Monday, 07 February 2011 11:44
By Vernon Khelawan
RBTT Financial (Caribbean) Limited must become the best banking institution in the Caribbean! That’s the goal of Suresh Sookoo, Chief Executive Officer, Caribbean Banking, a banker who has worked his way up the corporate ladder keeping faith with the same institution for decades.
Seated comfortably in his well-appointed, expansive, modern office on the sixth floor of the bank’s St Clair Place on St Clair Avenue, Port of Spain, Sookoo spoke at length in an exclusive interview with Business Day, about his goals and objectives for making RBTT the leading financial institution in the region.
He disclosed that this year was re-branding year. “We are going to the RBC brand during the second half of the year, starting with Trinidad and Tobago and then we move to Jamaica, then the Dutch Caribbean and we’ll do the co-located units last.
“There’s a measured approach to how we’re doing it,” the CEO continued, “all in the interest of giving us that ultimate kick that we can actually become what our strategic vision is which is to be #1 in the Caribbean market … and give us that base that if we ever want to go into the Dominican Republic, Cuba or any one of the Central American countries, we’ll have Trinidad and Tobago as the base.”
He said since the deal with Royal Bank of Canada (RBC) was announced in June 2008, the plan was to integrate RBTT into the RBC way of doing business, “so the first 18-24 months was really to restructure our business, create linkages with RBC Toronto; create a true Head Office in Trinidad to be able to run the entire Caribbean.
“I am charged with building the strategy for the Caribbean, effectively running the entire Caribbean and building a base because we are thinking about eventually entering the Spanish-speaking Caribbean, Central and South America,” added Sookoo.
He said all the specialised businesses like corporate banking and the business banking for Small and Medium Enterprises (SMEs) have been redesigned. In the case of its Corporate banking, RBTT was now enjoying relationships with governments all across the Caribbean as well as all the large regional businesses, which are all managed out of Port of Spain, but with relationship managers on the ground in the various jurisdictions.
In terms of business banking aimed at assisting SMEs, the bank has separated the top end from the mid tier end and “we have an entirely new personal banking model” which is pitched at spending more time with the client – a major element in its climb to the pinnacle of banking in the Caribbean.
“We have redesigned our governance,” claimed Sookoo. “All our HR policies, code of ethics, code of conduct, structure, operations, risks and Information Technology (IT) were quietly addressed. We had to deal with stakeholders like unions outside of Trinidad and Tobago and employees who come kicking and screaming that they don’t like it (changes); leaders who may not have liked it, so it took a while for people to buy into the model.”
On governance, he said, “In a way the governance is actually a bit faster because we have the Board and we respect the Board, but if you can get a decision from the centre because they have much bigger limits than even our Boards, that is fluid, but what it has done, is bring more rigour to what we do.”
Sookoo said while the bank used the opportunity presented by the recession to “retool ourselves, so that when the economies turn, we can actually grow with it,” he however added that the organisation was not too happy with the extent of the recession.
In further discussion about technology and how the institution was using it, the CEO said prior to the arrival of RBC, the bank had embarked on a project of having one common technology platform for all jurisdictions. He explained that RBTT grew by buying up different banks in the region, and at one time was operating on 12 different platforms, which increased “costs, inefficiency and the ability to integrate information”.
That had to change and technology experts, including IBM-led project management and people from Tenemos and RBC set to work on modernising the system. When the cutover was done some months ago RBTT staff and customers experienced “real horrors” trying to complete transactions.
Sookoo admits, “We couldn’t everything, so when we converted we got a lot of problems. We still have a few problems to fix, but I think we’re beginning to get to a point of stability.
He also agreed that his organisation had probably not done enough work on the interfaces with its channels, “so in the early days we had ATM issues; we had netbank issues; we had standing order issues; we had statement issues, but we’ve broken that back of all those now and we’re back to a degree of normalcy.”
One of the newer projects in which Sookoo and his team have put a lot of hope, is their Common Caribbean Operating Model (C-COM). This model now allows for putting common technology. “What we now need to do is look at our process,” Sookoo pointed out.
“What we’ve learnt,” he continued, “is that some of the things we did in 2005-07 in redesigning the processes to use the new technology were not big enough, but there were some best practices that maybe we did not think about so the C-COM is going to re-engineer how you interface when you get into a branch, so that your wait time becomes substantially different.”
In praising his staff during those harrowing days, Sookoo said, “Our staff stood up like lions in the face of all that noise and I think from captain to cook, we weathered that storm fairly well.” He also had soothing words for affected customers and thanked them for the patience they exhibited during that period.
Main objective of all this modern technology is that we’re trying to build a process where, “any branch you go to anywhere in the Caribbean, you should have the same experience, both in terms of how you’re greeted, the kind of sales pitch you get as well as the technological interface and the process interface.”
Talking leadership, Sookoo said that an interesting part of the journey so far was the ability to leverage RBC resources to get the learning curve up for our people. An interesting statistic he revealed was that at present there were 10 Trinbagonians serving out in the Caribbean.
“We have an employee that is now in an RBC bank in the US on a two-year assignment helping them with change management, having already gone through that training. Our audit team has done audits in Toronto, and we have six Caricom people in TT doing jobs at present.”
Sookoo said it was not an uncommon belief that since the entry of RBC local management was being carried out by Canadians. “I have what is called an Operating Committee which meets every Friday and we chart the course for the company. We do have a mix of expats and a mix of Caribbean people and the idea is that over time to take that infusion of knowledge transfer, build someone locally, when I say locally, I mean Caribbean, so eventually it is all Caribbean run.”
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