Caribbean group leads region’s internet banking

Innovation is at the centre of First Citizens Bank, says CEO Larry Howai


In a recent address to the Trinidad and Tobago Coalition of Services Industries, Larry Howai explored what ‘innovation’ meant to his organisation. He identified innovation as intentionally ‘bringing into existence’ something new that can be sustained and repeated and which has value in the real world, such as making new tools, creating new products or enhancing processes, all aimed at greater productivity. Innovation allows human beings to accomplish something which was previously unattainable. Furthermore, First Citizens visualises innovation as the ability to see change as an opportunity – not a threat.

First Citizens has always been on the forefront of innovation in banking in Trinidad and Tobago. From its very first decision to distinguish itself by investing in state-of-the-art technology to focusing on customers’ needs, to creating the country’s first real-time banking platform within the local financial sector, First Citizens has sought to be the pioneer in innovative banking solutions in Trinidad and Tobago and the Caribbean region.

In 2000, First Citizens again led the industry by introducing the first internet banking service in the English-speaking Caribbean. This was followed by being the first to launch mobile banking in Trinidad and Tobago. In order to maintain its competitive edge in offering customers financial solutions, First Citizens partnered with distributors and manufacturers to provide package offerings to customers. Also, in an effort to provide safe and secure transactions without the use of cash, hand-held point of sale devices were provided for both the restaurant and distributive trades (delivery sales trucks) industries.

The innovations continued in training and other efforts, all with the customer as First Citizens’ main focus. According to Mr Mario Young, Assistant General Manager – Retail Banking, First Citizens also undertook in the last couple of years the “Customer Service Excellence Programme”. This programme focuses on the delivery of service that meets customers’ expectations. The programme has several pillars: the People Pillar, which addresses the training of staff to deliver exceptional service, address customer concerns, manage customer queries, and be able to take them basically “from hell to heaven in 60 seconds”; the Process Pillar, where various service delivery processes and operating systems were reviewed and improvements made to delivery time, delivery quality, and the overall experience of the customer; and the Physical Pillar, the redesigning of our branches to conform to standards of uniformity in “look and feel”, layout and design as well as customer taste.

The slowdown in global economic activity in 2008 and the continued decline in export prices of energy-related commodities adversely affected the local economy, as well as those of Caribbean countries. However, as reported in the First Citizens Group Annual Report, at the end of the financial year ended September 30 2009, in spite of challenging market conditions First Citizens Group reported a profit before tax of $588m. This profit represented $84m or 16.7 percent over the $503m earned in September 2008. At the end of September 2009, profit after tax was recorded at $537m.

This represented a 15.9 percent increase over the previous year. The Group’s assets increased from the previous year by over $12bn or 75.2 percent, closing at $27.8bn and resulting in a return on average assets of 2.5 percent, and a return on average equity of 16 percent. Increases in net interest income, other income, and assets all contributed to the financial success over the past year. In August 2010 First Citizens successfully raised a TT$500m seven year 5.25 percent bond on the local market, solidifying investors’ confidence in the bank.

At home in Trinidad and Tobago, First Citizens has been awarded the South Chamber of Commerce Tyrone Samlalsingh Pinnacle Award three times for Excellence in Innovation, Communications Technology and E-Commerce. The organisation has also won international acclaim as in 2009 the Bank of the Year Award was received from World Finance, Latin Finance, and The Banker. This hat-trick is unprecedented among Caribbean financial institutions, and underlines the strong performance of the group. Credits from these three independent, world recognised sources indicates that the group is well on its way to attaining its goals of superb financial strength, prudent risk-management, memorable customer experiences and sound corporate governance.

This is in addition to consistently being awarded favourable ratings by global financial ratings entities like Standard & Poor’s among others. In 2009, Standard & Poor’s and Moody’s maintained the group’s investment grade rating at BBB+ and Baa1 respectively. These ratings confirmed the financial standing of the group, which remains the highest-rated, wholly local financial institution in Trinidad and Tobago, and one of the top-rated, indigenous banks in the English-speaking Caribbean.

At First Citizens, the mission is “to build a highly profitable financial services franchise renowned for innovation, customer service, and sound corporate governance”. It is for this reason the group is constantly improving and enhancing or developing new or existing features with the intent of improving the customer’s experience.