The Montreal Gazette, January 21, 2004

NBG Bank offers alternative to 'big bank' bureaucracy

By Warren Perley

CEO Nicholas Avgoustakis has brought a renewed sense of professionalism and personalized service to NBG Bank operations.

Businessman Martin Greenbaum is like a kid in a candy shop since he discovered that NBG Bank can offer him the best foreign-exchange rates of any bank in Canada.

Greenbaum, the owner of a commercial real-estate company, has been banking for 50 years with one of the Big Five Canadian banks. But every November, when it comes time for him to head to his condo in Boca Raton, Florida, Greenbaum makes a beeline to NBG Bank to exchange his Canadian currency for U.S. greenbacks.

Greenbaum was surprised when his own bank recommended that he deal with NBG for his currency needs because NBG offers better exchange rates on small volumes than any bank in Canada. The fact that it is regulated by the federal government's Office of the Superintendent of Financial Institutions means that, unlike foreign-exchange houses, drafts issued by NBG Bank are secure and essentially risk-free instruments for settling transactions.

For Greenbaum, it means that when he converts $10,000 Canadian into U.S. funds at NBG Bank, he ends up with about $300 U.S. more than when he deals with his own bank.

Unlike other banks, any commercial client - even one like Greenbaum, whose company does not have a banking account with NBG Bank - can walk into the treasury department at the head office on Place du Frère André, near René Lévesque Boulevard West, and negotiate a rate directly with a currency trader.

Individuals can also take advantage of NBG Bank's Cambio foreign exchange facilities, located in the bank's downtown branch.

PHOTO: Phil CarpenterBusinessman Martin Greenbaum receives a U.S. bank draft from NBG Bank foreign exchange trader Francesca Nucera.

"Don't ask me why no other bank can match these rates," Greenbaum said, as he watched trader Francesca Nucera process his order prior to Christmas. "My brother is a lawyer who told me two years ago that I could get a better rate at NBG.

When I asked my regular bank about it, they acknowledged that they couldn't match NBG. I end up with a few hundred dollars more each time."

Currency exchange is just one of the services and products that distinguish NBG Bank as a full-service Canadian chartered bank and a viable alternative to the Big Five Canadian-owned banks.

In addition to foreign exchange, NBG Bank offers a full range of both personal and commercial services ranging from savings and chequing accounts to term deposits, Registered Retirement Savings Plans, mortgages and loans.

Personalized Service

But what sets the NBG Bank apart from other banks is one-on-one personalized service, which entails a broad range of policies aimed at making clients feel that they are more than just a number.

It means explaining banking options to a client in his or her mother tongue, or staying after hours to take care of a client's last-minute banking needs. In the treasury department, it can involve delivering a draft or money order to a client's home or business address.

PHOTO: Phil CarpenterHenry Crochetière, vice-president for human resources, with training manager Elaine Constantinidis.

The fact that NBG excels at service should come as no surprise to those who know the history of the bank. As a wholly-owned subsidiary of the NBG Group in Greece, founded 162 years ago, NBG Bank has had a lot of experience dealing with clients' needs.

With assets in excess of $87 billion and branches in 17 countries, the NBG Group is a well-established international bank with 10 branches in Canada, including the first one that opened in Montreal 34 years ago. It now has five branches in the greater Montreal area - downtown at Place du Frère André, on St. John's Boulevard in Dollard des Ormeaux, Bernard Avenue, Jean Talon Street and Souvenir Boulevard in Laval. A sixth branch is scheduled to open this summer in St. Léonard.

There have been major changes to the bank's operations in Canada since Nicholas Avgoustakis, a 25-year Royal Bank veteran, took the helm as CEO in January 1997.

Avgoustakis, whose family immigrated to Montreal from Greece when he was 4 years old, is a graduate of McGill University. After spending 10 years in Europe as a relationship manager and the manager of credit services for the Royal Bank's multinational corporate clients, Avgoustakis was appointed to manage a portfolio of top Royal Bank clients in Quebec before being tapped by theNBG Group to head its operations in Canada.

PHOTO: Phil CarpenterTony Simiele (left), area manager of the West Island and downtown branches, discusses the upcoming RSP season with Peter Caloudis, assistant vice-president and manager of the Jean Talon Street and Bernard Avenue branches.

Although he was not a retail banker during his Royal Bank days, Avgoustakis quickly realized that the emphasis of NBG Bank should be one-on-one personalized service at both the personal and commercial banking levels. "The banking needs of individuals, as well as small- and medium-size businesses, is the focus of the bank," he said.

One of his symbolic moves has been to modify the trade name from National Bank of Greece (Canada) to NBG Bank to reflect the fact that it is an alternative bank for all Canadians.

Avgoustakis has made major changes in what he calls the "three Ps" - people, products and portfolio.

In the people area, he recruited experienced personnel from other Canadian banks and industries while implementing human resources and development programs for staff. "I want our people to project an environment that is demonstrably professional in terms of product knowledge, customer service and the ability to negotiate with our clients," Avgoustakis said in a recent interview.

