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Asiamoney best bank awards 2018: Bangladesh

Best domestic bank: Brac Bank

Best corporate and investment bank: Eastern Bank

Best international bank: Standard Chartered

Best digital bank: Brac Bank

Best bank for SMEs: HSBC

Best bank for CSR: Brac Bank

Best for premium banking services: The City Bank/Citygem

Awards winners

Best domestic bank: Brac Bank

Brac Bank’s straight-talking chief executive, the Standard Chartered veteran Selim Hussain, hit the ground running when he arrived in November 2015.

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Selim Hussain,
Brac Bank

In the two years that Hussain has been in the chair, Brac Bank’s profits have soared from Tk2.34 billion ($28.2 million) for the year before he arrived to Tk3.97 billion ($47.83 million) up to the first nine months of 2017.

With another quarter to be reported, Dhaka analysts believe Brac’s profits may well top Tk5 billion ($60 million) for the year. If that happens, it would mark yet another milestone for Brac Bank and Hussain in 2017, after Brac Bank became the first Bangladeshi bank to reach a market capitalization of $1 billion.

Brac Bank has neatly caught Bangladesh’s journey from poverty straitjacket to middle-income developing country status. That march is led by legions of small traders and manufacturers whom Brac Bank has captured as customers in numbers.

Hussain says his small and medium-sized enterprise book now accounts for around 40% of Brac Bank’s total loan portfolio. In addition, its 51% stake in the country’s dominant mobile payments operator bKash has also helped lift presence and profits.

That’s all good news for shareholders, primarily the world’s biggest non-government organization, the Bangladesh Rehabilitation Assistance Committee (BRAC), which span off what was then essentially a micro-financier focused on Bangladesh’s army of largely undocumented small business people.

BRAC now owns 44% of the bank, which has generated dividend yields of 30% for shareholders in each of the years since Hussain arrived.

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Best corporate and investment bank: Eastern Bank

Chief executive Ali Reza Iftekhar has made Eastern Bank the go-to destination for Bangladeshi corporates and foreign multilaterals addressing the country’s chronic infrastructure shortage.

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Ali Reza Iftekhar,
Eastern Bank

In a thin market for corporates – traditional investment banking is virtually non-existent in Bangladesh – Eastern has identified the multilateral finance sector as a rich seam, co-financing projects with the World Bank’s International Finance Corp, the Asian Development Bank and national development financial institutions from the UK, France, Germany and Norway.

Eastern also claims to have built up Bangladesh’s largest offshore banking unit, while developing trade offices in Hong Kong and Myanmar and soon-to-open outlets in India and China.

All that activity shows on the bottom line; 2017 profit was up 17% to $38 million as assets grew 20% to $3.1 billion. Investors responded accordingly, lifting Eastern’s market capitalization by 85% over the year to $456 million.

One of Bangladesh’s best-run lenders, Eastern boasts the country’s lowest non-performing loan ratios at 1.17% (at the end of 2017), which it claims is the lowest in the country’s history. For a third year in succession, Moody’s has also confirmed Eastern’s Ba3 rating with a stable outlook.

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Best international bank: Standard Chartered

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Naser Ezaz Bijoy,
Standard Chartered

The more things change, the more they stay the same. That might be the mantra at Standard Chartered Bangladesh under new chief executive Naser Ezaz Bijoy, in his first year in the chair at Bangladesh’s pre-eminent foreign bank.

A 24-year veteran at StanChart, Bijoy moved up from heading the corporate banking operation in Dhaka to take over the top slot from Abrar Anwar, who has switched to run the bank’s Malaysian operation.

StanChart is the foreign bank Bangladeshis go to, holding around 50% of local deposits with a non-Bangladeshi bank, some 2,471 corporate clients and 268,000 retail customers.

In trade finance, StanChart saw import volume grow by 15% in 2017 and exports by 9%; its trade team handling more than 500,000 transactions last year, an 8% market share of all banks.

The first to introduce credit cards to Bangladesh, StanChart remained the market leader in that sector in 2017.

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Best digital bank: Brac Bank

Like Google, Skype and Hoover, the ubiquity and ease of the bKash mobile payments system across Bangladesh is such that the platform has become a verb.

