A banking professional with three decades of hands-on experience, Ravi Dias is the CEO-designate of Commercial Bank of Ceylon. In this exclusive interview, he elaborates on the bank’s sharper focus on CSR, particularly its substantial commitments to community welfare. Following are excerpts:
Q: Commercial Bank seems to have increased its emphasis on community-centric initiatives in recent years. What is the reason for this?
A:Businesses succeed because they provide products or services that the community or a segment of the community needs, in a sustainable manner. Banks are not only indispensable to the community today; they are also very closely linked with the day-to-day lives as well as the aspirations of individuals.
What we do and how we do it, impacts on the dreams and futures of our customers, their families and the community in general. And the larger we grow, the more lives we engage with. Our customer base is substantial and is representative of all walks of society.
Our ATM network, which incidentally is the largest in the country, handles over 125,000 transactions a day. With such a deep and enduring involvement with society, it is inevitable that we feel a great sense of empathy and responsibility towards the communities we serve and the fact that we are one of the best performing corporate entities in the country gives us the means to make a tangible difference with insightful and well-directed community programmes.
Q: Is that why the bank has set up a trust for CSR?
A: Yes. We are conscious of the need to ensure that our efforts are not ad-hoc; it is possible to do good with many isolated and unconnected projects, but given the size of the bank’s commitment, we owe it to our stakeholders as well as the country as a whole, to look at national priorities and deliver a structured response to the community’s needs so that tangible and sustainable results are achieved. The CSR Trust plays a key role in identifying appropriate causes at a macro level, evaluating the needs of beneficiaries and tracking and analysing results.
Q: Does that mean that the bank takes a very strategic approach with its CSR efforts?
A: Yes, a strategic approach is essential, given the value of our commitment. Commercial Bank endeavours to create sustainable shared value to its many stakeholders and the society at large. Financial value to reward shareholders and social value to reward the community. The policy of our Corporate Social Responsibility Trust is to empower communities and individuals.
The CSR Trust continuously aligns its goals to fall in line with this policy in order to generate sustainable and constant dividends for different segments of society. The bank’s CSR strategy is developed to complement the objectives, vision and mission of the bank and supports the bank’s brand positioning of ‘for a better future’.
We have selected education as the primary sphere of activity as education is crucial to ensuring the growth and future of Sri Lankan society. As secondary activities we are concentrating on health and other relevant initiatives.
Q: What is the Commercial Bank’s commitment to CSR and what are the principal projects?
A: We initially allocated Rs. 25 million to the Trust, and took a policy decision to set aside up to one per cent of our net profit annually for community projects to be carried out under its supervision. Our education initiatives will support school children and young adults of Sri Lanka regardless of their gender, race, religion or social background. The main thrust within education is on supporting IT education and English education in Sri Lanka. This was selected after careful consideration of the bank’s broad vision and the development road map of the Government.
We are currently focusing on four projects – improving the standards of IT education in schools on a country-wide scale, disbursement of scholarships to undergraduates, provision of critical medical equipment to Government hospitals and improving access to learning English. We are also evaluating another important area relating to health for support in the near future. As the benchmark private bank in the country, we are keen to invest in our country’s future. Therefore we identified the most critical fields for our CSR initiatives – IT education, English education and health.
Q: Could you elaborate on what has already been done in the area of IT education?
A: One area that Commercial Bank has been very active in is the donation of IT labs to schools. These are fully-equipped and furnished training centres, with computers with Internet connections, printers and all other requisites, including fans. The bank also provides assistance to the recipient schools to maintain these labs and upgrade them when necessary, to ensure that they benefit many batches of students.
In 2011, we donated IT labs to 22 schools and six other institutions such as orphanages and centres for special children. In 2010 we donated IT labs to 10 schools. In the first two months of 2012, we donated five more IT labs, and work is currently underway to set up another six. When these are handed over the bank would have donated 47 IT labs, benefitting thousands of students across the country.
Our undergraduate scholarship scheme commenced in 2006, and with the 25 scholarships presented in February 2012, the bank has presented scholarships to 200 undergraduates. This is a commitment that exceeds Rs. 10 million. We work closely with the University Grants Commission to identify deserving undergraduates from different universities. Chosen undergraduates studying medicine receive Rs. 25,000 per year over the five-year period of their degree while their counterparts studying management and commerce and management and finance receive Rs. 25,000 per year over a four-year period.
In addition to the scholarships the bank provided laptops to each of the 25 scholarship recipients this year. It was proposed that the bank under its CSR initiative donate laptops to the neediest students in addition to the 25 scholarships granted annually. This is an important aspect of this project, as it also promotes a higher level of computer literacy among the recipient undergraduates and also helps them in their studies.
Q: What is the bank planning to do in the area of English education?
A: We strongly believe that we have a responsibility to contribute to the future of our country through IT and English education and thereby empower future generations to be on par with other developed nations to face the challenges of the 21st century. The ground work for a broad English language education programme for rural children has been completed and the project is expected to commence in 2012.
We hope to partner with a professionally qualified organisation to conduct a series of structured classes for regional schools. Details of this programme are yet to be announced, but I can tell you that a pilot programme to provide English education outside the standard curriculum will begin soon in an outstation area with funding from the Bank, and we hope to launch this important new community initiative on a large scale in the near future.
Q: Could you explain what other CSR initiatives the bank has engaged in?
A: In the area of healthcare, the bank donated essential equipment in 2011 to the Lady Ridgeway Children’s Hospital, the Nuwara Eliya General Hospital and the Batticaloa Teaching Hospital. We are in the process of procuring equipment for three more hospitals that are on our list of beneficiaries for 2012.
We have also got involved in the welfare of our war heroes through projects at Ranaviru Sevana and Abhimansala, which is a special care centre for war heroes who are recuperating from injuries to spend time with their loved ones.
The CSR Trust of the bank also donated Rs. 6 million last year to build a Museum at Kirivehera, Kataragama.
Q: All of this must involve a lot of work and time. How does the bank manage these programmes?
A: Members of the CSR Trust, including representatives of the Board of Directors provide their time and inputs on a voluntary basis. The success of the work of the trust is attributable principally to the enthusiasm of our staff at many levels. We have also appointed a CSR Coordinator. I must mention that our staff at all levels has been the driving force of CSR. The execution of these projects involves the participation of the nearest branches whose staff follow up periodically on the sustainability of the projects and attend to maintenance issues, etc.
This year we are looking at decentralising the identification of projects by providing 12 regions with a substantial budget. This will enable the bank to reach out and support needs at a micro levels to support localised initiatives based on need. There is an admirable degree of buy-in and enthusiasm from our staff for our CSR agenda, so we have not had any difficulty in managing our projects.
Q: How do the bank’s shareholders view this commitment to CSR?
A: Shareholders are now quite familiar with the three ‘Ps’ of the triple bottom line that measures organisational success – People, Planet and Profit. As you know, sustainability is one of the most critical elements in the growth of any organisation today. It is defined as development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. All our community initiatives are linked to sustainability.
CSR is part of the broad discipline of corporate sustainability, which is making fair profit and fulfilling responsibilities towards society and the environment while managing external influences. The three ‘Ps’ cover the social, environmental and economic dimensions of our operations and impact on social risk management which is an important element in sustainability. Therefore, sharing one’s success with the community makes sound business sense, and our shareholders fully support the bank’s commitment to the community. Our success is built on the success of our customers, and our customers are the masses of our country. That is a basic precept that will always hold true.