New product offerings

Among the new or enhanced products offered in recent years:

  • Mutual funds, which include leading Canadian mutual fund companies;
  • Residential mortgages, including mortgage life insurance, a key sector for the bank;
  • The NBG Bank card that can access ATMs in Canada through Interac and internationally through Plus. It can also be used to make purchases in Canada;
  • The Olympia Gold Daily Interest Chequing Account, which features 30-day term deposit rates, as well as a line of credit;
  • National Direct Deposit Service, which allows commercial clients to make their deposits to NBG Bank through any Royal Bank branch;
  • Merchant credit-card services;
  • An NBG Bank Mastercard;
  • Index term deposits.

To deliver the products to an expanding client base, the bank has opened full-service branches in recent years on the West Island; in Mississauga, Ont.; and in Hamilton, with a new one slated for the greater Toronto area. The thought and energy put into the decor at each branch is apparent - colourful murals, statuettes and artifacts depicting the artistry of ancient Greece.

PHOTO: Phil CarpenterLaval branch manager Julia Viscione (left) with teller Georgia Andreadakis.

What is less visible is the fact that the bank has invested more than $5 million to improve customer service by overhauling its hardware and software with a banking system called Globus.

This system is also the backbone of NBG Bank's new Internet banking service, which will be introduced early in 2004.

The third "P" in Avgoustakis's list of priorities when he took over seven years ago was the bank's loan portfolio.

Since his arrival, it has almost doubled to $450 million. His other priority was to improve the quality of the loan portfolio, and this has been accomplished with a focused application of prudent underwriting standards for loans.

The bank's asset quality indicators and overall financial performance are strong and continue to improve.

The trade name change, the introduction of new products, the implementation of a new banking system, the expansion of the branchnetwork, together with the recruitment of key management personnel are all part of a coordinated effort to attract new clients while maintaining a strong, loyal base in the For example, the NBG Bank foreign exchange service has a diverse client base with an estimated 90 per cent of its clientele being of non-Greek heritage.

Michael Antoniadis, senior vice-president in charge of the treasury department, says the majority of its foreign-exchange transactions involve small- and medium-size businesses doing deals ranging from $75,000 to $150,000 each.

"We have a niche among smaller businesses," Antoniadis said. "The bigger banks don't allow small and medium-size enterprises to contact their treasury departments directly. We're providing a valuable service to our existing business clients while opening the door to attract new customers. We don't want to change the recipe."

Foreign exchange draws clients

Anthony Colizza, who is head of foreign-exchange sales in the treasury department, says NBG Bank has picked up many new clients since it started offering foreign-exchange services nine years ago.

"There has been a lot of word-of-mouth and referrals because we offer more competitive rates on lower volume business than any other bank," Colizza said. "This department is a big plus for the bank because it opens the possibility of cross-selling our other services and attracting new account holders."

PHOTO: Phil Carpenter (L. - R.) Vice-President Jim Lekas reviews marketing strategy with assistant Vice-President Paolo Palermo and mutual fund director Benoît Jolicoeur.

Jim Lekas, vice-president in charge of sales and marketing, has been involved in all the major initiatives aimed at expanding the client base. The efforts are bringing results.

"Our market in the Greek community is now second- and third-generation Canadians of Greek ancestry," Lekas said in an interview. "We are sensitive to the needs of our clients. For example, they're looking for sophisticated products and services, like Internet banking so that they can manage their accounts online."

NBG Bank currently offers clients a debit card which can be used at ATM machines. However, the bank will look into installing ATM machines at its own branches, Lekas said, in a further effort to attract new and younger clients.

Since the bank began introducing new products and services, NBG has seen an influx of non-Greek clients. For example, about 85 per cent of the customers at its West Island branch are non-Greek. The Laval branch is also attracting clients from outside the Greek community.

"Expansion within and outside the Greek community is our priority," Lekas said. "We believe that NBG can be an alternative to other banks for all Canadians."

As part of NBG Bank's team approach to developing new products and services, Lekas works closely with branch management such as Tony Simiele, in charge of the West Island and downtown branches, Peter Caloudis, who is in charge of the branches on Jean Talon Street and Bernard Avenue, and Julia Viscione, who manages the Laval branch.

"These managers are in touch with the clients daily," Lekas said. "They know what the clients are looking for. Their recommendations help us implement products and services to distinguish ourselves from the competition."

One of those products which mutual fund director Benoît Jolicoeur helps put together is known as the Portfolio Optimizer. This service is an advisory guideline available both digitally and in hard copy for personal banking officers to help their clients customize investment options which meet their financial needs. Bank clients also receive an investment newsletter several times a year with market and investment tips and updates.

Caloudis says such publications, together with the expert advice from personal-banking officers, help the bank match the clients' needs with the available products. Most of the clients at his branches are second- and third-generation Canadians whose Greek parents or grandparents started family businesses two or three generations ago.

"These are now mature, established businesses," he said. "They're looking for more sophisticated services, such as Internet banking, and they want to diversify their personal portfolios."