Eight years after bKash was launched by entrepreneur Kamal Quadir, 30 million Bangladeshis – the number of active bKash users – don’t so much ‘send money’ any more but ‘bKash’ each other. And they do so five million times a day, collectively transacting billions of taka to e-wallets on phones around the country through Quadir’s platform.

That’s a boon for Bangladeshi banks, unlocking unbanked funds that they would have had to open myriad new expensive branches to reach. Now they are accessible via bKash’s 180,000-strong agent network, or wherever there’s a mobile-phone tower.

bKash has also energised remote rural areas, raising some of the world’s poorest people into the economic mainstream.

Data generated by bKash helps authorities see where cash is generated and needed, providing tools for economic policymakers and banks.

Neither a bank nor a deposit-taker, bKash may have been inspired by Kenya’s pioneering M-Pesa system, but now the Bangladeshi platform that’s 51% owned by Brac Bank, with minority shares held by the International Finance Corporation and the Gates Foundation, has become the acknowledged global leader in mobile financial services.

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Best bank for SMEs: HSBC

As Bangladesh’s vast battalions of small and medium-sized businesses carry their country up the development scale from poverty to middle income, François de Maricourt and his team at HSBC Bangladesh have positioned to helping them on that journey.

HSBC helps connect SMEs with buyers and suppliers both within Bangladesh or through the bank’s global trade network. Technology is key, and this year, HSBC launched its well-received ‘Trade Transaction Tracker,’ a smartphone app that offers customers real-time tracking of their deals, from credits, collections and payments down to locating and tracking shipments en route.

Another new product, ‘Trade Up,’ provides exporting SMEs with financing of up Tk20 million ($250,000) to match trade cycles. De Maricourt says the key to HSBC’s SME efforts is to keep trade flows simple, smooth and sound, designed to meet the typical business dynamic of Bangladeshi SMEs.

It also helps that HSBC, which facilitates about 8% of Bangladesh’s foreign trade, is the only bank in Bangladesh with offices in each of the country’s eight designated export processing zones.

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Best bank for corporate social responsibility: Brac Bank

As befits a bank that springs from a charity, corporate and social responsibility is part of Brac Bank’s DNA. And in a year where Bangladesh endured the world’s gravest humanitarian crisis, Brac Bank stepped up to help, directly raising funds to assist the millions of Rohingya refugees escaping persecution in neighbouring Myanmar, and by plugging domestic aid gaps for a government diverted by the Rohingya crisis.

Beyond that, Brac Bank says its employees work with a greater mission, focusing on long-term programmes with sustainable and lasting impact. The bank has a vast CSR roster: education assistance, warm clothes distribution, healthcare and blood banks.

Brac Bank supports the famous Prothom Alo Trust scholarship, which educates students from poor families who ordinarily can’t afford higher learning. The bank also backs the National Heart Foundation Hospital in regional Sylhet, the first fully fledged specialized cardiac hospital in the area. The bank supports diabetes research, funds burns facilities and raises road safety awareness and provides relief for villagers periodically inundated by floods in the Ganges delta.

Brac Bank claims to employ the largest number of female staff of Bangladeshi private banks; its Tara platform works for women rights, empowerment and safe workplaces in the bank and beyond.

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Best for premium banking services: The City Bank/Citygem

Citygem is the private banking operation of The City Bank, run by chief executive Sohail R K Hussain. But nationalism compels Bangladesh’s central bank not to allow private banking as much of the world knows it, so in Bangladesh it’s called priority banking.

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Sohail Hussain,
The City Bank

Citygem is designed, as the bank openly admits, “to meet the banking needs of high net-worth customers”.

The boutique banking offering grew in 2017. The bank now claims 4,200 members, with a cumulative deposit balance of Tk18 billion ($217 million), which the bank boasts is highest customer-to-deposit ratio in Bangladesh banking.

Citygem members bank at state-of-the-art lounges with in-house baristas and private share-trading rooms, with advisers on hand covering portfolio management and the property market. There’s valet parking, a 24/7 airport shuttle and access to The City Bank’s American Express-linked airport lounges.

Citygem also scaled up its Sapphire line this year for the seriously rich, offering members exclusive travel, health and lifestyle privileges.

A bank insider reckons more than half of Bangladesh’s wealthiest families use Citygem, which has become of a look-at-me status symbol in Dhaka.

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