KEB Sets Trend in Expatriate Banking
By Kim Tae-gyu
Foreign residents here have two outstanding complaints concerning credit cards and mobile phones ― it is difficult for them to get plastic from local issuers, or to subscribe to wireless telephony services.
The troubles get serious as they find how disastrous life can be without Korean credit cards, which are ubiquitously used to pay fares on buses, taxis and subways and to get discounts on almost all services imaginable ― their credit cards issued overseas are useless.
The hitches disappeared after Korea Exchange Bank (KEB) came up with a plastic card customized for foreigners, dubbed the Expat Card, midway through 2005.
The Seoul-based lender launched another expatriate-only product, the Global Card, in 2008 and will release the exclusive Expat Signature Card for high-end clients later this year.
Tens of thousands of foreigners have signed up for the KEB cards and the number is expected to increase further after the Expat Signature Card comes to town.
``Based on our experience of more than 40 years both at home and abroad, we recognized the necessity of issuing credit cards to expatriates,'' said Chung Chung-won, head of the Foreign Customer Marketing Department at KEB.
``Plus, our foreign CEOs have been well aware of the complaints of expatriates and prompted the bank to phase in cards for expatriates,'' he said.
Robert Fallon took the reins of KEB, owned by Texas-based hedge fund Lone Star, early 2004 and he was succeeded by Richard Wacker, presently KEB chairman, the next year. Current Chief Executive Larry Klane took charge this April.
Credit cards are not the only financial product that KEB debuted for the first time for foreign residents here.
KEB released ``Expat Savings Account'' passbooks this August in which all transaction details are printed in English for the first time. Users can freely deposit or withdraw their money denominated in the Korean currency.
Furthermore, the bank enables foreigners to easily make transactions through ATMs as the devices offer audio services in four languages including English, Chinese and Japanese on top of Korean.
Late next month, KEB is poised to add three more tongues to the portfolio ― French, German and Spanish.
Going Online, Mobile
Beginning 2000, KEB initiated English-language Internet banking services for the first time among its rivals, which include such powerhouses as Kookmin Bank and Shinhan Bank.
Its English-language online banking offerings have been streamlined throughout this year headed by the Foreign Customer Marketing Department, which was established last year.
``Our competitors have also provided online banking applications in English. But up until now, most of the services have not been customized to foreign users,'' Chung said.
``Hence, we channeled a substantial amount of time, funds and energy to create the foreigners-friendly services and our new version was released in November. We will continue to improve the service,'' Chung said.
In 2005, KEB also allowed its users to send money overseas through mobile phones in a business alliance with LG Telecom, one of the nation's major wireless operator, as well as via ATMs.
In case any KEB clients remain suspicious whether or not their money is successfully transferred to the recipients, they do not have to rush to the bank branches or wait until the bank opens.
They can make a phone call to customer service center, which operates around the clock throughout the year in English.
The support of KEB for foreign businessmen here is not only about individuals but also involves corporate clients.
KEB established the Foreign Direct Investment Desk back in 1995, an in-house entity dedicated to helping overseas corporations tapping into Asia's fourth-largest economy.
The organization provides all-in-one services including financial and legal consulting or loans. Currently, up to 40 percent of global companies making inroads into Korea uses the services by first opening their accounts at KEB.
In addition, KEB helps Korea attract offshore investors by making loans to workers of foreign companies here under the Expat Leader's Loan.
``Workers at overseas companies have struggled to borrow money from domestic lenders thus far no matter how good the companies are. But we are not discriminating. We are lending money to foreigners who meet some criteria on credit at single-digit annual interest rates,'' Chung said.
Chung noted that KEB would continue to put forth efforts to develop tailor-made services for foreigners staying here to preempt the markets, which will get bigger in line with the increasing number of expatriates.
``As far as financial services for expatriates are concerned, we think KEB is unparalleled. We are the only Korean bank with a department solely dedicated to marketing for foreigners,'' Chung said.
``We are set to break down the service barriers between Koreans and foreigners. Any services available to Koreans should be available to foreigners. That is our philosophy,'' he said.
Also of note is that KEB maintains three foreign centers for top-end customers in Seoul and 15 global desks across the country including Incheon, Ulsan and Busan.
The bank opens 12 branches on Sunday, the biggest number among local lenders, for migrant workers who fail to find time to visit banks during weekdays.
In recognition of such efforts, the Korean government awarded the Industrial Service Medal to KEB Chief Executive Larry Klane on the occasion of Foreign Company Day on Nov. 5 this year.