Dr. Rosario Barbasa-Perlas, the president and chief executive officer of LifeBank – A Rural Bank, shared her insights on how she stirred the the micro-finance institution during the pandemic.
“Striking a dynamic balance between compassion and accountability amidst this pandemic will keep us alive and go through a higher level of realization that we are all interconnected,” she expressed.
The year 2020 serves a significant milestone for LifeBank – A Rural Bank. It turned 50 years old as a leading provider of a range of financial services, primarily microfinancing to support life uplifting enterprises of people from poor communities.
A colorful celebration was prepared in March 2020 for its Golden Year, a momentous coming together of members of communities that it helped become dynamic agents of change. The global health crisis, however, sidelined the events yet it did not dampen the spirit of an organization that possess superior understanding of nature’s inevitable disruptions.
At 50 years old, LifeBank proclaimed enriching the lives of people. From this level, there is no turning back and it now charts a future with a warm extending hands to people whose lives necessitates the support of LifeBank so that it will be transformed for the better.
In this interview, we went inward to the leader of LifeBank Dr. Rosario B. Perlas, who is comfortably addressed as Ma’am Charrie or Doc Charrie to many, to learn from her and to understand the energetic heart of this dynamic financial institution founded in 1970.
Q: LifeBank’s performance showed a gradual bounce back one year after the pandemic lockdown. What were your realizations?
The year 2020 taught us the real meaning of resilience, agility, survival and sustainability.
On the 1st Quarter of 2020, as we were gradually recovering from the devastating impact of Typhoon Ursula which hit Northern Panay on Christmas eve of 2019, affecting around 20% of our microfinance clients, the deadly Coronavirus disease (COVID 19) struck the whole world.
The world’s financial landscape have changed and no one was exempted from the disruption caused by the pandemic. The Bank faced declining profitability even with the passing of Bayanihan 1 and 2.
We have taken various steps to mitigate the risk posed by the crisis while we comply with government health protocols. One of the major and the most difficult for us was to close all Branch-lite Units (BLUs) for 2 months. We temporarily suspended the operations of all BLUs from late March to May 2020.
Q: What were the decisions that you have taken to maintain your operations?
The decision-making process was intense yet deliberate. We made a lot of reviewing and evaluating to arrive at the appropriate decision.
We ensured that vital decisions taken were quickly yet properly communicated to our staff and client. There was no room for delay. As such, we reviewed our communications plan to establish a responsive and workable system for the pandemic.
A big part is the review of our operations. It allowed us to examine the state of LifeBank in general. This is followed by looking at the costs required for operations and identifying what were fixed and controllable expenses.
The process allowed us to make decisive judgement and rationalizing our operations. As a result, we were able to cutdown many operational costs.
We also evaluated our activities. We were able to determine what were high from low impact efforts. It enabled us to prioritize high-impact activities that are relevant with the times and meaningful to our stakeholders and partners.
Q: Many business institutions have to bite the bullet by letting go many of its personnel. You maintained a robust workforce, what were decisions made to manage your staffing?
We have a strong relationship with our workers. They are family to us. The pandemic brought our relationship to a higher level as we realized the value of collective sacrifice. We attained a consensus to reset our perks based on what LifeBank can afford and we either eliminated or reduced allowances. There were sacrifices made from the Board-level to the rank-and-file.
The Occupational Safety and Health (OSH) Committee was active and we adjusted our operations with the safety of our workers and personnel on top of mind. We implemented a skeletal workforce, shortened work hours and banking hours, adopted a work from home arrangement, and integrated essential needs support like distribution of PPE and health protection materials, groceries and vitamins to our staff.
In addition, we also opened the opportunity for early retirement to our staff holding non- essential functions. The sacrifice was demonstrated both in monetary and non-monetary terms.
Q: LifeBank holds a unique characteristic as a finance institution connected to people and communities. Did the pandemic also strengthened your relationship?
There was a lot of positive happenings in this area. Communication served as a key in maintaining the relationship that we have created and the digital platform offered that silver lining so to speak.
We improved our digital system to effectively utilize the digital platform. The move made a huge difference. It preserved the trust and confidence that we have established with our communities. Our pivot to digitization has in fact expanded our reach and it created new relationships.
Consequently, we forged partnership with Palawan Pawnshop and the partnership effectively helped us manage our funding needs to each of our BLUs. We were able to maintain our scholarship program to children of our deserving and loyal microfinance clients with our sister organization and partner LifeBank Foundation, Inc.
Q: Similarly, you adopted a three year priority plan. What were your course of actions?
The plan ushered our entry to a cloud-based platform, a major decision that we have taken in 2020.
The shift to a new core banking system stimulated significant modifications which enhanced decision-making and improved our operations. The system allowed us to generate real time reports and it offered ease in extracting data, as such, it facilitated data-informed decision-making on my part.
The need to shift to a cloud-based platform specifically with Instafin was accelerated during the pandemic because it can become a foundation for digital applications which is crucial during this challenging times.
It also improved our Portfolio Quality and we managed to open 6 branches in 2020.
Likewise, we plan to adopt the Sustainable Finance Framework mandated by BSP and we shall formulate a roadmap that will guide us through the framework. This will be LifeBank’s contribution to the environmental, social and governance goals of the government for rural banks to achieve sustainability.
Q: Digitization is now at the center of LifeBank’s targets as one of the leading rural banks in Panay by 2023. Where do you stand so far?
We have taken the first step to achieve that target. LifeBank has partnered with a dependable fintech service provider who developed a secure and high-quality cloud-based banking system for us. The technology that they have applied digitized many of our procedures resulting to a robust and efficient banking system.
Moreover, we started activating our application to Philpass. We are hoping to implement InstaPay and PESONet next year.
Towards this end, we are looking forward to develop a partnership with a fintech company that creates systems for remittances and bills payment services using mobile phone technology.
We believe that our digitization program will improve our reach and relationship with our clients and it will greatly benefit our stakeholders in the long run.
Q: LifeBank is now 50-years old. What are your reflections; what is the future for LifeBank?
Reaching a Golden Year is a milestone. Experiences, such as; disasters, economic crisis or pandemic – classified as challenging episodes for LifeBank – became opportunities for continuous improvement and it bolstered our maturity.
We treated every disruption as an opportunity to exercise creative ways to survive and to come out strong, agile, and resilient. We have overcome various crisis episodes in the last 50-years because of the strong support of our dedicated board, management team, field staff, and members of our community.
The Covid-19 pandemic is a major trial that tested LifeBank’s 50-year old life. I believe that LifeBank will endure this global crisis to fulfill its vision as a catalyst for change and to carry out its mission to eradicate poverty and uplift the lives of the poor.
*The article is an excerpt from the “Q&A with the President and CEO: Dr. Rosario Barbasa-Perlas” published in LifeBank – A Rural Bank Annual Report for 2020.
** All photos are from the Annual Report.