INTERVIEW WITH HAKAN BORTECENE, GROUP CHAIRMAN; ERHAN RAIF, GROUP EXECUTIVE DIRECTOR; IBRAHIM OZAKAT, CHIEF TECHNOLOGY OFFICER OF TURKISHBANK GROUP And Mehmet Cinar, Kurt Bortecene and Bars Bortecene, Board Members of Turkish Digital Technologies
TurkishBank Group is a 120-year-old, privately owned financial-services group originating from Cyprus and operating in Turkey and the United Kingdom. The Group’s operations are considered boutique, with a total asset size of one billion US dollars. Being a boutique private bank requires the Group to know its clients and their needs, opportunities, risks, appetites and expectations thoroughly. As their customers’ “Financial Concierge”, the Group provides a tailor-made, personalized, informed service. “Client first” is TurkishBank’s motto, emphasising personal contact enhanced by digital innovation.
Although having operated in the UK since 1974, the Group’s UK arm, TurkishBank UK, attracted the full attention of London’s financial-services industry in 2016. By 2017, the bank had successfully joined all three UK retail-payment systems (Bacs, Faster Payments and Image Clearing System [ICS]). This was the first time a bank had attempted to join the major payment schemes in a while. At the time (and probably still today), TurkishBank was the smallest but certainly most interesting bank to break into the payment schemes—becoming a direct clearer. This, however, also opened the way for neo-banks to follow in its footsteps, especially on the Faster Payments scheme. Five years later, the total number of banks that are direct members of all three schemes is still 13, TurkishBank UK being one of them. This demonstrates just how challenging the feat is.
TurkishBank Group has a long history of operating under different international administrations, such as the Ottoman and British Empires. It expanded to London first as a branch, then later became a fully licensed bank—simultaneously extending its operations to Turkey. The Group now consists of four banks, one brokerage company, one insurance company and one new digital-technology company operating in the UK, Turkey and Northern Cyprus.
Currently, its top priority is further developing its flagship digital transformation project, T-Gate, a regional entrepreneurial ecosystem bringing together financial-technology firms and investors to create value-added opportunities for all involved. The platform will serve as an important gateway to markets and investors in Istanbul, London and Nicosia, bringing together many stakeholders of international calibre. T-Gate acts as a transformation enabler for fintechs and investors wanting to scale and globalize, achieved through a curated mix of funding, training, acceleration and collaboration. Other initiatives include the Open Investment platform, a leading investment-management advisory service through which all products available in the market are offered to clients with independent and trusted advisory provided by relationship managers. The assets under advice of this initiative doubled TurkishBank Turkey’s asset size within two years of launch.
International Banker recently asked Hakan Bortecene, group chairman of TurkishBank Group, and his sons, Kurt and Bars—board members of Turkish Digital Technologies, which is leading the Group’s digital transformation—a few questions about the banking group’s multi-faceted operations. We were joined by Erhan Raif, group executive director of TurkishBank Group; Mehmet Cinar, another board member of Turkish Digital Technologies; and Ibrahim Ozakat, chief technology officer of TurkishBank Group.
Gentlemen, welcome, and thank you for your time today….
Hakan, please provide details about TurkishBank UK and how it managed to penetrate the tight London payment system.
Hakan: We trusted our past achievements back home in Turkey and Cyprus, where we had access to the local schemes. But London being London, we were extremely cautious until we finished the project. Once successfully completed, we knew we would be embarking on new journeys, and this gave us the needed motivation to start our Digital Transformation Program with more ambitious targets.
Mr. Tanju Ozyol was selected as TurkishBank’s board’s chairman in 1984, and today, you are the Group’s chairman, Hakan. I also understand that your sons, Kurt and Bars, have worked with the Group since 2015.
Hakan: Many organisations were looking for “under 30” board members or digital natives for their transformation programs; therefore, it came in very handy for us when the next generation decided to join the family business.Today, Kurt and Bars jointly run the transformation program, recognised by the International Banker judges as The Best Innovation in Retail Banking – Turkey.
Kurt, please tell us more about the digital-transformation program you are spearheading with your brother, Bars, for TurkishBank Group. I understand that you are both board members of Turkish Digital Technologies, the vehicle leading the Group’s digital-transformation program.
Kurt: The transformation program encompasses two complementing initiatives. We’ve created the Open Investment brand, a platform to assist HNW (high-net-worth) customers select from the products of all the major financial institutions in the Turkish market from a single aggregated point. In the two years since its inception, total assets under advice with Open Investment has already doubled the size of TurkishBank Turkey’s balance sheet, an important success, and it is now being adopted by other financial institutions.
