From his office on the twelfth floor of a high-rise, stately building opposite the North train station in Brussels, Salvatore Orlando (30) oversees the entire national expat clientele of BNP Paribas Fortis banking group in Belgium. Or, as he likes to quip, goes about the humble task of “making the lives of expats easier”.
“I know how difficult it is, honestly, to be an expat,” he says. “Whatever age you are, it’s difficult because you’re starting a new experience in your life.”
Yet in those first few weeks after their arrival, newcomers in this country typically find many priorities tugging at their time and attention, ones that Salvatore describes as the “side-effects of the move”. Those include looking for an apartment, taking out rent insurance, opening a bank account and registering in the town hall. “These things are very important, critical even, but you didn’t move for this of course,” he says. “So what I wanted to do was to, at least for financial, bank and insurance matters, be there for expats to help them.”
If Salvatore comes at this from such a pragmatic vantage point, that’s because he’s been there and done that. Like many expats in this country, Salvatore first came to Belgium as a student. In 2006, he travelled from Toulouse in France (where he studied for one year) to complete a two-year master’s degree in European studies at the Institute for European Studies at the Free University of Brussels.
After graduating, he moved to Prague in Czech Republic, where he would spend the next three years working for consulting firm Accenture, intermittently also staying in Spain, Scotland and England on shorter professional stints – until a traineeship at the heart of continental policymaking and Belgium called again. And this time, Salvatore decided to stick around. In 2010, he joined BNP Paribas Fortis and has stayed put since then.
By virtue of not just the European and international institutions, but also the many multinationals, lobbying firms and NGOs headquartered here, Brussels is obviously an important city for expatriates. According to Salvatore, more than 70% of the expats in this country live in Brussels, and more than 52% of them stay in this country for more than seven years, while, at three years, the average duration is much lower in most countries. It was such figures that led him and his colleagues to try out something new in 2013.
Salvatore and his then supervisor, a French expat who oversaw the bank’s private and retail banking activities in the Brussels, both saw the same story behind those numbers – an expat crowd in need of a better service, but also a business opportunity. “We said we have to work with these expats,” he remembers. “We had to provide them with a specific offer and service.”
One year later, the results of the bank’s local pilot project for expats were so encouraging that the initiative was extended countrywide.
Today, BNP Paribas Fortis has 21 expat branches across the country that differ from the bank’s other branches in both the services and expertise available to international customers.
With financial, banking and insurance products tailored to the particular needs of expats, Salvatore says, BNP Paribas Fortis aspires to be a one-stop shop for expats, and not just at a skin-deep level.
In May, BNP Paribas Fortis renewed their banking service offer for expats. One of the most touted features of the new programme is the option for customers to remotely request/apply for an account with the bank from anywhere in the world with a few simple clicks and smooth their arrival. And this novelty is important because, in Salvatore’s view, everything begins with a bank account. Newcomers to Belgium need an account to pay their rent deposit, to take out health insurance, to register at their local municipality, and so on. “It’s a vicious circle,” he explains. “But when they arrive they have to think of so many things,” he says, so that setting up a bank account probably doesn’t top their to-do list.
His own experience was a case in point. At one time, when still studying in Brussels, ready to pay for his groceries at a local store, his debit card was declined. To this day, Salvatore remains thankful that he had cash on him that day. When he contacted his bank, he discovered that his account had been blocked because between unpacking, settling into the city and registering for courses, he had failed to provide them with a definitive proof of address. It’s those kinds of small things that often trip up expats, he says.
Allowing customers to launch the request for opening an account online even before they have set foot in their country of destination solves such conundrums. “You arrive, everything is ready for you, you’re happy, you leave,” Salvatore says. “You start working and studying and you don’t think of any banking or financial issues anymore because we set up everything for you.”
Along with its digital and online services, one aspect of the bank’s service that Salvatore is eager to emphasize is the personalized contact offered. “When you open an account in Belgium, a bank staff member is charged with being your personal advisor throughout your stay.”
BNP Paribas Fortis is the most international bank in Europe, represented in more than 80 countries worldwide. Salvatore points out: “This allows us to ‘introduce’ our clients within the group, making setting up in a new country so much easier.”