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Strategies in Response to COVID-19 in Colombia

Juan Carlos Mora was appointed in 2016 as the CEO of Bancolombia, to lead a financial group of roughly thirty thousand employees entrusted with the mission of generating an outstanding experience for more than eleven million clients in Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and El Salvador.

How do you foresee the post-Covid Colombian economic recovery?

The end point to which we aspire is clear: to reverse the lost ground at the beginning of the pandemic, minimize the collateral effects it has left and lay the foundations for sustainable and equitable growth. However, the path that must be followed to get there is multifactorial and marked by uncertainty in the evolution of the virus. It is a fact that economic recovery will depend on the public health situation and the measures adopted to contain infections, advances in vaccination and medical protocols for the treatment of infected patients.

We are moderate optimists. We expect a gradual, sustainable and inclusive economic recovery, for which it is very important that we can recover the productive fabric of our countries. The opening of businesses and measures aimed at maintaining employment must be a priority.

What are your thoughts on the private sector financing vaccination in the country? How viable is this?

The well-being of people, as well as their health and life, is an ethical and moral duty. In Colombia, the door is being opened for private entities to acquire vaccines and from Bancolombia. We have expressed our intention to provide financing, according to the guidelines given by the Government, to the actors from the private sector who want to join the vaccination processes as a way to contribute to a faster reactivation. We are waiting for the National Government to issue the final regulations on the conditions and provisions for companies.

Is a tax reform essential in the country?

The situation we are in as a result of the pandemic has brought a large number of challenges that must be addressed urgently to take care of the health and well-being of the population. However, this contingency has shown us the vulnerabilities that exist precisely because of the precariousness of the labour market, a tax scheme with deficiencies and the low coverage and sustainability of the pension system.

In terms of tax reform, we consider that the Government has a unique opportunity to carry out a truly structural reform, in which those who, according to their economic conditions, can declare and pay rent tax, without burdening certain segments of the population on whom it currently falls for the majority of the tax collection, such as wage earners. But beyond generating additional income to meet existing needs, the Government must take advantage of the situation to review spending. In fact, there are already several diagnoses delivered by experts on the subject, which are relevant inputs for this task.

How affected has the financial sector been in Colombia? Was it prepared for the economic ravages caused by the pandemic?

The pandemic was an unforeseen, sudden situation that had great economic and social consequences that were difficult to predict, however, this crisis came at a time of great strength for Colombian banks, with good liquidity and solvency indicators, with a portfolio that it was growing healthily and few bad debt indicators.

This context allowed us to move very quickly to offer credit relief for individuals and companies, maintain credit to individuals, SME's and companies that needed it to meet their personal and working capital needs to maintain the operation.

In addition, the banks were in a digital transformation process that allowed them to meet the strong demand of users through digital channels (in our case the increase was 43% during 2020), but this preparation was also key to the Government in the delivery of subsidies to the vulnerable population through 100% free accounts from the cell phone.

One year later, Bancolombia has maintained sufficient assets, soundness and solvency levels above what the authorities require. As part of this, we are taking care of risk management, understanding that we have a duty to prudently manage the resources entrusted to us by savers, and also that we are responsible for helping to take care of people's financial health for the long term.

The financial sector must remain healthy and with a vision of being sustainable in the long term, as it is a priority instrument for the recovery of the economy to be faster.

Bancolombia has allocated more than $14 billion pesos in loans to 400,000 SMEs, an enormous advance for the development of small businesses and the economy in the country. Has the bank had any support from the national government in initiatives like these? What do you hope to achieve?

Since this crisis began, our priority has been to support our clients, particularly SMEs, which in Colombia represent 90% of all companies and contribute 40% of GDP. As Bancolombia is the bank for SMEs, we made available a line for $14 billion pesos, with which we hope to benefit more than 400,000 SMEs and small businesses that have been affected the most by the effects of the pandemic. This requires an additional support that allows them to access credit with more flexible requirements to maintain their operation and retain formal employment.

This is a key measure to support the economic reactivation of the country, strengthen the productive fabric and generate more opportunities for people.

The Bancolombia group has an important international presence in countries such as El Salvador and Panama. What are the organization's expansion plans?

Grupo Bancolombia has a presence in Colombia, Panama, Guatemala and El Salvador. In these markets we want to make our purpose of promoting sustainable economic development a reality to achieve the well-being of all, from the strengthening of the productive fabric, the construction of sustainable cities and communities and financial inclusion.

With this approach, and understanding the characteristics of each country and the clients, our priority is to accompany a reactivation so that the economies of the countries are more diverse, competitive and inclusive.

A couple of years ago, you, President Mora, were the only business leader in the country invited by the UN, along with renowned leaders of prestigious financial institutions to talk about sustainable development. What progress has been made in this field?

Indeed, 30 leaders from around the world are working in GISD, the investment alliance for sustainable development, convened by the UN with the purpose of mobilizing resources from the private sector that are aimed at meeting the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Although we had to adjust to the new challenges that the pandemic has brought, compliance with the SDGs continues to set the path for us. In fact, within GISD we made a call to action to issue bonds aimed at combating the consequences of the pandemic, we have defined where investment should be directed for sustainable development, connecting with tangible investment opportunities at a global level and we are creating the SDG Investment Platform, which, as its name indicates, is a platform that consolidates investment projects and initiatives on sustainable issues, especially in developing countries.

This commitment that we make at the UN is not isolated from the strategy in which Bancolombia has worked in recent years. With our purpose of promoting sustainable economic development to achieve the well-being of all, from the strengthening of the productive fabric, the construction of sustainable cities and communities and financial inclusion, we want to punctually impact SDG 1- End of poverty, 4 -Quality education, 5-Gender equality, 8-Decent work and economic growth, 9-Industry, innovation and infrastructure, 11-Sustainable cities and communities and 13-Climate action.

In fact, to materialize that purpose, we committed to mobilize the equivalent of US $144,000 million in financial and non-financial services over the next 10 years, and we will avoid the emission of 9.3 million tons of CO2 in the same period.

What is your daily routine as CEO of Bancolombia? What does your typical day consist of?

Every day I get up to consult VOCE, our customer's voice system, to understand their expectations and needs in real time, while doing a reading of the environment to articulate actions in the service of the country. In addition to this key data in management, I review the dashboard of the human processes of our employees, who are actually the ones that allow us to make our vision a reality from each of their functions.

What has been the most shocking event / hardest decisions you have faced in recent years?

Undoubtedly, everything related to management in the first weeks of the pandemic was very challenging, because it was necessary to act very quickly and simultaneously on different fronts. We had to take care of the health of our employees and our clients, guarantee the operation in all our channels and attend to the growing needs of a country that needed support on all fronts. Listening to and understanding our 20 million plus customers is the biggest challenge ahead.


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