Facing an ‘image problem’
Cesar Sarino has held many posts in government, many of them sensitive and even powerful portfolios. But now, as chair of the Philippine Postal Corp. and president and CEO of the Philippine Postal Savings Bank Inc., he said he has never worked as hard or taken such a “hands-on” responsibility.
Sarino was a secretary of the Department of the Interior and Local Government under President Cory Aquino, president of the Government Service Insurance System under President Fidel V. Ramos, and presidential adviser for Southern Tagalog under President Gloria Macapagal-Arroyo. “In these posts,” he told the Bulong Pulungan sa Sofitel yesterday, “I only had to help craft the policies, but the implementation I could leave to a number of subordinates.” But at PhilPost, he said, he is faced with the great challenge of “turning around” a government agency facing enormous threats from technology (the Internet, courier and money remittance firms) and with far fewer personnel than he is used to.
To make the challenge doubly harder, PhilPost also had to let go of a number of senior officials, some of whom, he said “had been involved in anomalies.”
The image of a hidebound institution, left behind by advances in technology (who still writes or sends letters in these days of e-mail and Facebook?) likewise affects the sister institution of PhilPost (still popularly known as “the post office”), the Philippine Postal Bank.
Indeed, Sarino nodded sagely when told that the public “seems hardly aware that there is even a postal bank.”
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Difficult as it is to believe, the PostalBank is more than a century old, having been founded in 1906 by the then Bureau of Posts “to mobilize savings [and] provide access to credit and financial services in the countryside.”
Among 73 savings banks in the country, PostalBank ranks 15th in total assets, which amount to some P6 billion. It is, however, “dwarfed” by two private savings banks (BPI Family with P147 billion, and PSBank with P119 billion).
On its website, PostalBank offers an explanation for its lackluster (though still modestly profitable) performance as a finance institution: “Almost left to itself, the Bank plods along almost akin to a private thrift bank, preoccupied with the traditional products and services it needs to sell to keep itself afloat, and wishing that, one day it would build a financial base strong enough to enter into the developmental areas so critically needed by the rural banking environment.”
The task facing Sarino, then, as PostalBank president and CEO, is to bring the bank up to snuff, and along the way, serve the Philippine countryside in two important ways: provide microfinance to provincial entrepreneurs and cooperatives, and lend much-needed funds to local governments to improve their delivery of basic services.
One way of widening the bank’s reach and strengthening its financial muscle is to make use of its most obvious asset—the thousands of post offices scattered nationwide.
Sarino noted that some 30 percent of municipalities in the country are “unbanked”—that is, they don’t have a single public or private bank, with residents needing to travel to bigger towns to do their banking. But every town has a post office, so that “the post offices could be used as extensions of PostalBank.”
This is a distinct advantage, said Sarino, since “there will be no more ‘brick and mortar’ expenses (involved for) new branches.”
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Another area that seems a natural fit for PostalBank but for many reasons has instead become the purview of the private commercial sector is remittance services.
Many private remittance services have sprung up in the last decade or so, many charging service fees that eat up a large portion of the amount remitted. One reason I might venture is that the post office and even PostalBank have suffered an “image problem” for decades, looked upon as slow and unreliable, if not downright untrustworthy.
Determined to turn that image around, Sarino said PostalBank is joining the remittance field in partnership with an international remittance company, Agilivant.
A news release explains that “the bank’s expanded and modernized entry into the remittance market is in line with its ability to provide better and more efficient service since it can open up more remittance centers in its branches and in the 1,800 post offices of PhilPost nationwide. Moreover, OFWs represent a principal target clientele since many live in rural communities and their overseas incomes stimulate economic activities in the countryside.”
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One asset in the hands of PhilPost and PostalBank whose value is immeasurable is the post office building fronting Liwasang Bonifacio. It is now too big and too expensive to maintain, says Sarino, and in fact PhilPost is thinking of building new headquarters on a lot it owns in Quezon City.
Last year, he said, the “public-private partnership” authority had been urging them to prepare to move out of their iconic building. The site had been targeted for either a new hotel or the new headquarters of the Senate, according to Sarino. But since then, nothing much has happened, with Sarino saying that other officials saw the need to first upgrade and develop the surroundings of the site, including relocating informal settlers, before the venture could take off.
But Sarino is not waiting around for the post office building to be repurposed before he moves and transforms not just the image but also the services provided by both PhilPost and PostalBank. There is still time—and opportunity—to prove the institutions’ continuing relevance today and tomorrow.