„Romania is my home”

By Carmen Dimitruc and Anca Hasegan, Raiffeisen Bank, Romania |
Steven van Groningen, Raiffeisen Bank’s CEO for the past 17 years, is Dutch but calls Romania his home. He has become used to the way of thinking and feeling Romanian, although he has retained a healthy dose of “Western awareness” which helps him identify balanced solutions for the situations he faces. He speaks Romanian almost perfectly and has been married for over 30 years with a Romanian, Valeria Racila, the 1984 Olympic champion in rowing.

Steven van Groningen

A recognized business leader and one of most admired CEOs* in Romania, he is also the longest-serving head of a local bank and succeeded, through the adoption of a balanced business development policy, in ensuring Raiffeisen Bank a top place among the most profitable banks in the country even during the financial crisis. Steven van Groningen is an active member of professional organizations or non-profit associations (e.g. United Way Romania, Friends of the Romanian Art Museum), promotes a healthy lifestyle by participating and supporting sports competitions such as the International Marathon in Bucharest or the Via Maria Theresia Marathon. He has been involved in introducing bicycles as a means of transport in Bucharest and other Romanian cities and is passionate about photography.

Mr. van Groningen, what is better suited for the Romanian banking market: digitization, traditional banking or a combination of the two?
I don’t believe there is a choice: we must move more and more towards digitization. However, we have customers who want to use the most modern digital solutions, but also customers who want everything in cash. It’s not easy to find solutions for both categories. It certainly doesn’t help us that there doesn’t seem to be a clear unitary concept at the country level. Our intention is to stimulate the transition from cash to digital as quickly as possible, and the pace is dictated by the market. We depend, however, on the legislation, because in many cases we are struggling with regulations that hinder development and make us rethink our strategy, as is the case with the state suddenly changing tax regulations and introducing a tax on bank assets. I would like for us to have a clear and predictable vision for Romania and follow it through, but unfortunately things don’t happen this way.

What is the best decision you have made, and is there any decision you regret?
Do you know what happens when you make decisions every day? You must accept that some decisions may be good, and others may not. What matters is that the sum of good decisions is higher than the sum of bad ones. I think the best decision I made was between 2007 and 2008, when we decided to slow down lending or, to say it better, not to compromise our responsible lending standards. It was a decision that helped us remain profitable during the crisis. It wasn’t easy to make it at a time when all banks were fighting for market share. We accepted losing a small portion of our market share and focused on the quality of the portfolio. As a result, our non-performing loans ratio is half compared to the system. And in short, this is the explanation for the fact that we remained profitable for all these years.

How are Romanian bankers in general?
They are smart, well-trained, and hard-working.
When I took over Banca Agricola in 2001, I said I wanted to lead the institution with the best bankers in Romania. 18 years ago, the only thing Romanian bankers were lacking was experience. Now that we have gone through the financial crisis and everyone knows what this means, I can say that local bankers have surely gained a lot of experience.

We also understood how important it is to avoid living in an ivory tower. We must talk to our customers, make visits and attend meetings, get in touch with all types of clients – individuals, small entrepreneurs, big companies – because this helps you achieve an accurate image of the Romanian economy and of the risks.

What do customers tell you when you meet them?
The reactions are very diverse, and I realize that we, as a bank, as well as the system as a whole, do not always manage to communicate well enough about what a bank does, what a bank cannot do, what banking means etc. I get all sorts of messages. I particularly appreciate those customers who show us where and how we can improve things. That means having a relationship and developing it for the long run.

What does Romania mean for you?
Home. I live here, I’ve had the greatest professional success here, I’ve spent most of my adult life here. My wife is Romanian, my children are Romanian. I speak the language, I have Romanian friends. I totally feel part of the local society, because I can do things that go beyond my bank position, I can participate in various charitable activities, ride the bicycle, go to concerts, run in the park. That is why, without any hesitation, I consider Romania my home.

Do you feel Romanian?
I am no longer a hundred percent Dutch, but I will never become a hundred percent Romanian. However, I think I understand a lot of the Romanian culture and approach.

How do you disconnect and where do you find balance?
For me, health is balance. If you’re not healthy, all the balance is gone. In my case, this means sports. I try to have, from time to time, a project that forces me to do sports. If I’m preparing for a triathlon or a marathon, I set goals for those, too. If I don’t do sports, I don’t feel good. At the same time, my philosophy is that you need to do something creative, too. In all modesty, I am a very good photographer. I did that all my life. I always choose a project in this area, to make sure I pay attention to creativity. And then there’s society, where you need to get involved through charity. I find it healthy to be exposed from time to time to the problems that less fortunate people have and take part in solving them. If you do not care about your community, you cannot be a balanced person.

* Steven van Groningen was awarded the title „most admired CEO” by the Romanian BUSINESS Magazin several times already.

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