ANZ Bank traces its presence in Fiji back 135 years, and the capital city Suva is the location of the bank’s Pacific headquarters. Vishnu Mohan, CEO of Fiji and the Pacific region, explains that ANZ’s wide network and local knowledge make it the natural partner for businesses looking to operate in the Asia-Pacific region, whilst the bank remains committed to supporting grassroots entrepreneurship.
According to the Attorney General, Fiji is entering a “Golden Age”, with the growth rate exceeding 4% for the past three years, whilst lending for investment and consumption has increased significantly. What is your forecast for the economy going into 2016?
I think it will grow between 3.5% and 4% because the fundamentals are strong and the country is very focused. The global economy is slowing. China is facing some problems but it is still a force to be reckoned with.
Fiji is somewhat insulated because 35% of the GDP comes from tourism. Agriculture is also important and we see that sugar has improved significantly, both in terms of cane production and sugar production. The sugar industry has performed well for the past five years, although this year has been affected somewhat by weather conditions. Some other sectors are doing reasonably well.
For me, it’s all about leadership and governance. Fiji’s leaders are very focused on making the country a hub for the South Pacific region and this is reflected in the infrastructure upgrades which are taking place across the country. Fiji is located at a very good vantage point and enjoys excellent connectivity.
Next year Fiji Airways will open a new route to Singapore and this will open up the Indian market. I am also looking forward to the development of Suva (Nausori) airport in phase two of the airport upgrades. As a bank which operates its regional and operations hubs from Suva, we will benefit greatly from increased connectivity. We would like to see people being able to fly directly into Suva with convenience and ease.
Fiji has done well to grow its exports to the USA. Fiji Water is a well-known brand around the world and Pure Fiji cosmetics are available in North America as a premium product.
When we met Minister Koya, he declared that Fiji is ‘open for business’ and said Fiji is the ideal base for investors who want to access the wider Pacific market of more than 10 million people. The US remains the largest source of FDI outflows in the world. Where do you see the most potential for American investment in the Fijian economy?
They should look at the tourism sector, clearly, and focus on value addition. What Starwood Resorts has done is fantastic. They now have a resort property on Tokoriki Island. This means Starwood customers can now come to Nadi and stay at the Sheraton there for a couple of nights before taking the boat to Tokoriki and doing whatever watersports they want. More of that kind of value addition would be nice.
The capital Suva would also benefit from more tourism development. There are a lot of European and Asian tourists who are interested in our history and Suva, as the political capital, has lots to offer.
The stock market is evolving and there are good businesses here which could well be looking for investors by publicly listing their companies, so there are opportunities there also.
One of Fiji’s biggest strengths is its literacy rate; it is probably the highest in the region. We employ some 400 people at our hub and only two are expats from outside the Pacific Islands.
ANZ has moved its Pacific headquarters from Melbourne to Suva, reinforcing Fiji’s reputation as the hub of the Pacific. How did this move impact on ANZ’s positioning as the bank of choice for potential corporate clients looking to do business in the region?
By setting up our operations hub 13 years ago and setting up our Pacific headquarters here in 2012, customers have seen that as a true commitment to the region and to the country.
Everything revolves around the customer. It’s not about off-shoring jobs or cutting costs, it’s about how to enhance the customer experience. We have made significant progress in recent years, and we have been able to do this because we have a very efficient, agile, focused workforce. We are able to do more with less and pass some of those benefits onto our customers. The unit cost has come down, and volumes are going up. Today we do over 10 million transactions a year in Fiji. Five years ago we were doing 3 million.
In my opinion, we have led the way in making Fiji a true hub for the region. In fact, the Prime Minister said as much during a speech in British Colombia earlier this year, when he singled us out as a role model.
For a country of Fiji’s size, the banking sector is highly competitive, with big players such as ANZ, Westpac, BSP and Bred. Quite simply, when corporations are looking for a banking partner in Fiji, why should they choose ANZ?
Of all the banks operating in Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific, we are the only bank that can be considered truly international. We operate in 34 countries all over the world and 29 of them are in the Asia-Pacific region. If you look at trade within the Pacific today, while Australia and New Zealand will remain the dominant trading partners for Pacific Island countries, you cannot ignore the growth in trade between the Pacific and Asian countries: Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore, Thailand, and, more specifically, China. Chinese trade with the Pacific has grown by 25% every year over the last five years. We have the capacity and capabilities to help facilitate this growth because we have a strong presence at both ends for these customers. So that’s the differentiator.
I understand that you also have a branch in New York City. How does this support trade and investment flows between the US and this region?
We have a branch in New York, we have a branch in London, we have a branch in Frankfurt, we have a branch in Paris, and we have a branch in Dubai. We want to connect customers in the US, or in Europe, or in the Middle East, with the Pacific or Asia. For example, Total in France has the mandate for the PNG Second Gas Project. We are their operating banker because they see our presence at both ends. Most of these conglomerates are controlled by their head offices and their management wants some contact at both ends, which we can provide.