And we’ve also created a fintech ecosystem through our T-Gate platform—in which fintechs (financial-technology firms) participate in acceleration programs, including developing projects with the Group, raising capital and expanding internationally in a dedicated physical space under the roof of the Group’s headquarters. This was the second challenging initiative, but it also went quite smoothly.
I see you’re wearing your Turkish Investment board-member hat, Bars, as one of its directors. Can you add to what your brother shared about the T-Gate platform?
Bars: We’re launching an Investors Club under T-Gate, a gateway for members to invest in scaling technology companies, another very exciting project for us. The up and running T-Gate Technology Centre will be highly complementary to the Investors Club, allowing our members to interact and invest in promising scale-ups.
Bars, I understand that Turkish Investment recently completed a fundraising round for a robotic process automation (RPA) scale-up, which was oversubscribed. What has that achieved?
Bars: We have already attained a long list of mandates from technology scale-ups in verticals such as mobile banking, cyber-security, identity verification and digital onboarding. Similar businesses are lining up for “wise” equity.
The T-Gate Technology Centre apparently matches three-to-four-year-old companies with existing businesses ready to expand globally and seeking international capital for their investment rounds. Friends and family funding rounds for these scale-ups mainly target smart investors or opinion leaders consisting of the senior leadership of financial industries and global tech companies. Is that correct, Bars?
Bars: The value proposition that T-Gate offers is not only about finding funding. We match the right opinion leaders with the right scale-ups; we select investors based on their potential to contribute to the company strategy and growth.
T-Gate also has a mission to bridge London with the region’s fintechs. What are your thoughts on that, Erhan, as the group executive director?
Erhan: Turkey and its surrounding region have huge potential. I do not remember a more exciting era during the last 30 years that I have been with the Group. We have an excellent team of top talent working on this project with several world-class solution providers. It is so refreshing to deal with creative people. We have seen success stories from Turkey in e-commerce and gaming companies. Why not fintechs?
Several collaborators of T-Gate have been instrumental. Sistem Global (SG), a local audit and assurance company specializing in the technology sector, is one. SG acts as the main solution provider with Kadir Has University, a private university based in Istanbul and known to be strong in technology-related fields. SuperCharger Ventures, a team highly experienced in fintech ecosystems and currently a leading edtech (education technology) accelerator based in London, is also among the solution providers.
Initially, the T-Gate concept was focused on globalizing Turkish fintechs. However, as we started to develop our network in the UK, we quickly realized that there was a multi-faceted opportunity for UK fintechs to take advantage of the Turkish market in terms of collaboration with other fintechs, utilization of the talent pool and entry into the market by finding customers for their products and services. The vision for T-Gate has expanded to include it being a regional fintech hub.
Mehmet, you, Kurt and Bars are Turkish Digital Technologies board members. What is your perspective on T-Gate’s vision?
Mehmet: T-Gate’s vision of being the hub between Hong Kong, Singapore and London, the capitals of fintech, depends on close collaboration with Asian and UK ecosystem players. We are already in close contact with important parties and will unveil those partnerships in 2022.
As I understand, all of TurkishBank Group’s banks are working on Temenos banking-software solutions, inspiring fintechs to develop apps that can be later marketed to some 3,000 other users of Temenos worldwide. Ibrahim, as the Group’s CTO, what do you feel are the advantages of using Temenos?
Ibrahim: We have always enjoyed the advantages of using Temenos, and the software provider has been very supportive—even when you consider the size of our operation.
TurkishBank Group has reportedly also developed a mobile wallet with one of the global mobile telecom operators this year, Ibrahim. Can you provide any details about that?
Ibrahim: The project, contrary to our views initially, was more fun than anything else for both parties. I was surprised to see both teams at the launch celebrating together as one, a rare scene for projects of this complexity. I attribute this to the collaboration culture of both parties but certainly of TurkishBank Group.
Apparently, the Group expects to double its assets under administration in 2022 due to the growth observed in the last quarter of 2021. Is that correct, Hakan?
Hakan: We feel we are on the right track at the right time at the right place.
TurkishBank Group’s social-responsibility initiatives are led under five headings: 1) Climate Change, 2) Women in Business, 3) Youth Entrepreneurship, 4) Digital Transformation and 5) Financial Crime Prevention. Is one in particular more emphasized than the others?
Hakan: The challenge is to make sure we grow with a good ESG (environmental, social and governance) culture embedded in the way we conduct our business. TurkishBank Group is proud to run social-responsibility programs with high standards—mainly around sustainability, youth entrepreneurship and women in business.
Gentlemen, it has certainly been a pleasure speaking with you today and learning more about the many new endeavours on which TurkishBank Group is embarking. Thank you again for sharing your thoughts today.