The start of 2020 marked a major milestone for Maltese banking giant Bank of Valletta, when it appointed its first CEO from outside its ranks – Rick Hunkin.
It was a landmark moment for Rick too, who was just settling into the position when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, casting many of the bank’s carefully laid plans into disarray and presenting him with his first challenge very early on. But more on that later.
For Rick, his role is all about vision and delivering on it in a sustainable way. To him, success comes down to setting a clear direction for BOV and making sure the bank is at its best for its customers, staff and stakeholders.
“I love a challenge,” he smiles, while explaining his journey towards accepting this important position at BOV. “I visited the island a number of times and really got to know the bank before I accepted. I have worked in numerous big banks in the UK – some 10 or 20 times the size of BOV – but I have never experienced a bank that plays such an important role within its own market. It is absolutely critical to the economy and plays a significant part in so many lives here. So, aside from the excitement of the challenge itself, I was also enthused by the significance the bank has and eager to help safeguard that.”
Rick has always had a hunger for learning and growth. Throughout his career he sought opportunities that would help him develop, and that approach led him on a fantastic professional journey at institutions in the UK, New Zealand, Asia, the US and now Malta. “I never expected my career to take the twists and turns it has,” he says warmly. “I have worked with people from all over and across all strata of society – from government to royalty. My passion to keep experiencing the best that my career could offer meant I didn’t stop educating myself for a single moment.”
The CEO certainly brings a wealth of international and banking experience to the table, from both the retail and corporate sectors. He has extensive expertise in retail banking, mortgages and savings, risk management, change programmes and corporate governance infrastructure and, prior to joining BOV, was the Chief Risk Officer of Chetwood Financial.
Before that he also occupied senior management positions at GE Money, Northern Rock, Tesco Bank, Williams & Glyn (Royal Bank of Scotland) and Provident Financial. “I do have a few grey hairs from all of that,” he smiles again. “But it’s taught me everything I need to lead going forward.”
And it’s that learning that has doubtlessly helped Rick to jump into his role at such a critical time. After all, he was barely in his position for two months before COVID-19 took hold locally and upended all plans. In response to that, Rick immediately focused on helping his team and their customers weather the 2020 storm.
“We know some of our customers have struggled to survive,” he says, “and we have put proactive strategies in place to help them as much as possible.” And although this is the first pandemic Rick has managed in his career, this is not the first crisis of his time. “When you’re in banking for 40 years like I have been, crises come and go. I have learnt that the key thing is to adapt to think about the needs of your customers and staff as soon as possible, which we did immediately. My key concern was to make life as easy as it could be, despite the difficulties of the period.”
Now, with yet another learning chapter under his belt and the hope of a more settled 2021 in sight, Rick plans to lead BOV into its next chapter. This will include the implementation of the BOV 2023 Strategy that has been designed to make it a more resilient and more profitable bank: better, simpler and faster.
“There are three pillars to that,” the CEO continues. “Our first is dedicated to the digitalisation of our products and services so that we can simplify internal processes and make it easier for customers to transact with us; it is very much at the heart of the strategy. We need to adapt to deal with the changing way in which people interact with their bank these days.
“Then, the second pillar focuses on the rebalancing of our balance sheet. We know that interest rates on deposits will remain low on a global scale, and this means our customers won’t get the rate of return that they might hope for for a while. Then, at the same time, the bank incurs a huge cost when depositing these funds with overseas institutions. We will guide a segment of our customers to achieve a better balance in their portfolios by helping them to identify alternative investment products that give them better returns than their deposit accounts. These considerations will of course be proposed within the risk profile of the customer.
“And, finally, our third pillar relates to improving our customer experience by reforming unnecessarily long and complex processes, and updating systems that do not usefully support customer interactions. We have already started making changes and you’ll see further changes in the coming months,” he explains.
Meanwhile, he doesn’t downplay the impact COVID-19 has had on Malta, and admits it has likely set the economy back a number of years. “The pandemic will probably have the biggest bearing on our lives since the Great Depression, if not worse,” he says. “I believe it will cause a big reset and I don’t expect there to be a massive global rebound for the next few years at least. I do think Malta will have opportunities to recover quicker but that will depend on how the next few months pan out with COVID-19. Thankfully, the island has shown its resilience and I hope that will hold out long enough for us to avoid a surge of business failures or an explosion of personal customer indebtedness.”
Rick also places great importance on Malta’s ability to improve its reputation going forward. “In my first local interview, I was called out for citing Malta as ‘high-risk’ – almost as if I’d broken a seal because no one in my sector has said it so blatantly before. But the island is high risk; that’s the reality. It is critical that Malta comes through Moneyval without being grey-listed, and that it shakes off the negative perception around it. To improve the situation, the Government, political parties, banks, regulators and even individuals will have to work together to earn a better reputation. I think it can be done, even though we don’t know what the Moneyval outcome will be yet. At BOV specifically we have made massive strides forward and I know many other institutions are committed to putting this right. Frankly, we have to.”
Meanwhile, Rick looks towards what he hopes will be a better year ahead. “Firstly, I hope it will be free of COVID-19, because that will provide opportunities for everybody.
“That aside and speaking about BOV specifically, I already have Board approval for some major, strategic improvements to the bank that will come to light in the months to come. As per our 2023 Strategy, we are getting ready to redesign so many of our customer processes and digitise to take them forward.
“Finally, by the end of 2021, I look forward to reflecting on a much easier year than 2020. I hope to have cemented our new frameworks so that everyone – from our customers and our staff to the wider stakeholders – will have growing faith in the future sustainability of BOV,” he concludes.
This interview is part of a serialisation of 50 interviews carried out with Malta’s top CEOs, featured in the bumper edition of MaltaCEOs 2021 publication, which was recently released. Despite the many challenges of 2020, this is the largest edition to date.
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