Sustained success in any business is built on customer satisfaction and a sound strategy to harness market opportunities. This is more pronounced in the banking industry, where performance is pegged on highly regulated metrics of capital adequacy and asset quality.
With three decades of consistent growth, Union National Bank (UNB) has been a dependable business partner to many industry leaders in the United Arab Emirates. As the only bank jointly owned by the Abu Dhabi and Dubai governments, it has helped shape a progressive nation. This proven reliability has earned it a large base of loyal customers, which is rapidly expanding in the Middle East.
"We have had consistent successful stories here," says Mohammad Nasr Abdeen, CEO of UNB. "We always focus on the customers because their satisfaction fuels our success. If you improve your relationship with customers and give them timely support, then you are able to achieve good results. This requires an orchestrated effort to maintain high quality people, systems, products and services."
A strong and active player in corporate and retail banking, international and investment banking and Islamic banking, UNB uses a "building block" approach to sustain its success. Investing two decades into growing its home market, UNB cemented its position as the local bank of choice with a strategic move into Islamic financing in 2006. Expanding overseas, UNB emerged as a solid group with a multicountry presence within a few years.
The UNB group consists of Union Brokerage (UBC) - among the top-tier brokerage houses trading on the Abu Dhabi Securities Exchange and Dubai Financial Market, Al Wifaq Finance - providing sharia-compliant Islamic finance products and UNB-Egypt, formerly the Alexandria Commercial and Maritime Bank (ACMB) and UNB's first overseas acquisition. UNB also has a presence in Qatar, Kuwait and on the mainland.
Aside from increasing the UNB group's net income twelvefold from fiscal years 2000 to 2008, the bank's strategic moves paid off when the global financial crisis began to be felt in the Middle East.
Oil revenues and sound economic fundamentals largely insulated Gulf Co-operation Council (GCC) countries - Bahrain, Kuwait, Oman, Qatar, Saudi Arabia and the UAE - from the global crisis, with GCC economies continuing to be vibrant in 2007 when the rest of the world suffered reversals. Reflecting the economic resilience of its home market, UNB reported double digit growth in its 2007 consolidated net income, which continued to peak in 2008 - the height of the crisis elsewhere in the world.
However, the drastic decline in asset valuation and the resulting debt defaults began to take its toll on the GCC economies in 2009. While UNB's growth was momentarily stymied in 2009, its net income has remained steadily above the 1 billion dirham mark (HK$2.111 billion) since 2006, reaching its highest level yet at 1.5 billion dirhams last year.
"Everybody talks about quality but very few are able to put themselves in the lead and to do so consistently," Abdeen says. "UNB is distinct with its consistent growth despite the challenges of the global financial crisis and increasing competition."
Strong developmental role
UNB is more than an industry leader in its home country. As a conduit of the Abu Dhabi and Dubai governments, it is the trailblazer in the national goal to become an investment hub in the Middle East, and to establish the UAE as a global financial and educational hub.
A major player in financing large infrastructure projects throughout the country, UNB has had a long-standing relationship with General Holding (GHC), UAE's largest industrial conglomerate, which is expanding Abu Dhabi's steel production capabilities. Owned by the Abu Dhabi government, GHC is the proponent of big-ticket projects in Abu Dhabi such as the continuing build-up of iron and steel, aluminium, copper, rubber and other heavy industries.
UNB participated in a US$500 million syndicated loan signed in March last year to support GHC's ambitious plans. UNB was also the lead arranger of the 2008 syndicated loan that financed the fully integrated cement manufacturing complex of Arkan Building Materials, a GHC subsidiary.
The bank has invested in UAE's sunrise industries through the years. Its loan funding was strategically deployed to the contracting, trading, manufacturing, hospitality, tourism and real estate sectors when these industries began to emerge as national economic drivers.
A mainstay in oil and gas financing, UNB is also a frontrunner in supporting small- and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). The bank assists the Khalifa Fund for Enterprise Development, an Abu Dhabi-based local entrepreneurship programme, in financing manufacturing SMEs and reaching more UAE nationals across the emirates through UNB branches. Recognising the long-term impact of incubating home-grown talents and enterprises, UNB has a team focused on packaging SME loan products and helping SMEs connect with bigger players in their fields.
Staying ahead of market needs, the bank creates synergies with well-entrenched industry players. A partnership with IndusInd Bank makes it easier for Indian nationals in the UAE to send remittances to their home country, among a host of financial services. UNB also joined forces with Methaq Takaful Insurance and Oman Insurance (OIC) to widen insurance coverage in the country. The partnership with Methaq mainly eases motor insurance renewals for UNB customers, while an OIC-linked product offers financial protection and life insurance to UNB depositors.
To bolster regional capital formation, UNB ventured into the international bond market as early as 2005, priming investor appetite in the Middle East, especially among European and Asian institutional investors. It is also a major participant in syndicated loan facilities in the GCC, notably supporting Dubai-headquartered global port operator DP World, telecommunications giant Emirates Telecommunications (Etisalat) and leading property developer Union Properties.
Recognising the market potential of the remittance industry, given the proliferation of foreign workers in the UAE, UNB supported UAE Exchange as lead arranger and book runner for a US$125 million syndicated loan facility. UAE Exchange is an Abu Dhabi-based global money transfer player, with close to five million registered customers accounting for some 5 per cent of the global money transfer market. The syndicated loan facility, intended for UAE Exchange's expansion, was oversubscribed amid challenging market conditions in May last year, testifying to the bank's industry stature.
