In an exclusive interview with Business Barbados, Mark St. Hill, Chief Executive Officer of CIBC FirstCaribbean talks about his journey to the top, the future of banking in the Caribbean and his work-life balance.

Journey to the Top

How do you feel being the first Barbadian and Caribbean national at the helm of CIBC FirstCaribbean? And what does it signify for the bank?

It’s less about me and more about the evolution and maturity of the institution. Our company has always recognised the talent that we have in the Caribbean, and this is coming to the fore even more as the organisation grows here in the Caribbean. The trust placed in the talent of our people is manifested through the number of Caribbean nationals in the top ranks of CIBC FirstCaribbean.

You have risen through the ranks and have worn many hats – international corporate banking, wealth management, retail and business, board of directors and more. What personal attributes do you think got you to the top?

There’s no magic formula. I’ve always tried to go about my duties with a certain level of humility and deep respect for my seniors, my peers, and those reporting to me. I also have huge respect for the people who pay our salaries – our customers, whether it is someone with a small savings account or a large corporate or sovereign. I’ve always tried to learn as much as I can from those around me, and over the years I have been blessed to have excellent mentors. I’ve always tried to be engaged, committed to the organisation and respectful of those around me.

As well as CEO, you are the Chair of the CIBC FirstCaribbean ComTrust Foundation, and you lead several other causes. So you're a busy man. How's your work life balance? And what do you do to decompress?

Finding balance is a personal thing for everyone. For me, strange as it may sound, I’ve found that immersing myself in both my work and my home life forces me to find that balance. I don’t like to do things by halves; once I commit to something, I give it my all. At work, I am blessed to have a team in whom I can place my trust to help steer the business in the right direction.

Outside of work, I try to find things to do that give me pleasure and a sense of satisfaction in caring for others. Though I’m not as active as I used to be as President of the Barbados Hockey Federation since the organisation is well managed by the current secretary, I continue to be committed to the St. Gabriel’s Scout troop, and this is immensely gratifying.

I also find other ways to decompress. For example, I have discovered the joy of listening to music – not in a digital format, but old-time vinyl records. I try to listen to music before and after work most days.

And I try to engage in our staff activities as much as I can. For example, every Thursday we walk together in the Warrens area in an initiative we call Move with Mark. That forces me to arrange my calendar to meet the group for that activity every Thursday afternoon that I am in Barbados. You have to find ways to create your own balance.

Where is the bank heading?

CIBC FirstCaribbean has been divesting a lot of the business across the Eastern Caribbean. Why is the bank pulling out of these locations?

It’s part of a two-year strategy we’ve created to optimise the structure and footprint of the bank. We’re more focused and agile in our approach to our business and are focusing our attention on those countries where we have the best opportunity to grow our business and increase our market presence.

We are growing our digital offering, while creating a banking service that provides our customers with the best of both worlds: our clients can choose to interact with us digitally, but we’ve also made it possible for those who want to come into the banking hall to do so as well. Some of our latest innovations include a service called mDeposit to allow clients to deposit cheques more easily; we now have the Instant Issuance of cards in our branches, which eliminates the wait for a new or replacement card; of course, our top-rated mobile and online banking and our LoanStore, which has received rave reviews from our clients. And if our customers need to look a banker in the eye and get advice on their financial future, they can come into the branch to do so. This is the CIBC FirstCaribbean of 2023.

At the same time CIBC FirstCaribbean is expanding into new territories. What else can we expect from your tenure? What's your strategy and vision for the bank going forwards?

Our plan is to build a resilient business that is increasing its market presence in our core markets. We’ve recently launched a deposit raising campaign in Jamaica, which we see as a major growth market for us. As I said earlier, we aim to further refine our omni channel approach to allow our customers to choose how they wish to bank with us – entirely online through our highly-rated digital products or taking advantage of being able to visit us in person when they need.

We are also building on our reputation of caring for our communities through partnerships that show we care about green initiatives designed to protect our environment. Through our ESG programmes, we are focusing on caring for our employees through innovative HR and engagement strategies, caring for our clients through innovative banking solutions, and caring for our communities through our charitable giving and environmental and social programme.

To our readers who might be foreign investors considering doing business in Barbados, what makes Barbados attractive as a jurisdiction?

Barbados works – it’s as simple as that. The country has an enviable infrastructure, and admirable history when it comes to being a stable democracy under the rule of law, and an environment that is welcoming to those wishing to do business in the country. With its developed technology infrastructure (it was one of the first countries in the world to have 100% fibre-to-the-home); highly educated workforce and daily direct flights to major international hubs, it is a trusted trade partner with a large bilateral treaty network. All this combined creates a favourable climate for companies wishing to invest in and do business with Barbados.

You've been in the banking sector for over 30 years. What has been the biggest leap or advancement in that time? And what do you think we can expect from CIBC FirstCaribbean in the next 30 years?

The biggest leap in banking in our region for some years landed in our laps through the Covid pandemic. Many companies, including banks, had been skirting around the digital agenda for some time, and Covid made it essential for us to implement the required solutions that allowed our people to work digitally and our clients to access our services digitally with speed. Our clients are now actually ahead of the curve and are constantly pushing us to deliver more and more sophistication in the products and services we provide in the digital environment. And I am happy to report that we are doing so – handsomely.

What can you expect from us in the future? Even more of the same. Staying ahead of the competition by providing a winning combination of outstanding care for our clients and next level products and services. Our LoanStore is a good example of the future for us, where we are delivering funding for loans from application to deposit in your account in five minutes. Our Smart ABMs are also a taste of the future, where you can deposit cash and cheques and have instant access to your funds; our clients’ ability to conduct business with us without ever setting foot in a branch is another thing of which we are proud and for which many of them are grateful. In essence, whatever we can do to ensure our clients can engage with our bank how and when they want to, securely and successfully, you can be sure we will be exploring to the max. Responsiveness to our clients’ requests is our watchword.

What are the challenges for the company and the banking sector in Barbados?

One of the major challenges for us is that the return on investment is low. Now this is not unique to CIBC FirstCaribbean and not unique to Barbados. It takes a high level of investment to run a first-class bank that provides excellence in products and service in a competitive marketplace to its clients. The issue in our region is that the return is not as high as in the larger jurisdictions with larger economies that present greater possibilities for expansion. That’s the balance we must continue to strike – satisfying our clients, taking care of our employees, while also providing a satisfactory return for our investors.

FinTech and AI

FinTech is becoming a major part of the banking sector in Barbados. How far do you think this will go? Do you think we'll be seeing branches closing and everything moving online with digital wallets and currencies?

CIBC FirstCaribbean prides itself on providing an omni channel experience for our clients; and that will continue. Our clients are asking for more digital products and capabilities and we are delivering. But we also continue to do a significant portion of our business through Relationship Banking – face-to-face contact with our clients, particularly in our Platinum Banking, Wealth Management and Corporate Banking spaces, and with those of our client base that are not as comfortable with technology. And this will continue. Even with all the advancements in the digital space, people will always be paramount in the way we provide our banking services.

What about the role of AI in banking?

AI has a role to play and the possibilities for the future are exciting. There are definite benefits for us, helping us to get to the market faster. Our teams are already exploring how we can use AI effectively, to enhance our relationships with our clients and inform how we develop our products and services. We see AI existing harmoniously and fitting seamlessly in with our strategy of managing these relationships and charting the course of where we go in the future. Like everything else, it’s about striking the right balance.

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