These branches are essentially bridges for global companies operating in those parts of the world. We are not the bank of choice in those countries because they have their own banking institutions. But, for example, we are the bankers for Colgate-Palmolive and British American Tobacco across the Pacific. They appreciate the fact that we provide services that meet global standards. We are one of only a handful of banks in the world today which are double-A rated. We are very solid in terms of our balance sheet and we are highly regarded – these are the things which global companies look for. So we are number one when they look to choose a banking partner in this region.
What we are trying to do is to essentially leverage on our network and expertise to facilitate connections for our clients throughout Asia. We’ve done that with Heineken, for example. We are bankers to Asia Pacific Brewery in PNG and we are now connecting them with some of our businesses in countries like Cambodia, Vietnam, and other developing economies.
Aside from large corporates, Fiji is underpinned by SMEs and microenterprises and still has a very vibrant informal economy. What particular innovations have ANZ introduced to support the growth of SMEs and microenterprises and to encourage grassroots entrepreneurship?
We launched the financial literacy program ‘Money Minded’ in the Pacific five years ago. Over the last 12-15 months we have extended this to businesses. We are essentially educating small businesses about aspects of cash management, balance sheet management, and reinvesting in businesses.
Traditionally, people go to the bank and borrow money through a loan or an overdraft, and invest in the business. What customers tend to do is enter what is non-core business, and we have been educating them on the aspects of cash flow cycle and the trade cycle. We are promoting more trade facilities as opposed to straight lending. For example, for a customer who opens a letter of credit to import something from China, we will give them a loan against imports and we expect them to sell the goods and pay the bank back. Previously that wasn’t happening, they would take the money and use it for something else and then ask the bank for an extension of the loan. So these are some of the disciplines that we are instilling within the system. Our expertise is being appreciated because it’s good for the customer.
We have introduced a web-based tool called ‘Transactive’ where you can make payment instructions. It’s a very secure channel for doing business. At the end of the day we have access to a great suite of products because we are an international bank. Again, we are number one in global markets products. We are continuously educating our customers about these products and that is appreciated.
You have played a key role in the National Financial Inclusion Task Force. How is ANZ approaching the task of trying to bring the remaining 27% of the population that is unbanked into the formal banking system?
We cannot capture everyone but we can contribute. Financial literacy is one aspect. We are increasingly promoting ATM channels and EFTPOS channels so that people don’t have to carry too much cash. You would be surprised how many businesses still only accept payments in cash and this has to change.
We are also launching a mobile banking proposition next year. We are on the bike all the time. If you go to the West, you will see ANZ rural banking trucks visiting villages to do instant banking and facilitate deposits and loans for the residents.
Your presence in Fiji can be traced back some 135 years and you have a very active presence in the community through sponsorships and CSR work. What are the foundations of ANZ Bank’s successful relationship with Fiji?
It’s not about making money, it’s about being part of the community. You need to help the community grow to help their businesses grow. I think that’s very important.
We have grown our business organically and in-organically in Fiji over 135 years. There were lots of banks, including some American Banks, who have come and gone. One of the reasons they were not successful was because they could not understand the sensitivities and the sentiments of the local communities. They were very, very foreign. They were given their targets and goals by their head offices. But if you want to succeed, you’ve got to integrate with the community and understand local sentiments and needs. That’s what we have done.
Unfortunately the Pacific is prone to natural disasters. We are always the first bank to the rescue. I was in Vanuatu two days after Cyclone Pam and it was tragic. One of our buildings was badly affected. The very fact that I was there on the ground immediately after was very much appreciated by the local people. We listened to their grievances and offered our support. We take our obligations to the community extremely seriously.
As an extension of this, you said earlier that most of your staff in Fiji hail from the country itself and surrounding Pacific Islands. How do you approach the task of attracting and nurturing the best talent in the region?
We have three key elements to our CSR program. Obviously financial literacy is number one. Number two is charitable donations. Number three is volunteering and we measure staff volunteering by the number of hours. Last year across the Pacific, our 1,700 staff members contributed close to 12,000 hours in terms of volunteering activity.
One of the elements of volunteering is to work with universities. It’s not just about identifying talent, it’s about sitting with students and educating them. I was invited to speak to the MBA students at the University of South Pacific about four months ago to share my thoughts. There were about 300 students. You’ve got overseas students from the rest of the Pacific as well and it was an outstanding two-hour session. I spoke to them on leadership and about their future and what they need to do. Just two weeks ago I was chief guest at their graduation ceremony and gave the commencement address.
We are an employer of choice in the Pacific, wherever you go. Graduates see us as an aspirational company and our international presence is a big pull factor.
You have lived and worked all over the world and since 2012 you have been based here in Suva. What are your personal thoughts on Fiji as a place to live, work, and do business?
Fiji is a fantastic place to live. People are friendly and there is a lovely tropical climate. There is a risk from natural disasters but you can find that in many places, including California. It’s a small country with good connectivity, very close to Australia and New Zealand. It’s a great place to raise kids and education standards are high. Most of the expats here are very happy. I have lived in 11 countries all over the world and Fiji ranks right at the top.