The Czech Republic has a new
retail bank. Air Bank may have made a quiet entry onto the Czech
market but with innovative branches and fresh banking objectives,
the newest lender on the block plans to make a lasting impression.
Retail banking director for Air Bank, Michal Strcula, speaks with
Meghna Mukerjee.


Photograph of Michal Strcula, Air BankIt aims to infuse an
“air of freshness” to the banking sector in the Czech Republic, and
having adopted bright green as its signature colour, the newly
launched Air Bank seems set, quite visibly, to do exactly that.

On 22 November, Air Bank, a new
retail bank that is owned by PPF Group, launched operations in the
Czech Republic. Already, the Prague-headquartered retail bank has
introduced 12 branches across seven cities. Air Bank has 5,000
active users, as of
15 December.

Like most things about Air Bank,
the branches, in terms of both design and ideology, are novel.
Following the ancient Greek ‘agora’ concept – that signifies a
‘place of assembly’, the Air Bank branches are a place for
customers to “meet, talk and discuss” their banking plans, says
Michal Strcula, retail banking director for Air Bank.

“Branches are hugely important for
us because it is where you can experience the bank. Nowadays it is
not so important because of the distribution, but it gives you the
visibility and also demonstrates ‘you’. A bank is all about service
to the customer and we want to serve retail customers,” says

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The concept of Air Bank has been
brewing for a couple of years and it aims at breaking the hegemony
that the ‘big three’ banks – Erste’s Czech subsidiary Ceská
sporitelna, KBC’s Czech subsidiary CSOB, and Société Générale’s
Czech subsidiary Komercní Banka – have in the Czech banking

“Currently in the [Czech] market,
35 banks are operating. Out of those 35, roughly 20 focus on
retail, but only around 15 are doing full-fledged retail banking.
75% of the market is occupied by the big three banks. Those banks
benefit from the legacy of being here for 30-40 years,” says
Strcula, who has previously worked with banks such as GE Money and

This market dominance, he says, has
not been broken by any other bank operating in the Czech market.
However, this poses a big opportunity, as customers in the Czech
Republic are “highly dissatisfied” with the big three banks,
reveals research carried out by Air Bank.

“The typical mindset of people in
the Czech market is either they don’t care about banks at all or
they hate them. No one has a positive relationship with the banks
and the root cause is because the three big banks behave like they
own the customer – it is not a partnership relationship,” says

Air Bank’s research has not found a
single, particular, reason but multiple reasons behind retail
customers being unhappy with the big banks – from the arrogance of
staff members to banks charging high fees.

“Even though the market has pretty
decent competition in the number of competitors, no one has really
succeeded in winning a significant market share from the big three

“Customers do not understand the
banks – banks are not transparent enough or easy to use. And banks
do not innovate a lot,” says Strcula.

Air Bank has been built around
three core values, explains Strcula.

“Our first value is that we have to
be very simple – easy to use and straightforward product offers for
customers to choose from. The internet banking is such that
everything can be done in three clicks. Everything has to be done
from the customer’s perspective not the bank’s.

“The second value, which is also
every customer’s demand, is to be transparent. Every bank in this
market is claiming to be transparent but none of them truly is. We
will be the first one to bring true transparency into the Czech
banking market. For example, we have a price list on one page only,
so that every customer can understand it. We have contracts written
in simple language – that has nothing to do with legal language
that other banks use – so that everyone can read it,” added

The third value Air Bank has based
itself upon is courage.

“It is very easy to replicate what
all the other banks are doing. Without the courage of doing things
differently from what the other banks are doing, we would not be
here,” says Strcula.

Air Bank offers customers
“everything you need for transactional banking plus saving”. The
new lender will add loans to its product suite in 2012.

“We did not want to start with it
because we wanted to understand our customers before lending them
money,” adds Strcula.

A priority for Air Bank is to make
customers of other banks interested in the lender, and to ease
primary account change for the customer from the old lender to Air

“We are using a mobility pack and
doing pretty much everything to change the account from one bank to
another,” says Strcula.

To give customers an opportunity to
explore Air Bank’s services, the lender is not charging fees and is
offering a free trial period to customers for three months.

“We are confident when people use
Air Bank they will like it,” Strcula adds.

Air Bank has used social media
platforms such as Facebook and Twitter alongside blogs to introduce
itself to users in the Czech Republic since 2010, and its current
client base mostly consists of customers who followed the online

Though it is owned by PPF, Air Bank
is “not using any tactical communication with other customers
within the group”.

“We have started to build a
completely new bank with completely new customers,” says

The Air Bank branches have been
designed by Italian-retail-design company Crea International. Crea
was chosen out of “multiple designers” because the firm understood
Air Bank’s values and how it wanted to treat customers, according
to Strcula.

Air Bank’s branch design has been
kept “open” so that customers feel treated with respect and so that
they realise that the lender is “not hiding anything”, says

“We wanted a place where people
would be willing to enter and it would be clearly visible that we
would like to talk. That is why we are not using any tapestry that
will block the view in to the bank. We want everyone to look in and
come in.”

With the aim of strengthening its
transparency value, banking assistants at the Air Bank branches sit
next to customer and carry out their work – as opposed to sitting
opposite them.

Most branches are located inside
shopping malls and operational from 9am to 9pm.

“All the other banks are generally
open from 9am to 5pm. With Air Bank, customers can do their banking
after work while they do their shopping. Nowadays no one likes to
take leave from office just to go to a bank,” says Strcula.

Though state of the art, the
branches themselves are not expensive, says Strcula. But the main
spend is on the skilled people in the branches.

“What makes branches [of other
banks] expensive is if you put huge walls into it and plenty of
things you don’t need, like valuable pictures that are not required
or appreciated by the customer. Ours is functional and easy,” adds

By the end of 2012, Air Bank aims
to increase its branch-network to almost 30 branches across 20 big
Czech cities. Air Bank currently has 75 people working across its
branches and the total staff strength of the bank is close to

In 2012, Air Bank also plans to
launch a separate mobile banking app, “just to enforce the ease of
using us, though our internet banking works on mobile”, says

The name Air Bank was chosen to
give the lender an easy and memorable branding that demonstrates
the bank’s three core values and conveys how it aims to breathe
fresh air in to the Czech banking market. According to Strcula, Air
Bank’s signature colour green “works well with the freshness we
want to bring to the market”.

Another reason for the name is to
signify that the Air Bank brand can be transported to other

“For a company like PPF, foreign
markets are hugely interesting as well, but for now we will do what
Czech customers need,” says Strcula.

Currently, Air Bank’s main
competition, by default, are the ‘big three’ banks in the Czech
Republic, “because that is where the customers are right now”.

Taking its ‘green signal’ ahead, Air Bank plans to occupy a
minimum of 5% market share on the transactional banking side within
the next five years, – “that transcribes into 250,000 to 300,000
customers”, informs Strcula.

Photographs of Air Bank's new branch