Robinsons Bank: Steadily Climbing to the Top with a Strong Digital Push

RBank President & CEO Elfren Antonio Sarte on how technology is helping attain the bank’s goals

2018 was another good year for Robinsons Bank, the banking arm of JG Summit Holdings. As it ended the year, its consolidated balance sheet (which includes its financial subsidiaries) indicated assets of 121.3 billion pesos. For the bank alone, its total assets amounted to 119.6 billion pesos—enough to move it to 18th place on the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas’ list of biggest banks in the country in terms of total assets. “There’s still a long way to go, but we are getting there,” says Robinsons Bank President and CEO Elfren Antonio “Boyie” Sarte.

The ambitious push towards the summit of Philippine banking coincided with Sarte’s joining the bank in late 2014. It was then that he and the bank’s chairman, Lance Y. Gokongwei, began devising the strategy for raising the profile of the bank, dubbed Roadmap 2020. “The main focus of Mr. Gokongwei back then was that he wanted the bank to have a more significant presence in the industry. He felt that in terms of the JG Summit conglomerate, the bank was so far away compared to the other business units—URC, Cebu Pacific, Robinsons Land—that they were major contributors to JG Summit’s financial performance, and the bank was not. That’s when I developed a five-year plan with that in mind, to aggressively grow the bank.”

Sarte defined his key initiatives to achieving growth: systems improvement, structural change, hastened talent acquisition, and product development. While these helped the bank’s performance, Sarte soon realized that an additional push was needed. “Back in 2014, when we were developing the roadmap, ‘disruption’ was not yet a byword, nor was Fintech. Digital transformation was not a major concern,” he says.

Robinsons Bank President and CEO Elfren Antonio "Boyie" Sarte.

So in the 2017 Annual Report, Sarte stated that “Robinsons Bank sees digital innovation as a gateway to expansive opportunities in developing and introducing wide array of products and services. The Bank takes adequate steps in this age of disruption, intense competition, and emergence of fintech companies, to improve our efficiency and deliver a differentiating customer experience.”

Robinsons Bank embraced digital transformation as essential to its continued growth, and fast-tracked products for the growing digital banking space, using the agile framework. Addressing an issue that wasn’t around when the roadmap was launched, Sarte strengthened the bank’s digital banking platform. The bank developed the Personal Online Banking (POB) Website and the POB Mobile applications for banking to be more accessible to the bank’s clients. “We’ve also launched our Direct2Bank facility, where we have the capability to transfer money to other banks via InstaPay and PesoNet,” says Sarte.

Another digital innovation is the Simplé Savings online facility where anyone can apply for the account online, without having to go to an actual branch and, once the process is complete, he receives a Virtual Debit Card.  Client can then transfer funds from another bank account to his new Simplé Savings account. Besides this, the Simple Savings Virtual Card acts as a virtual debit card which can be used for online payments. Sarte mentions a few other exciting projects in the pipeline, currently undergoing testing, which will be kept under wraps for now. The ultimate goal, though, is to have more types of banking transactions done online, “where you can deal with us without needing to go to a branch.”

The big push in digitalization has altered the course of Roadmap 2020 in more than one way. While the original goal was to have 200 branches by next year, the number has been reduced (we should have around 161 or 162 by the end of 2019, says Sarte) thanks to a wider market reach afforded by digital and other non-traditional forms of banking. Currently awaiting approval from the Bangko Sentral ng Pilipinas is the Agency Banking platform, which will make use of the wide network of Summit Superbikes and Premiumbikes, an affiliated motorcycle dealership. “Agency banking will allow our customers, and even customers of other banks, to go to a Premiumbikes store, and with their ATM cards, they can withdraw [via the cashier]. For our clients, they can go to a Premiumbikes store and deposit. For non-clients, they can go there and open an account. It expands our reach without opening a branch.”

Speaking at the recent 10th anniversary of Premiumbikes, an affiliated motorcycle dealership of Robinsons Bank.

If testing is successful, the program will roll out to all 172 Summit Superbikes and Premiumbikes shops nationwide, says Sarte. This is not to say that opening branches has been put aside. In fact, soon the bank will unveil a new look for some of its branches, starting with the new branch in Bonifacio Global City.

