Digital Bank

The world is embracing a host of new technologies and the banking industry is no exception. First Investment Bank, Fibank, offers an innovative and customer-oriented solution that has become one of the leading institutions in the country in card business and international payments. Having earned success in Acquisition International’s Worldwide Finance Awards 2022, we caught up with CEO and Chairman of the Managing Board, Nikola Bakalov, to find out more.

Pioneering new ways of working is no easy task, but it lies at the beating heart of how the team at Fibank operate. Their choice of advanced solutions and modern banking has made them very popular amongst customers, offering products and services for individual and corporate clients. The team’s decision to use investment gold and other precious metals with unique for the Bulgarian market products and services is just another reason to turn to the firm, but what other factors have driven their success?

Who better to answer this question than Nikola Bakalov? Mr Bakalov has led Fibank to its current position as a rapidly growing, innovative, customer-oriented bank, challenging the status quo and creating a way of working that stands apart from the crowd. We asked him how his bank stays ahead of the emerging developments in the industry. “Digitization and change in consumer behavior lead to changes,” he tells us. “Many of our customers already prefer to bank remotely, in an online environment, rather than visiting our offices. Therefore, we actively invest in implementing new technological solutions and introducing a number of improvements in digital banking.”

Many of these changes have been accelerated by the pandemic, forcing businesses and individuals to embrace a new way of working in order to survive. “Banks such as ours were among the first to start developing digital financial solutions and offering them to customers,” Mr Bakalov explains. “We can define the pandemic as a catalyst of these processes and as a clear indication of the direction in which modern banking will increasingly move. Our active involvement in digital solutions began long before customers realized the need for them and we were among the first to start implementing them and actively promoting them at the market. That is why, when the pandemic unfolded, we were already prepared and there was no need to build from scratch but only to upgrade our digital products and services.”

Whilst Fibank has achieved success through its digital mindset, we wondered how this shift has impacted the way in which the team interacts with their customers. Mr Bakalov was happy to elaborate: “Due to the advancements in information technology, a significant shift has been observed from traditional banking to the digital environment. Almost all daily banking transactions can now be performed on our remote banking platform. We offer a wide range of services for full-fledged digital banking, while our extensive branch network remains always available for customers who need personal consultation with a banking expert.”

The team has pushed boldly forward into new ways of reaching out to their clients. We wondered what innovations the team have been able to implement that are leading the way for the banking industry. “First Investment Bank launched its Video Consulting service for retail customers, also providing them with the option to apply for consumer loans fully online,” Mr Bakalov informs us. “This service has since been upgraded to include online mortgage loan applications. Customers can submit their electronic applications using the My Fibank website or the mobile app. The platform also enables them to remotely sign all documents relating to granting of consumer loans or issuance of credit cards.”

The development of a mobile app has allowed Fibank clients considerable flexibility in the way that they operate. Operating in the digital space gives them the freedom to bank as they wish and when they need to. “My Fibank mobile app customers can apply for and receive MyCard virtual credit cards,” Mr Bakalov explains. “Those are issued fully online and credit limits are granted automatically within minutes.” These virtual cards can be used with My Fibank, Google Pay, Apple Pay, Garmin and Fitbit, on contactless POS and ATM terminals, or for making payments over the Internet. During 2022, Fibank intends to offer the opportunity to make and receive instant payments in BGN under the Blink Program of the National Card and Payment Scheme (NCPS), part of BORICA. Clients can order Blink instant payments entirely online through My Fibank electronic banking.”

Whilst there has been increased demand for digital solutions, expansion has been challenging for many businesses thanks to the pandemic. The success of Fibank during the last couple of years stands apart from many in the industry. “In 2021, the Group of First Investment Bank reported increased financial results and sustainable development in the context of the ongoing COVID‐19 pandemic and its consequences,” Mr Bakalov says proudly. The Group profit after tax increased to BGN 111 mln. compared to BGN 45,5 mln. a year earlier, as a result of higher operating income and the development of credit policies, as well as optimization of administrative costs. Total income from banking operations increased to BGN  435 mln (2020: BGN 373,7 mln) with an increase in all main sources of income.  The return on equity (after tax) reached 8.85%. This astonishing achievement is a direct result of hard work and effective leadership from the team.

2022 has presented slightly different challenges to 2021, where the global economy was showing that it had the capacity to recover its pre-pandemic momentum. With banking sector revenues almost reaching the record levels of two years ago, the industry as a whole has proven capable of absorbing the complex geopolitical situation of sanctions against Russia. Mr Bakalov’s predictions maintain this positive line, drawing on the way in which the markets are reacting to the events of the day: “My forecast is that lending activity will remain high in terms of demand and supply of loans,” he tells us, “but with a bit added caution given the unusual economic situation. This should logically lead to increased credit risk, which in turn is a component of interest rates on loans. I personally feel optimistic and believe that Bulgaria will quickly overcome the negative consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Whilst Fibank has already established itself as a pioneer of new ideas and bold technologies, we know that all businesses need an effective plan to thrive in the future. To conclude our deepdive into the success of Fibank, we asked Mr Bakalov precisely what he and his team intend to do in the future. “We have the necessary platforms in place that allow us to develop innovative products and services,” he tells us, “And our customers have also proven over time that they are very receptive to innovations that we carefully select and implement in the Bulgarian market. The new trends in the banking sector and the logical consequences of digital transformation in recent years have allowed banks to launch projects that will soon lead to a hundred percent coverage of all banking products and services in the digital environment – and this is certainly the direction we are moving in.”

The decision to embrace the digital landscape even further is not surprising at all, but it is not the endpoint of what the team are doing. “We have a wide branch network staffed with well-trained employees,” Mr Bakalov continues. “Unlike fully digital banks, we operate from over 120 branches and offices throughout the country. This is a significant advantage since there, apart from being able to bank in the traditional way, our customers can also receive advice, including on how to more easily and conveniently use their digital banking. Over time, the industry will become increasingly digitized and physical branches will remain as a point of contact and consultation for customers.”

The success of Fibank comes from an approach to the banking sector that moves with the times. The team’s attitude is one which is always innovating and constantly looking to the future. The triumph of the team in the Worldwide Finance Awards 2022 is a credit to their tireless efforts. We thank Mr Bakalov for updating us on Fibank and its enviable success, as well as looking forward to seeing what the team do next.

For further information, please contact Nikola Bakalov, Chief Executive Officer (CEO) and Chairman of the Managing Board, or visit www.fibank.bg