In Depth: interview with Darko Popovic, CEO, Banca Intesa Beograd

The image accompanying the News on the interview with Darko Popovic, CEO, Banca Intesa Beograd, on the Serbian economy, portrays a view of the center of Beograd

Read the Interview with Darko Popovic, CEO of Banca Intesa Beograd, the subsidiary bank of the Intesa Sanpaolo Group in Serbia.

The current geopolitical situation is having a profound impact on global economies – and Serbia is no exception.

Despite a slowdown in global growth – due to rising production costs and decreasing purchasing power, spiking inflation under the pressure of food, energy and major commodity prices, and supply bottlenecks – Serbia saw solid economic results in the first half of 2022, with real GDP growing at 4% year-on-year.

Economic output is expected to remain in positive territory in the second half of the year, albeit rising at a reduced pace on the back of a negative EU growth outlook.

The National Bank of Serbia has been steadily tightening its monetary policy in an attempt to contain inflation, the bulk of which is imported. Since April 2022, the central bank has raised its key policy rate seven consecutive times. At the same time, the central bank used foreign exchange market interventions to preserve relative stability of the national currency, the dinar.

Mitigating the effects of the global energy crisis

The Serbian government has introduced measures to help households and the economy cope with an inflation upsurge and to mitigate the consequences of the global energy crisis and ensure regular supplies. These include price caps on basic foodstuffs and restrictions on growth of retail prices of petroleum products.

Against the backdrop of this challenging environment, Banca Intesa Beograd has been successfully preserving its leading position in key business indicators – total capital, assets and customer deposits.

Darko Popovic, its CEO, says: “In previous years, we have established greater protective layers of capital and strengthened our liquidity position, with liquidity indicators constantly higher than the regulatory minimum.

“We have also been significantly improving the quality of assets with low NPL [non-performing loan] levels, thanks to an adequate monitoring structure, early warning systems and proactive credit portfolio management.”

This – coupled with steady digitalisation, strong support from the bank’s parent group and constant product innovation – puts the bank in a good position to continue providing stable support for businesses, households and the community.

A leading destination for foreign investments

With €38 billion in foreign direct investments over the past 15 years, Serbia is the leading investment destination in the Western Balkan region, largely owing to its favourable geographic position, skilled workforce, competitive operating costs, and tax and customs benefits.

The majority of the foreign direct investment is made by EU investors. Italy ranks second in terms of both the number and the value of projects.

Banca Intesa Beograd – part of the Intesa Sanpaolo Group’s International Subsidiary Bank division led by Marco Rottigni – has set up a specialised desk responsible for financing Italian companies operating in Serbia.

This provides them with support on how to establish or expand a business, understanding local market specifics and regulations, as well as facilitating their cooperation with local public institutions.

Popovic says: “Basically, we support our multinational clients during their early stages of local market entry, but also – and more importantly – throughout the lifetime of their investments in the country.” 

The bank is primarily focused on facilitating access to finance for entrepreneurs and SMEs through various products, government programmes and international credit lines. It supported SMEs with €425 million in loans as part of a state guarantee scheme for alleviating the negative effects of the Covid pandemic on the domestic economy.

Environmental considerations

Integration of ESG is a crucial transformational initiative for Banca Intesa. It has embedded ESG into its practices and processes, established an efficient ESG governance model and developed products and services promoting renewable energy and energy efficiency to encourage clients to reduce their environmental footprint.

The bank has also supported female entrepreneurship to the tune of €29 million, thanks to the European Bank for Reconstruction and Development (EBRD) Women In Business project.

The future is tech-focused. Serbia’s vibrant IT industry is growing more than 25% annually and is transforming the country into an emerging tech hub. Indeed, it’s estimated that the country generates 10% of its GDP from the ICT sector. “It’s conveniently located, open to new business opportunities, with attractive tax incentives for technology start-ups,” says Popovic.

Despite predominant EU investment, companies from China and the Middle East have significantly increased investments in Serbia over the past several years, especially in construction and infrastructure. “Aside from that,” says Popovic, “manufacturing also holds great potential for foreign investments – as well as real estate, agriculture and the automotive, food and beverage and textile industries.”