“Our new branch will have a traditional banking area and a digital banking area, where you will have tablets instead of tellers, a self-service area where you can do your transactions.  We will also be installing an automated queuing system and a cash deposit machine… It will improve the customer experience,” promises Sarte. 

The new branch will be open 24/7 for the digital banking area, while traditional banking area follows the regular banking hours.

In 2018, Robinsons Bank expanded its horizons and entered the merchant acquiring business with Cebu Pacific, the number 1 e-commerce website in the Philippines in terms of credit/debit sales, as one of its merchants. This will enable the bank to process more than 20 billion worth of credit and debit card transactions annually from Cebu Pacific.

Sarte clearly relishes his role as the company visionary, something he prefers rather than being obsessed with every single detail of running a bank—micromanagement is not his style. “My role is to be a forward-looking CEO. I don’t want to be involved so much in the day-to-day. I am more the visionary. I need to think two to three years ahead. If all I tackle are the problems of today, nothing will happen. That’s why I have competent people doing the day-to-day, because I handle the forward-looking, future projects,” says Sarte.

“I am excited about conceptualizing things. I am trying to tap how we can expand the business, I am more excited thinking about the revenue opportunities in a digital environment. My role is to give the direction, the vision, and try to be at the forefront of developing new services or businesses for the bank.”

All these initiatives and other developments are leading to the goal of making a leap from a commercial bank to becoming a universal bank, the highest level of banking in the Philippines. One of the main hurdles to reaching that goal—a universal bank requires at least 20 billion in capital—is within reach, as the SEC recently approved the increase of Robinsons Bank’s authorized capital stock from P15 billion to P27 billion. The next step is becoming a publicly listed company, which Sarte confidently sees happening, though he declined to put down a firm date. He justifies his prudence by saying “Banking, as it is, there is no quick formula. I like the concept of building blocks, where you can have a strong foundation. Whatever comes your way, you can withstand. That’s what I want, rather than a quick rise. We’ve been patient in doing it. We have reached this point where we are much bigger bank now, but there’s still room to grow.”

The benefits in attaining universal bank status are many, says Sarte, including the public perception that universal banks are more stable. “When we become a unibank, we can go into investment banking functions, also as arrangers for loan syndications. We can also invest in other businesses not limited to financial services. We’ll have more flexibility in other areas.”

While digital transformation has played a big part in the bank’s upward rise, Sarte makes it clear that the human element will always be crucial, especially in terms of customer service and people development. “At the end of the day, banks will offer the same things,” says Sarte noting that sooner or later, others will catch up with everyone else’s innovations. “How will we be better? We will offer better service.” Sarte reveals that the bank is training its staff to be customer-obsessed, having the customer front and center, satisfying their needs and whims to the extent allowable by existing regulations.

In terms of people development, Sarte says that there are leadership training programs in place and that the bank invests to ensure its people are up to date with the best practices in the industry. Aside from that, Sarte himself helps build a motivated team by hosting a regular “kapihan” with randomly selected staff, “so that the message cuts across the organization, not only at the top. A group of 20 to 30 at one time, from rank and file to junior officers, they get direct updates from me. That’s one way they get inspired. I try to connect them with the vision of the bank, and their role in the bank. Everyone plays a critical role. This isn’t about the president or the group heads, this is about our people doing their share. That, I think, is the real success. When everybody is engaged and motivated, then I am sure we will continuously grow.”

In 2019, the bank has maintained its growth trajectory as it makes robust developments and progress, now marked as one of the rising players in the banking industry. Robinsons Bank continues to enlarge its nationwide footprint with the aim of becoming a formidable institution. True to JG Summit’s aim to “Make Life Better,” the bank continues to execute its strategies towards the vision of becoming the “Bank of Choice driven to fulfill its customers’ changing needs.”

For more information, visit Robinsons Bank at 17/F Galleria Corporate Center, EDSA corner Ortigas Avenue, Quezon City; or call the Customer Care Center (C3) Hotline: (02) 637-CARE (2273);;;; Twitter: @RbankCorp