A True Partner of Laos
MARUHAN Japan Bank Lao is bringing all of its global expertise, resources and innovation to better serve its customers, who form the lifeblood of the nation’s economy
Writer" Tom Wadlow | Project Manager: Sam Love
Laos has come a long way over the past four decades in terms of economic liberalisation.
During the second half of the 1980s, the country embarked on an ambitious programme of economic reforms; the New Economic Mechanism was established to gradually transform its centrally-planned economy into a market-oriented economy.
This covered many components, including: incentives for private investment; institutional infrastructure to improve market economy operations; trade liberalisation and further specialisation; and the establishment of price stability through macroeconomic policy measures.
While the programmes – which in the 1990s included the creation of a two-tier banking system – have not come without their challenges, positive impacts have been felt both economically and socially.
It has also facilitated the arrival of foreign investment, one example being the introduction of MARUHAN Japan Group to the country’s financial sector.
Operating as MARUHAN Japan Bank Lao (MJBL), its aim is to use the MARUHAN Japan Group’s unparalleled resources, capacity, and expertise to revolutionise the Laotian banking industry (and further afield). And, for CEO Anthony Chin, it is an exciting time to be in the country despite the disruption caused by the CoVID-19 pandemic.
“Laos is probably one of the last frontier economies in the region with an exciting opportunity for growth and development,” he says. “The population is relatively small at seven million with a competitive banking landscape of 44 banks operating here, about a third of which are locally incorporated and fully licensed institutions – MJBL being one of them.
“However, there is still a sizeable market of untapped opportunity and access to finance in some section of main cities, second tier cities and villages. Laos has decent mobile penetration and more than three million internet and Facebook users. The workforce is also young.
“With technology and digitalisation, I believe there is a unique opportunity for Laos and its people. As a young economy, there is not much in the way of legacy business systems and companies can move relatively quickly. The pandemic has made it a necessity to accelerate digital adoption.”
Anthony Chin – brief bio
Anthony Chin has been in the banking sector for 23 years. As well as his roles within the MARUHAN Group, which includes sitting on the Board of Director & Risk Management Committee of Sathapana Bank, Cambodia; he serves as the Chief Advisor to the Lao ICT Commerce Association to lead its fintech chapter and digitalisation division.
During his career, he has received numerous awards, including Best New Banking CEO by the International Finance Awards this year.
“I was both honoured and humbled,” he says. “I have a great team. It is always the team. I just so happen to be the leader and face of the organisation. The award is a true recognition that anything is possible if we put our mind to it, focus, work hard and never give up. Once we set our vision, believe and go for it. Hence, my relentless pursuit of building a great team, albeit a small one. There will always be challenges but we need to soldier on, onwards and upwards.”
Indeed, cutting edge technology, a wealth of industry experience and tailor-made services represent key components of MJBL’s offering, the group having been present in the region since 2008.
“In Laos, we have embarked on an exciting journey to strategically transform into a leading sustainable and innovative financial services provider,” Chin continues.
“MJ22 is our strategic vision and transformation programme leading up to 2022, premised on three key pillars: To build the most trustworthy bank in Laos; provide an awesome customer experience; and use digital-led technology to solve customers’ needs.”
A dynamic Laotian citizen
MARUHAN Japan Bank Lao has four physical locations in Laos – two in Vientiane, one in northern Luang Prabang and one in southern Pakse.
It offers a range of basic, digital and advanced products & services to its customers – a full-fledged bank encompassing retail, SME and corporate banking which, in the eyes of Chin, stands out from the crowd in four key areas.
First is the fact that MJBL operates as a truly hybrid bank both in physical and digital forms.
On the digital side it launched MJ Saduak, an innovative mobile banking and e-wallet app, in November 2019, with numerous features that are a first in Laos, such as chatbot, financial management tool, QR enabled and peer-to-peer payments, self-generation of QR, and account linkage, to name a few.
MJBL also launched the first and only paperless and fully digital branch in Laos (and the region) – this features digital queues, digital account opening, facial recognition, e-signatures, and cardless ATMs, among many other pioneering innovations.
More recently, it just launched the first innovative virtual debit MasterCard with instant approval, 3D secure protocol and full control from the MJ Saduak app.
This dual approach has been vindicated in terms of results. The past year has seen MJBL more than double its customer base and recently growing its merchant network to over 1,500 and many strategic partners being onboarded during this time. It is also one of the first partner banks of LAPNet to connect to more than 90 percent of ATMs in Laos and has enabled ATM funds transfer in the country for the first time.
“Another standout feature is how we support start-ups and e-commerce with innovative solutions, and work closely with players to solve their payment and financial needs,” Chin adds. “We launched e-CASS, our e-commerce auto settlement solution, during the pandemic lock down – with our first partner customer LOCA, the first and prominent ride hailing app in Laos, whereby we provide drivers’ auto payment settlement with the company and vice versa, all through an app anytime, anywhere.”
Third is what Chin describes as a small but extremely cohesive, dedicated and dynamic team.
“We are ‘glo-cal’, bringing together the best of global and local talent and best practices,” he continues. “Notwithstanding, we believe in local talent and have started a serious talent programme to groom them for senior roles in the future. There are eight nationalities in the bank, but we are all passionate and focused on advancing banking in Laos, for Laotians and our local community.
“We work closely with local communities in areas of education, woman entrepreneurship, gender equality, agriculture, handicraft and local tourism to name a few.”
SMEs – Laos’ economic lifeblood
The fourth differentiator is that MJBL is a major supporter of micro and SMEs.
It has invested tremendous resources in building an ecosystem underpinned by collaboration, shared infrastructure and partnerships.
As well as its own tailor-made products and services, MJBL is the first bank in Laos to launch an SME mentoring programme via BIZGROW, which involves mentoring and workshops. Further, the company is working with partners and 20 small businesses to train entrepreneurial skills over a three-month pilot scheme completely free of charge, an initiative which has been officially endorsed the Ministry of Industry & Commerce and Department of SME Promotion.
Such a vibrant hive of activities leaves Chin optimistic about the future and the role MJBL can play in empowering these businesses (and consumers) to drive Laotian development forward.
He ends the conversation here, underlining just how critical such support will be.
“SMEs are the backbone of the Laos economy, constituting 99 percent of businesses,” he says. “This directly contributes to productivity and output in the economy. More so, after the outbreak of the global pandemic, it is important to support productivity versus consumption as a priority. This generates jobs, cashflow and income for local communities and the country’s young workforce.
“I believe in working directly with entrepreneurs and relevant parties, including government agencies, to advance and support SMEs. Funding is a common requirement of businesses, but we go beyond that and we listen to their issues and pain points. We work with them to solve their challenges so as to enable them to focus on their core businesses.
“But I must stress we are a Bank for All. We may be small, but we have a big heart. In Laos, I always say ‘Thanakhan-noy, teh-hua-jai-yai’!”