From guarding flamingo feathers to furthering fintech - how FNB made it to 180 years

FNB CEO Jacques Celliers
FNB CEO Jacques Celliers

Standing with a flamingo feather in his hand, FNB CEO Jacques Celliers said that the business of the bank – which is to help people – has been consistent over the past 180 years.

Celliers was speaking at the launch of the bank's 180-year exhibit at the bank's offices in Cape Town last Monday.

As early as the bank's founding in Grahamstown in 1838, then known as Eastern Province Bank, the bank served as a storage facility of valuable items. At the time valuable items were feather and wool. Celliers commented on how people have always turned to the bank to "look after" the things they value, a function the bank still serves, although the form in which this takes place has changed.

Celliers has been CEO for five years. He took over from his predecessor Michael Jordaan in 2013. Trained as an engineer, he completed his MBA at the University of Cape Town's Graduate School of Business in 1998. He was previously CEO of FNB's Business Banking and head of FNB's India expansion.

In past interviews with Celliers, he has always diverted personal questions in favour of the story of FNB. Without fail, the CEO speaks proudly of the bank and its legacy.

Celliers commissioned the exhibition project, which has taken approximately a year to put together. The travelling exhibit will make its way across the country for the public to view, and eventually become a permanent structure at BankCity, FNB's head offices in Johannesburg.

"You never want to be a leader of a proud history that ends," Celliers told Fin24.

'So much emotion in money'

"We are not about the end, we are about the future. We take great pride in the past - it's a great foundation. When you start up something you have no foundation. We are so blessed as a leadership team, that we have so much to work from," he said.

In the world of fintech start-ups, the challenge is not technology but rather scalability – something FNB can already has, he explained.

"Our job to take things to the next level, to win hearts and minds on a totally different level than we used to," he said.

FNB has always helped people with their money, Celliers said. "The 'same old thing' about helpfulness," he said of FNB's winning recipe.

"Everyone's got a financial context. You're either poor or wealthy, or you are in trouble or excited. There is so much emotion in money."

FNB's role has been to help people avoid making mistakes – whether it be the handbag you shouldn’t buy, or getting the wrong price for a house or a car. People could argue that it’s important to "save R5" in bank charges, but Celliers' response is that the real cost is the money you lose in living.

The first items the bank held for safe keeping.

Earliest items submitted to the bank for safe keeping include feathers and wool. (Photo: Lameez Omarjee, Fin24)

FNB's operating model has stayed solidly on the path of ensuring helpfulness – helping consumers manage their money, their credit profiles and now even assisting in ID and passport applications in partnership with Home Affairs.

Beyond bank accounts

"There is just a holistic value proposition we are unpacking, to really go beyond bank accounts," he said of the bank which is invested in building "lifelong relationships" with clients. Customers go through events in their lifetimes - such as marriage, having children, getting divorced, facing hailstorms, losing a job or in the case of businesses losing clients.

He wants customers to view FNB as a GPS, providing advice on a journey.

"[We want] to stay there for the good times and the bad times, and be there for the ups and downs. Make plan A, plan B, plan C and plan D," he said.

The first ATM

One of the earliest ATMs which forms part of an exhibit celebrating FNB's 180 years. (Photo: Lameez Omarjee, Fin24)

When asked how FNB has built trust, Celliers is aware that trust is something that can easily be broken.

"Trust is earned," he said. "We make mistakes. There are many examples of our mistakes in the past. We take great pride in the fact that when we make mistakes and when we do get challenged, we reflect deeply.

"We own the problem and we repair and remedy properly," he said.

"I do not think society expects companies to never make mistakes but they expect them to fix it.

"We do not think people have to love banks, but they should be able to trust banks," he added.

As an organisation FNB is open to face the challenges brought to its table, Celliers explained.

"Anyone can see, how you build trust is about how you fix things when they go wrong."

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