An interview with Michał Gajewski, CEO of Santander Bank Polska

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  • GRI:
  • 102-14 Statement from senior decisionmakers
    Statement from senior decisionmakers
  • 102-15 Key impacts, risk and opportunities
    Key impacts, risk and opportunities

The year 2020 brought a new reality for Santander Bank Polska, its employees and customers. What were the most important events for the bank last year?

2020 was a year entirely influenced by the pandemic.  It was difficult and challenging for both customers and bank staff. We all had to adapt rapidly to a unique situation that we had never faced before. This was true for customers who were struggling with health or financial difficulties, but also for the banks, which had to react accordingly to provide the support needed. Security, the development of mobile solutions and the use of remote channels became our priorities to an even greater extent than before.

The pandemic has accelerated the digitization and the use of mobile solutions by customers. In our case, this translated into a 10% increase in digitally active customers and almost 20% growth in mobile users. We ended the year with almost 2.5 million customers using their accounts via the internet or mobile app. Last year also witnessed a considerable increase in the number of transactions made through mobile banking or trusted profiles established with our help, and a huge growth in the popularity of BLIK payments.

In order to provide security to our customers and employees, we launched new initiatives promoting remote channels, such as the possibility to open a personal account based on a selfie, without having to leave home. Some of the most important activities that we carried out during the pandemic year included the charity campaign ”We Will Double Your Impact”, in which over 15,000 people together with Santander Bank Polska and the Santander Foundation raised PLN 5 million. The collected funds have been used to purchase medical equipment and protective clothing for 23 hospitals in Poland, which were indispensable during the COVID-19 pandemic. To support our customers, we have also launched a general information website about banking during the pandemic:

Last year also saw further development of our green finance offer and new related projects, such as photovoltaic and wind farms, but also new products launched by Santander Bank Polska on our market, such as green bonds and loans.

The pandemic has also strongly affected your clients’ businesses. How did you help them overcome the difficulties of running their businesses?

We have taken very specific measures aimed at individual customers, as well as businesses, to support them in the difficult time of the pandemic. We proposed, among other things, to waive debit or credit card fees, and to postpone repayment of loan, leasing or factoring instalments. With seniors in mind, we launched a fast-track contact line with a consultant, and we ran educational campaigns which helped this group of customers to bank without leaving home. We introduced good practices ensuring a consistent approach to the identification and servicing of vulnerable customers, i.e. those who found themselves in a difficult situation due to their age, disability, job loss, illness or financial distress.

For many companies it was important to be able to apply through our remote channels for subsidies offered by the Polish Development Fund under the ”Anti-Crisis Shield”, the option to obtain liquidity guarantees from the Polish Development Fund or ad hoc assistance such as bridge financing or short-term liquidity support for customers requiring an individual approach. We introduced, among other things, automated handling of agreements and collateral for loans with the de minimis guarantee. The process time was shortened from 3 business days to 15 minutes. Last year, we also organised a series of webinars for our clients on the situation in selected sectors and key markets of the Santander Group, as well as training on how to make use of the Anti-Crisis Shield. We also actively used the Santander Trade Alliance  website to support our customers’ business development and facilitate contacts with companies operating in other markets.

Which of the sustainability-related activities conducted by Santander Bank Polska in 2020 are you most proud of??

Despite the pandemic, Santander Bank Polska did not slow down in its activities which help our clients to be socially responsible or to implement a long-term strategy of supporting the necessary ecological and environmental changes. Among such activities I can mention offering, as the first institution in Poland, financial solutions based on ESG (Environmental, Social, Governance) or SDG (Sustainable Development Goals) principles. These include green bonds, ESG-linked loans or interest rate volatility hedging transactions based on sustainable development principles, i.e. green IRS. We are also involved in financing the largest wind and solar farms in the country, actively supporting the development of RES. In 2020, we financed projects supporting the development of renewable energy worth a total of PLN 146 million.

