will continue to plow new retail banking furrows by rolling out new products, while consolidating other core activities such as private banking and asset management, investment and corporate banking.
Furthermore, in line with meeting the standards set by its committed French partner Société Générale, SGBL will be aiming to scale new heights in terms of human resources and deliver a level of professionalism commensurate for a bank with an international profile. “It’s not that we lacked any of these previously,” says Sehnaoui, once again keen to stress that the changes are part of a process to improve SGBL’s position in a “competitive global environment.”
Reassurance has long been the bank’s watchword. SGBL ranks first in terms of loans to deposits of all the Lebanese banks, and is probably the most risk averse, an important strength in a financial world blighted by the ongoing subprime mortgage crisis. “Our shareholders insist on this,” explains Sehnaoui, who is arguably the first in what promise to be a new generation of young and dynamic chairmen in Lebanese banking. “The ambition now is to increase profits and make Lebanon a regional platform for our international activities.”
A new vision
Sehnaoui believes that by as early as 2010, the bank’s new vision will have yielded fruit “I expect us to be operating more robustly locally and internationally, across all our activities, while at the same time boosting inter-business revenue synergies, operating efficiency and ultimately operating income.” It is a vision predicated on the firm belief that the Lebanese banking sector will continue to be the pillar of the country’s economy. It currently contributes a big share of the nation’s GDP but, more importantly, it is suitably diversified so as to withstand most shocks.
The banking sector is underpinned with decades of Lebanese conservatism but it also recognizes that it must embrace global banking methods; no one is capturing the essence of this zeitgeist better than SGBL, which understands the needs of both its retail and private banking clients and further understands that both are equally important in a competitive and diverse global banking industry.
The bank itself is hardly a newcomer to the sector. Capitalizing on over 50 years of experience, SGBL’s retail banking operations will pursue a strategy of ambitious organic growth in countries where the group is already present. SGBL has always been a leader in retail banking, a reputation based on its ability to introduce new products onto the market and invest in technology.
SGBL will therefore be expanding its client base and giving wider geographic coverage. Meanwhile, the exploitation of revenue synergies between businesses will continue, with priority given, amongst others, to cooperation with the regional network of Syria, Jordan and Cyprus and cross-selling between SGBL divisions.
For its Lebanese networks, SGBL will also adopt a strategy of deliberately targeting high-net worth individuals and work at closer cooperation with corporate and investment banking arms, both of which should promote dynamic growth. The investment banking division is gearing itself up to play what it hopes will be a key role in helping rehabilitate Lebanon’s private sector much of which was mauled after years of conflict and political instability by actively getting involved in forthcoming M&As and privatization.
Sehnaoui is acutely aware of the needs, issues and concerns of the Lebanese private sector, an arena in which close understanding play a key role in oiling the finely calibrated cogs of Lebanese economic activity. “The private sector is the lifeblood of our very small but dynamic country,” he says. “The private sector is our partner in growth.”
Elsewhere, the Private Banking and Asset Management divisions, backed by the expertise of Fidus and its team of specialists, not to mention the support from Groupe Société Générale, will consolidate its position as a leading purveyor of wealth management products and services. With the demand for innovative private banking services in the region – and the demand for Lebanese private bankers – SGBL will aim to deliver innovative financial products and diversified and tailor made investment solutions to a lucrative niche in this growing sector.
“Thanks to Fidus, our brokerage and portfolio management arm, SGBL was able to develop its activities in wealth management locally and internationally, answering the growing needs of its clients around the world and the increasingly active nations of the GCC, buoyed as they are by the recent windfall from the hike in oil prices,” says Sehnaoui with pride. “The region is booming and we need to seize the day.”
Meanwhile, in the area of specialized financial services, the SGBL Group will continue its expansion in countries with strong potential (in particular the GCC) by drawing on its years of experience and standing in the Lebanese market. “Regional investors appreciate the skill sets that Lebanese bankers bring to the table. We are international in outlook but we understand their needs.”
The Group is also currently stepping up its international expansion and this will offer new opportunities to Société Générale Group’s through its wide and diversified businesses lines across the region. “Today, SGBL is evolving gradually in an unstable and uncertain environment in which we can nonetheless find solutions,” declares Sehnaoui. “In this environment only banks that can offer their clients innovative products, high quality service and the best price can follow a risk-free development strategy.”
Sehnaoui believes that SGBL can look to the future with genuine confidence. The bank has built up a huge reserve of goodwill; it has the know-how, the infrastructure, the client base, the right level of affiliated services and most importantly, an international presence of which only a few Lebanese banks can boast. “With all these, SGBL has all the tools at hand to reposition itself as an important actor on the local and regional banking market.”