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Interview with Viktor Vodenko, the Global CEO of MBA Consult Group

 

The 2020 has become a serious challenge for many companies. How has the pandemic affected the Group?

Our sphere of activity is fraught with many risks, so we always forecast all possible scenarios. Of course, the pandemic is an unprecedented episode in history. It is impossible to be prepared for it. However, when you consistently include possible emergency scenarios into a business development

model, the company reacts to any external changes more easily. Before the pandemic, it was clear that another global economic crisis was just around the corner. The pandemic has only accelerated this process. Each company in the Group has a business continuity plan, so the management always knows what to do under any circumstances. Therefore, our companies have passed through this difficult period with a great dignity – we have not stopped operations for a single day, and the companies have continued growing.

Were all of the companies able to switch to remote work, or were there any difficulties?

We always say that our Group is distinguished by quality and professionalism, and this largely depends not only on the well-organized teamwork, but also on the technological solutions that we create and implement in our business processes. Our IT products are constantly being refined and updated. So, when the need arose, we were able to quickly transfer all operators to a remote work format. I admit, it was a difficult task, but when you have a strong IT team, everything becomes quite real.

You are saying, you were able to transfer all operators to work remotely in a very short span of time, right? How many people are employed by the Group?

We are about 3000 people, 90% of which are call-center agents. There certainly were challenges along the way, because we work with personal information, so it was critical to organize our work in a way to ensure the highest security level.

How is this possible, considering all employees are working from home, without a proper control of their actions?

This is exactly the most important point – employees, being at home in front of their desktops, are only able to see a projection from their workplace. All data is stored on the company’s internal servers. The data is not transmitted and cannot be copied or replicated. Everyone has access to the system, but these accesses are strictly isolated. I believe you will agree that an operator needs a minimum set of data for calling. Data access is rigidly regulated and strictly controlled by the operations management. The Control and Quality Department constantly monitors the quality of the call center activity. Therefore, we can guarantee our customers 100% data security and a high level of service.

The quarantine conditions were different everywhere (different times and terms). Did all regions pass through the quarantine period equally consistently?

China was the first to be locked down. At that time, we didn’t fully understand how severe the situation was. You should agree that we have never had such cases in our practice. We kept a close eye on what was happening in the world. In the past, the world has already experienced pandemics, and we were quite confident that everything would go smoothly. Besides, we have a Risk Department that monitored the situation. Their forecast was different from our expectations. Therefore, we very quickly decided to prepare the Group for the transition to a remote work format. Chinese companies did not work during the quarantine period and resumed operations in a remote format at the end of March, when the quarantine measures were loosen. As it turned out, not all companies in the market were ready to work under such conditions: many financial institutions had to reduce their staff, and not all debt collection agencies resumed their activities. We were the one among the few companies that were ready to support clients and work with debtors remotely.
By the time the quarantine was announced, our companies in Europe and Russia were fully ready to start operating remotely. They reacted very quickly: notified customers and partners, conducted preparations with employees, and tested the system. In this region the online services level is quite decent, so the majority of the financial companies were able to organize remote work. In Europe, however, most of the clients suspended the debt collection process until the economy revives. In Russia, this process was somewhat different: work with debtors continued, considering recommendations of providing support to the population.

How about Asia?

In Asia, same with many other countries in the world, some measures to support the population and restrictions on debt collection during the quarantine period were implemented. Companies were hastily converting their business to an online format. Although, I can say that not many companies have a decent technological base for the remote work. If we talk about debt collection, along with large international companies (such as MBA Consult), there is a huge number of small regional agencies in the market, which are less technologically equipped.

Do you think that small companies will be forced to leave the market?

I believe so. And the issue is not only in the technological solutions, but also in the way of doing business: small regional companies are mostly specializing on the field debt collection and often grossly violate the rules of interaction with debtors. This is unacceptable.

Do you think that the current situation will have a significant impact on the debt collection market in Asia?

In my opinion, it will become a catalyst for significant changes in our industry. If in Europe, there is a stable model of interaction with debt collectors, in Asia we are going through a stage of formation and development. Demand for the services of professional debt collectors will grow. Financial sector is under pressure – on the one hand, it is necessary to lend and support the population and businesses, and on the other, there is a lack of money supply for further development. We can already see the expanding number of client inquiries and accounts’ endorsements. Therefore, legislators will have to pay more attention to the work of debt collectors and start developing rules and regulations for all financial market players.
I believe that now there are all prerequisites for the formation of a civilized debt recovery market in Asia.

What do you mean by the “civilized debt collection market”?