In addition to customer support, we have also taken internal initiatives to significantly reduce our own environmental footprint. We have done this by switching fully to green energy, replacing our fleet with hybrids and phasing out plastic bottles from our branches and replacing them with filtered water. As a result, we now use 7 tons less plastic annually. We have also significantly reduced the use of paper at our head office and branches. This is due to changes in procedures and processes, which enabled us to send electronic documents to our customers, as well as to eliminate paper documentation in favour of digital archiving.

Alongside climate-related activities, our long-term strategy, based on the principles of responsible banking, also calls for particular attention to the integration of people at risk of exclusion from the financial market, such as seniors or persons with disabilities, within the framework of inclusive banking. To this end, we tailor our offer to the needs of different groups and support internal and external educational projects. In the past year, we focused on protecting our customers from falling out of the financial market due to financial distress caused by COVID-19. We developed Good Practices for Vulnerable Customer Service, an information website for customers with credit repayment problems and resources for advisors. Our activities have been recognised with such distinctions and awards as Polityka’s Golden CSR Leaf or second place in the Responsible Companies Ranking organised by Koźmiński Business Hub.

Concern for our employees was also very important in 2020. In the first months of last year, our primary focus was to ensure security, especially for front-line employees serving customers in branches, and to enable a large part of the organization to transition to remote working. We remained in constant contact with the organization. On a quarterly basis, we conducted, among others, Employee Experience surveys (the so-called employee NPS), in which we asked about the expectations and needs of employees. Based on that, we set up four task groups (hot spots) which worked on addressing the most important issues for employees. The bank also focused on transparent communication, employee development, building a diverse and inclusive work environment and a feedback culture. We also continued our leader transformation program, strengthening their management competencies, especially during the pandemic when a large number of leaders had no direct contact with their teams.

What challenges will Santander Bank Polska face in the coming years? How will the bank respond to them?

In pursuing our responsible banking agenda, the key challenges we identify both this year and in the years ahead are those arising from the implementation of the European Green Deal. For us, the European Commission’s initiative to achieve climate neutrality in Europe by 2050 implies new product development, changes in climate risk management, but also regulatory pressures. In the coming decades, the growing importance of sustainable finance issues will be very noticeable for the entire financial sector. At Santander Bank Polska, we are ready to actively support our customers in the changes that need to take place over the next two decades. Particularly in Poland, where about 70% of energy comes from coal, this process will require a lot of effort from the industry and the power sector, but also a lot of experience and agility on the part of financiers. That is why green finance is such an important point in our strategy. Our experience in promoting and launching new products, as well as our expert knowledge in this area, will be an important asset in the future for responding to our clients’ needs.

Therefore, a major challenge for Santander Bank Polska in the coming years will be the green agenda in terms of products, but also climate risk management.

What are the main objectives of Santander Bank Polska for the coming years?

Our planned activities and the main goals for the coming years are a response to all the challenges ahead of us, but also to the expectations of our stakeholders and the majority shareholder. In the nearest future, climate issues will be a key topic, which will be reflected in the bank’s further activity related to the work on the climate strategy or strengthening climate risk management, in particular with regard to credit procedures and policies. The coming years will also see the development of our green offering for retail and SME customers, as well as the alignment of our products and portfolio with the Net-Zero strategy announced by the Santander Group. According to this strategy, by 2050 the entire Group will be zero carbon, both in terms of internal emissions caused by, for example, electricity consumption, business travel or car fleet operations, but also in terms of emissions that result from our financing. As part of this goal, from 2030 we will stop financing energy companies whose revenues from thermal coal production account for more than 10% of total revenues. Within a decade, we plan to completely reduce the bank’s exposure to thermal coal producers – this includes all the contracts we have concluded in the past. These are the next steps taken by our bank following the withdrawal from financing new thermal coal mines and new coal-based thermal power units, announced in 2019. All of these commitments mark a huge change for Santander Bank Polska, but they are a product of the transformations that will need to take place across our economy and energy sector. We also remain consistent in our internal long-term goals, such as ensuring diversity in the composition of the management team and equal pay. One of the important challenges will be to maintain high levels of employee engagement and satisfaction, and to further develop the competencies of our leaders with a strong emphasis on the human aspect, empathy and a focus on fellow human beings.