UBC, UNB's brokerage unit, has an expanding role in mobilising investments. Among the oldest and most established in the UAE, UBC was the first brokerage house in the Middle East to acquire ISO 9001:2008 quality certification. It also became the first Middle Eastern entity to become a general clearing member of NASDAQ Dubai (formerly Dubai International Financial Exchange). This eased access to trading opportunities among investors in the UAE, within the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region and global players. General clearing services at NASDAQ Dubai were confined to international firms such as Merrill Lynch, KAS Bank and Deutsche Bank prior to UBC's entry in 2008.
Together with UNB's merchant banking and capital markets department, UBC works with highly rated institutional investors and investment houses in optimising returns for high net-worth individuals (HNWIs) and corporate clients. Its investment products range from regional and global debt securities, interest rate and credit-linked instruments, structured notes, public and private venture capital funds to hedge funds.
As the local bank of choice, UNB is the preferred partner of global banks requiring services and expertise in the UAE. Its correspondent relationships extend to more than 50 countries with some 225 reliable partners. Dedicated corporate banking teams with proven industry and domain knowledge ensure tailor-fit solutions from SMEs to large and medium-sized corporations.
Flexibility and liquidity
UNB's in-depth understanding of the UAE and its people's needs primarily stems from an extensive domestic reach. UNB has 56 branches throughout its home market - 21 of which are in Abu Dhabi, seven in Al Ain, 14 in Dubai and 14 branches spread across Sharjah and the northern Emirates. Overall, it has more than 168 ATMs all over the country. It operates a state-of-the-art call centre and provides 24/7 access with online banking and mobile messaging.
This commitment to growing its home base was underlined by UNB's launch in 2005 of the "Easy Pay 70-30 loan", the first salary loan in the UAE that catered to the mass market, which helped establish the viability of affordable financing and opened a host of opportunities for the entire banking industry. UNB's award-winning Everyday savings account took savings mobilisation to the next level with interest rates calculated on a daily basis instead of the usual monthly or annual terms.
The unprecedented success of Al Wifaq Finance displays the depth of UNB's market knowledge and its business acumen. Al Wifaq Finance exceeded expectations since its founding in 2006, raking in Islamic deposits exceeding the 1-billion-dirham mark within months of market launch. UNB recouped its investment in Al Wifaq Finance on the latter's first year of operation, reflecting the gaping need for sharia-compliant products and services that the bank took care of.
The Islamic financing business was instrumental in sustaining UNB's growth during the global financial crisis. The bank has a department dedicated to growing the Islamic financing business, which continues to rally UNB's overall performance with a group-wide technological platform ensuring easy transactions.
Enhancing the customer-centric strategy, UNB has positioned itself as "the local bank that cares". It promotes savings and retail investing by delighting customers with guaranteed returns and accelerating interest. It has also expanded its consumer credit business through flexible payment options and educational loans.
Aside from providing tailor-fit solutions, UNB has a fully fledged online banking facility called Uninet for its corporate clients. For HNWIs, it offers full-service equities trading on major stock exchanges around the world, among a wide range of investment products and services managed by UNB's private banking team.
UNB's product innovations and consistent improvements are well recognised in its home market and the international community. It is distinguished in the UAE with three Sheikh Khalifa Excellence awards, of which two were gold citations, and two Dubai Quality awards in 2005 and 2009. The bank also received the prestigious Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum Business Excellence Award in 2008.
UNB also received the Arabian Business Achievement Awards' 2010 Bank of the Year trophy and the CEO Middle East Award 2010 - Banking Category.
UNB also attained Superbrand status in 2011 and in 2012. The bank was selected by the UAE's Superbrand Council, an independent body that screens some 3,000 local brands, to join the global community of exceptional brands. It also won the Best Domestic Retail Bank award at the 2011 Banker Middle East Industry Awards, among the most prestigious industry awards in the Middle East.
A forerunner in acquiring ISO certification since 2002, UNB last year became the first commercial bank in the world to acquire Integrated Management Systems certification - for environment (ISO14001) and health and safety (OHSAS 18001) management systems supplementing quality systems accreditations (ISO 9001). Consistently rated as stable by Moody's, Standard & Poor's, Fitch Ratings and Capital Intelligence, it was ranked among the 50 safest banks in emerging markets by Global Finance last year.
"We are improving and increasing our size because we have also invested in our people," Abdeen says. "We are very selective of our staff and give them proper training on our culture of excellence. They are very loyal to the organisation because we are loyal to them also."
Among its many awards, UNB is gratified by its people's choice win in last year's International Business Awards (IBA), also known as the Stevie Awards, and regarded as the business world's Oscars.
A special category called People's Choice Stevie Awards for Favourite Companies was launched in last year's IBA, with online voters determining winners in various sectors and UNB emerging as their favourite in the financial services category. The bank was a finalist for the financial services Stevie among 3,000 organisations from more than 50 countries that vied for management awards.
UNB has been variously cited for its excellence every year since 2005.
Having accomplished its 2000-2008 goals, which industry observers once regarded as too ambitious and unattainable, UNB is using the same building-block approach in charting its future. The vision of its 2010-2018 business plan is to be the benchmark financial institution in the Middle East. By consolidating its delivery of superior customer service and establishing the bank as an employer of choice, UNB aims to grow its market share in the region to continue delivering solid shareholder returns.
"Our vision is to complete our success stories and help bring the Middle East closer to its natural trading partners all over the world," Abdeen says.