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Leaders crown the company rather than themselves

4176 afisari
By Cristian Cojanu
Sergiu Oprescu, Executive President of Alpha Bank Romania and President of the Board of the Romanian Association of Banks, is the first banker who received the Lifetime Achievement in Banking award at the first edition of Business Arena's Awards for Excellence gala in 2017.
You are one of the longest-serving CEOs in the banking and finance sector, and you have recently been listed among the top personalities in the Romanian economy of the last 25 years by a well-known publication. You are one of Romania’s pioneers in banking, even though you have a technical degree. Was it a calculated decision or simply a twist of fate?    
Quitting a career as an aviation engineer for a new beginning in an industry that was in its infancy in 1990s Romania was definitely a calculated decision. It was a difficult decision taken at a time when I had good career prospects in aviation engineering. However, I’ve never had any regrets about the change, because I had the privilege to be, at the time, as you put it, one of the pioneers of the local finance industry. I said finance because my professional path has taken me through various roles in this sector. Even though I started as a commercial banker in 1993, soon after I moved to investment banking, a market segment in which I successfully worked until 2000. I was one of the first stock exchange brokers, witnessing a very dynamic market. In late 2000 and early 2001, I was appointed President of the Bucharest Stock Exchange (BSE) and I held that position until 2006. During that time, our team managed to demutualize the stock exchange, converting it from a mutually-owned organization, controlled by brokers, into a company. We also managed to increase the traded volume 1,000 times. When I left my position as BSE President, the traded volume stood at around ten million USD, compared to 10,000 – 15,000 USD in its early days. The banking sector raised new challenges, as I was appointed Vice President of Alpha Bank Romania. My first challenge was to work on building a new market segment, retail banking, which was nonex­is­tent at the time. Alpha Bank Romania started mortgage lending in Romania, with the launch of its first mortgage loan product, when there was still no specialized market. Today, after 15 years of mortgage lending, Alpha Bank Romania’s total mortgage loan portfolio has exceeded one billion euro.          

What is the secret of leadership in your view? 
In my opinion, true leaders crown their company, rather than themselves, and put themselves in the service of their employees rather than commanding them. These are two of the most important leadership lessons that I’ve learned and tried to pass on during my professional career, as I strongly believe in them. The role of a leader is to create and guide teams, to offer feedback, reinforce people’s confidence in their own strengths. 
Also, throughout my career, I have learned that, when you are in a quandary, the best solution is the one that gives you the biggest mental discomfort, and never the one that seems within reach. I have a keen interest in leadership models, I have studied the subject, and, over the years, I have looked more closely at two such models, both of which focus on results. The first model features hero leaders, who take charge of their teams and fully dedicate themselves to achieving the final result, even though the method used is not always a democratic process. Steve Jobs was an example of a hero leader. The second model is one where the organization is compared to a philharmonic orchestra and its leader is the conductor, the one who sets the tone and leads the team towards results. Nelson Mandela had the leadership style of a conductor.

You have been at the helm of Alpha Bank Romania for ten years, during which period the bank has consolidated its position as a strategic investor on the Romanian market. How would you characterize 2017 in terms of results and challenges? 
2017 was another very good year for the bank, it was a year in which we saw the confirmation of our balanced growth strategy, with increased attention to costs. It was also a year of consolidation for Alpha Bank Romania’s business, and the nine-month financial results prove it. The financial results published at group level on September 30, 2017 show that Alpha Bank Romania, an organization with 1,800 employees, maintained a robust profitability and retained its market share in the lending segment, while increasing its market share and deposit base. With over 23 years of operations in the Romanian market, serving corporate, retail and SME customers, we are one of the top ten banks in Romania, and that says a lot about our business model. Our strategy has been validated both by results and recognition. Alpha Bank Romania is the first Greek-owned bank in Romania to be assigned a rating from Moody’s Investors Service. Thus, the bank has a b2 baseline credit assessment (BCA), a Ba3 long-term local and foreign currency deposit rating and Counterparty Risk Assessments of Ba2. Alpha Bank Romania relies on a healthy growth, based on an open relation with its end customers and increased mutual trust, because that is the only way in which we can continue to build and innovate.
Innovation is one of your bank’s core values. What did innovation mean for Alpha Bank in 2017?
Innovation is one of our bank’s values and a component whose role is becoming more and more prominent in our activity. While in 2001 we were laying the basis for a new market segment, with the launch of the first mortgage loan product for individuals, in 2017 we were the first bank in Romania to start a partnership with a FinTech company. At the beginning of 2017, Alpha Bank Romania, in partnership with Deposit Solutions, launched an initiative to attract deposits from the German market via Zinspilot platform. With this partnership, we have reinforced our portfolio of high-predictability financing sources for the local market, and gained access to a major savings market such as Germany. We already know that FinTech platforms represent a European solution, a result of the single banking/finance market, therefore we can say that with this new project Alpha Bank Romania continues to do pioneering in the banking industry.     
How do you see this partnership evolving in the future? 
We plan to make this type of service available to our customers in Romania. Shortly after the launch of our joint project, Deposit Solutions announced that it was considering expanding to new markets such as the UK and Switzerland, allowing depositors in those countries to make placements anywhere in the European Union by accessing the offers provided by the banks using the platform. Such a step forward in technological innovation generates a boost in competitiveness in the banking industry, a progress towards a single financial market, with no geographical barriers.

The interview is also available in our print edition of Business Arena.

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