When we talk about the civilized debt collection, first, we mean the approach that debt collectors use at work with debtors. A debt collector is a financial consultant, and the task of a debt collection agency is not to get more money by resorting to methods of threat and pressure, but to provide support and help to find a way out of a difficult financial situation. Of course, the very concept of the “civilized debt collection” is much broader: this includes legal regulation, clearly defined rights and obligations of all financial market players (financial institutions, as well as borrowers and debtors), business requirements, professional communities, and many more.

Governments of all countries have tried to limit debt recovery process and ease conditions for debtors – don’t you think that they can prohibit debt recovery against the background of social tensions and growing debt load?

Debt collection is an essential element of a healthy functioning financial system. Let us imagine that we exclude debt collection from the financial chain. What will happen?
Debtors will stop paying, and companies will suffer losses. Thus, the market will shrink – banks will stop lending to a large part of the population, and they will need to reserve huge funds. As a result, without the credit system development and its accessibility to the wider population, the economy will stop improving. Everything is interconnected.

Where is the way out?

It is necessary to develop this industry: we need legislative regulation, general rules of working with debts for all financial institutions, creating communities of professional debt collectors and improving the financial literacy of the population. Debt collection is an important link in the chain connecting a lender and a borrower. Apparently, debt collection can be banned. But how will this help to reduce social tension and improve the situation for the population? The question is moot. The supporting measures that all countries have implemented during the lockdown period have helped the population to some extent. However, the amount of debts is growing, and the financial industry is experiencing a lack of liquidity. To restore the economic balance, it is necessary to resume lending to the population and businesses, which are now beginning to recover. Such actions will contribute to the creation of new jobs, hence – lead to economic growth. Solving debt issues is a key factor in achieving an economic balance.

Recently, the Group has been investing heavily in NPL (non-performing loan) portfolios acquisitions – how has the crisis affected the Group’s plans?

We have been constantly investing in the acquisition of NPL portfolios in the markets of Europe and the CIS, and since 2019 we have actively started purchasing bad debts in Asia. Since we have entered the Asian market, we have worked as agents for a long time, studying its specifics, improving the quality of services and the technological base. Since the last year, we have also started purchasing debt portfolios in the Asian region. The pandemic, of course, made some adjustments to our plans, but we did not change the vector of our strategy. On the contrary, we supported our clients, helping to increase their liquidity and save business in the region. Today, the Group is ready to face new challenges and enter new markets.

What markets are you going to enter?

We decided to launch our business in markets of Latin America and Africa. Our representative office in Mexico will open this fall. Moreover, in 2021, we planned to enter the markets of Argentina and Brazil. We also started preparing to enter the African market next year.

What is the reason for entering the Latin American market?

Latin America is a dynamically developing region. Geographically, it is, of course, inferior to Asia and Africa, but in some industrial sectors, it is ahead of them. So, after Asia, this is one of the most attractive regions for investment. Since the 2000s, the region has been developing quite actively: around this time, there was a restructuring of regimes towards democratic development, the region is expanding economic relations and changing conditions for doing business.

The region is quite unstable and prone to economic crises. How do you assess your opportunities in this region?

Yes, you are absolutely correct, there are risks. But also, there are great opportunities for growth. The active development of the region and the expansion of economic relations creates the need for the improvement of the financial market. The banking services sector is steadily progressing, while the region’s population has a low financial literacy, and the banking services are not available to the general public. We faced similar problems when we entered the Asian market: we understand what steps need to be taken to not only build the right relationships in the lender-borrower chain, but also to influence the financial literacy and the legal regulation. Thereby this will contribute to the formation of healthy financial relations. There is a lot of work to be done to influence the change in the existing system, but we are ready for the new challenges.

You said that moving to new markets is one of the stages in the implementation of the company’s plans and mission – the evolution of the global financial system? What do you mean by “evolution”?

Our global goal is to help companies and ordinary people and to create more favorable conditions for living. We live in an amazing time: the progress has moved far ahead, and the consumption boom cannot be stopped. Each of us wants to live here and now: people want to be able to buy a house, a car, to travel, to get an education, to buy new gadgets and to fulfill their dreams…
To fulfill these demands, majority will need a loan. For that, the financial system must be more flexible and accessible to the majority of the population. We want people to have the opportunity to accomplish their plans and desires, and financial institutions to have levers to manage financial flows.
We are often facing an increase in debt load and a lack of flexible debt resolution mechanisms. The system can be more effective: we need legislative changes, improvement of the population financial literacy, effective methods of communication with a borrower at all stages of debt processing, loyalty programs, and much more. This is our way. In my opinion, the task of a debt collection company is not to routinely return money to lenders, but to contribute to the development of credit and monetary relations, to ensure the availability of loans and to form a healthy attitude to finance. We face a difficult task, but we are ready for new challenges and the evolution of the global financial system.

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