Caloudis, who started his career with the Royal Bank almost 25 years ago, says one thing that has not changed at NBG Bank is the family-type environment in which customers and staff are on a first-name basis.

"We've modified our products and services to position ourselves as an alternative to the big banks," said Simiele, another Royal Bank alumnus who switched to NBG five years ago. "We've also extended our hours of service at most of our branches to include Saturday."

Julia Viscione, manager of the Laval branch, says clients often drop in at the Laval branch without an appointment to discuss their needs in an "informal, relaxed" atmosphere. "Clients like the fact that we sit down with them to try to understand what they need and where they want to go with their personal investment portfolios or with their business."

Autonomy benefits clients

In making loan decisions, NBG Bank managers know that the numbers tell only part of the story - the character, knowledge and experience of the client count for a lot, Viscione said.

Paolo Palermo, assistant vice-president, business development, says NBG branch managers or account managers always visit clients at their places of business to get to know them better.

Palermo, who is one of NBG's staffers of Italian origin, emphasizes the close ties between the Italian and Greek communities, which helps explain why a new branch is being opened in St. Léonard next summer.

Henry Crochetière, vice-president of human resources, says the bank's relationship with the Greek and Italian communities is part of a "widening circle" of clients. The NBG Bank has never lost its focus on personal banking and small business accounts in the communities it serves, he said.

As part of its commitment to client service, the NBG Bank appointed one of its branch managers, Elaine Constantinidis, to be its training manager 14 months ago. In that capacity, she has established formal training sessions for the NBG Bank staff of 300.

The bank's commitment to its clients extends to the community at large. The NBG Bank Foundation has raised more than $650,000 at its golf over the last six years, donating the funds to health-care facilities in Montreal and Toronto, as well as to educational and cultural projects.

CEO Avgoustakis, who grew up in a working-class family, is proud of the "solid values" represented by such community involvement. "I know what can be achieved with patience, dedication and understanding," he said. "It's that kind of attitude that we bring to one-on-one banking at NBG."

Meet NBG Bank client

André Clémence
  • Title: President
  • Corporation: Euro-Excellence
  • Type of business: Importing and distributing confectionery items
  • Years in operation: 14
  • Years as an NBG client: 6
  • Why I chose NBG: "We appreciate negotiating the foreign exchange and the rapid transfer of funds with a minimum of fees to pay 50 suppliers in Europe. The bank has a European philosophy - an easy communication with services adapted to international business. NBG Bank has helped me to evolve and multiply my business six-fold."

Meet NBG Bank client

Chris-Ann Nakis
  • Title: President
  • Corporation: Baton Rouge, Complexe Desjardins
  • Type of business: Restaurant
  • Years in operation: 8
  • Years as an NBG client: 32
  • Why I chose NBG: "I appreciate their ability to complete overseas transactions and their never-ending patience in answering all my queries. My business could not have grown - and continued to grow - had it not been for the perseverance of all the bank's staff. They genuinely want to keep me, the client, happy."

Meet NBG Bank client

Costa Antonopoulos
  • Title: President
  • Corporation: Nelligan Hotel, Place d'Armes
    and Auberge du Vieux Port Restaurant
  • Type of business: Hotel and restaurant
  • Years in operation: 30 - restaurant; 6 - hotel
  • Years as an NBG client: 20
  • Why I chose NBG: "NBG Bank is one of our good partners. It is a smaller bank which fits well with us. We believe in personalized service and we receive the same from our bank. Relationship banking at NBG means that we never feel like a number."

Meet NBG Bank client

Ivano Scattolin
  • Title: Vice-President
  • Corporation:
    Produits Alimentaires Viau
  • Type of business: Meat processing (pepperoni, deli products)
  • Years in operation: 26
  • Years as an NBG client: 29
  • Why I chose NBG: "When I opened a personal account, I realized how friendly and personalized this institution could be. I extended our relationship to commercial transactions and still appreciate the same friendly environment."

Meet NBG Bank client

Miltiadis Antypas
  • Title: President
  • Corporation: Pilaros International Inc.
  • Type of business: Importing Mediterranean products
  • Years in operation: 30
  • Years as an NBG client: 20
  • Why I chose NBG: "We receive personalized service, as well as efficient and competitive pricing of foreign exchange. Our business requires overseas payments and transfer of funds. The bank is efficient in this area. The personal communication and relationship with the CEO of NBG Bank is unique."

Meet NBG Bank client

Steve Tsatas
  • Title: Vice-President of marketing/development
  • Corporation: Tsatas Group and Scores Restaurants
  • Type of business: Restaurants, catering and real estate
  • Years in operation: 30
  • Years as an NBG client: 25
  • Why I chose NBG: "NBG Bank understands the short- and long-term needs of business. It is a pleasure to deal with NBG Bank and its CEO, Nicholas Avgoustakis. Relationship banking makes a difference and is the basis for a great business partnership."

Warren Perley, a former career journalist, is president of Ponctuation Grafix, a marketing and graphic design studio (