Ali Reza Iftekhar, Eastern Bank
Eastern Bank, run by chief executive Ali Reza Iftekhar, has been a consistent presence in Asiamoney’s annual best bank awards. Over the last year, the firm went the extra mile to remind the market why.
In 2021, its tier-1 capital rose 11.4%, year on year, to Tk26.1 billion ($293 million). Overall assets jumped 15.4% to Tk388.8 billion, following an anaemic, 0.53% year-on-year increase in 2020. Net profits rose 13.5% in 2021 and return on equity was 15.5%, up from 15% in 2020.
It is easy to think that these and other successes merely reflect the opening up of the economy and excess central bank liquidity around the globe. This assumes, though, that Bangladesh’s financial sector was state-of-the-art before Covid-19 arrived.
But, as Iftekhar says, Eastern Bank’s continued leadership owes much to the strategic moves it made during the pandemic to rein in operating costs, leverage strong growth in traffic on its digital platforms and social media channels, and offer new and innovative services through the bank’s mobile apps.
Eastern Bank’s tech prowess is certainly impressive. Over the last year, the bank has fine-tuned numerous features, from chatbots to QR payment solutions and online account opening services, with some of south Asia’s most advanced know-your-customer and biometric toolkits.
Iftekhar boasts that he has caught Covid-19 twice since 2020 in his determination to serve Eastern Bank’s customer base – and investors. Despite the chaos of 2020, the bank declared a 35% dividend to shareholders, the highest in Bangladesh's banking industry.
One big payoff in 2021 was the 400% surge in transactions on the EBL skybanking app. The platform is playing a crucial role in improving customer experience and relieving pressure on the branch network in an era of social distancing.
Skybanking gives users hassle-free, secure and economical banking-from-home capabilities.
The fund transfer options alone are scoring well in customer surveys. Customers can make transfers from bank to bank, and from a bank to the full range of mobile finance services. The bill-payment feature has become a model for peers in Bangladesh, enabling transactions involving e-commerce, credit cards, utilities, tuition fees and direct-to-home broadcasters.
Eastern Bank takes its role in supporting national economic development seriously. In the last year, it financed power projects to generate more than 2,100 megawatts of electricity. It handled 5% of all trade volume in Bangladesh, worth $5 billion in 2021.
The bank remains a force in improving the quality of factories in the ready-made garments (RMG) sector, one of the country’s biggest employers. Its outstanding loans championing state-of-the-art RMG factories amounted to $450 million by the end of 2021.
For an institution turning 30 in 2022, Eastern is impressively attuned to the social-media energy that characterizes the Generation Z cohort. Last year alone, it rolled out more than 400 online campaigns meant to go viral on everything from new services to improving financial literacy.
It has also leveraged social media to get the word out about Eastern Bank’s leading role in supporting green businesses, sustainable finance and reducing Bangladesh’s carbon footprint. It is a remarkable franchise that is Asiamoney’s best domestic bank in Bangladesh in 2022.