By Margaret Small
AMID THE gentle hum of the Bank of Cyprus IT centre on the outskirts of Nicosia, hundreds of bank workers quietly completed a milestone in the history of the lender last weekend when the full integration of now-defunct Laiki bank was completed.
On June 8, and seven hours ahead of schedule, the bank completed a three-day round the clock operation of migrating more than a million clients into Bank of Cyprus systems, effectively consigning Laiki, once the island’s second-largest bank, to the annals of history.
“This was the first real huge project that the ‘new’ Bank of Cyprus was engaged in. We couldn’t accept failure,” said Aristos Stylianou, chief operations officer at Bank of Cyprus.
Under terms of a 10 billion euro bailout package extended to Cyprus, Bank of Cyprus was forced to assume assets of Laiki in March 2013, and plug the gap in its own capital shortfalls by seizing customer deposits.
From inception and until completion, the three million euro migration process involving an infrastructure upgrade and 60,000 hours of internal testing started in September.
“We are talking about 1.1 million clients and accounts and collaterals which had to be transferred. It may not be so big in comparison to Europe, but for Cyprus it was a huge project, the two (bank) components were almost equal,” said Philippos Leandrou, manager of information technology services at Bank of Cyprus.
“Normally a project of this magnitude takes between 18 and 24 months,” said Leandrou, whose unit was also instrumental in simultaneously keeping up with ever changing capital controls introduced to prevent a bank run a year ago and calculating the ‘haircut’ on clients’ deposits to keep the bank afloat.
In a market where Bank of Cyprus and Laiki were almost head-to-head, the integration means a 70 to 75 per cent increase in Bank of Cyprus volumes.
When banks reopened after a long holiday weekend on June 10, systems were totally integrated.
“On Friday we started the real thing. We had to do the backups, we had to do the end of day for Laiki because it was a historical event,” said Stylianou.
“We had to close all the Laiki accounts, transfer all the balances, do all the reconciliations to make sure we hadn’t lost money on the transfers and we had to do Bank of Cyprus end of day, absorbing all the information, close Laiki and work on the new Bank of Cyprus consolidated programmes,” he said.
Former Laiki clients have been given new bank accounts, and customers who were clients of both will be given the option of merging accounts or loans. The replacement of credit cards will be a gradual process over coming months.
With the migration behind them, the bank will now shift its focus back to where it should have been before sidelined by the March 2013 events, to the customer.
“We had been preoccupied in getting the migration going, but now we have completed this the focus will shift on how we can offer better and uninterrupted support for customers,” Stylianou said.
“We owe it to the customers of both banks who have suffered. The bank needed to give out some good signals that we are here, up and running, and ready to take a challenge,” Stylianou said, who lauded the ‘absolute dedication’ of bank staff during the changover.
“They worked over a long holiday weekend. I didn’t hear one single complaint,” he said.
One of his tasks in a previous post was overseeing the swift removal of Laiki Bank signs less than two months after it was foisted on Bank of Cyprus.
“Sometimes the shock treatment is good because it helps people look forward, we needed closure,” he said.
Purged of former senior executives and now run by ex-RBS banker John Hourican, the bank was briefly under the control of the Central Bank. Several wealthy Russians whose cash was converted to equity now sit on its board.
After the upheaval of the past year and the major transition project behind them, senior executives said they felt the bank was turning a corner. At bank headquarters at Ayia Paraskevi, there is little to display the trauma of the March 2013 events.
“I truly believe Cypriots have an ability of not looking back, but looking forward,” said Charis Pouangare, head of BOC’s retail and SME division. “It was a big hit for both banks, our customers and the broader public, but we don’t look back. We haven’t seen people in the streets. The only thing we are focussing on is how to solve the problem, and move forward.”
A Bank of Cyprus veteran, Stylianou reminisces how his ground-floor office at headquarters turned into a ‘war room’ at the height of the crisis last year.
“I don’t remember when we left. I was virtually living in here,” said Stylianou, appointed to his present post in December 2013. “Looking back at what was then and what is now, it’s a miracle.”