In one of his trips to Lucena City back in 2007, Joel C. Cruz, President, and Managing Director of South Asialink Finance Corporation or SAFC, remembered encountering a crying old lady. Cruz thought that she wanted to complain about SAFC.
“It turns out that that lady is one of the first borrowers of SAFC. She thankfully approached me because through SAFC, her child was able to finish 4 years of tertiary education. She started borrowing from SAFC in 2003. She would borrow either P5,000 or P10,000 and she would pay back the amount in five months. She would do that for the next four years,” Cruz recounted.
“Thanks to this old lady, I realized that I made the right decision of joining SAFC and helping the company achieve its cause – to make the Filipinos’ lives better,” Cruz said.
Non-bank financial institution
Cruz joined SAFC in 2006 after 14 years of working at the United Coconut Planters Bank or UCPB. SAFC is one of the leading non-bank financial institutions that offers a range of financial services through its extensive branch network located in Southern Luzon, National Capital Region, certain areas in North Luzon and Madaue.
SAFC started as a former division of Asialink Finance Corporation in 2003 with the goal of expanding its operations in Southern Luzon.
“Before I left UCPB, the Executive Vice President asked me why I was transferring to a company that was only three years old at that time when I was already working in a 40- year-old company like UCPB. I said I wanted to help more people grow their business and I could not do that if I stayed at UCPB,” Cruz related.
Cruz started out as a Letters of Credit Specialist where he would handle the accounts of importers and exporters. He then transferred to the Retail Credit where he was an Account Officer under the Retail Banking Division. While there, Cruz processed loan applications with the minimum amount of P5 million.
He then moved on to Commercial Market where he handled loan applications for the minimum amount of P50 million. Cruz noted that those who applied for loans at UCPB were already well off and had some P40 to P50 million worth of assets to back up their loan applications.
“I decided that it was time for me to move on to SAFC because I wanted to be able to help Filipinos grow their business. So, when I joined SAFC, we were lending out P15,000 to P20,000 to sari sari store owners and we helped them transform their sari sari stores into bigger stores,” he said.
When Cruz joined SAFC, it was UCPB that was the first bank to give the financial institution a P12.5 million credit facility. SAFC was able to use that credit line to expand the business. SAFC had seven branches in 2006 with 67 personnel. When 2023 ends, SAFC is expected to have 48 branches, currently they are employing a total of 451 all-Filipino workforce. SAFC is expected to add an additional 25 branches next year.
“Every time we have meetings with the branches, I tell them the reason why we were able to grow much faster due to our ability to access credit facilities with Banks. And that is what we want to duplicate and replicate with our customers. Let’s help them grow their business because if the banks do not process their loan applications, we will step in and process them,” Cruz said.
SAFC’s most availed of service are car refinancing and 2nd hand car financing. The company also offers brand new/2nd hand truck loans and real estate loans. With the Board of Directors’ approval, Cruz said SAFC will also offer brand new car loans. What makes SAFC stand out from its competition is its one-day loan processing and stellar customer service. Cruz admits though that there are times when it takes up to three days to process their loan applications due to unforeseen circumstances, like when there are work disruptions due to weather disturbances and special holidays.
As SAFC celebrates its 20th anniversary this year, Cruz could not help but recall the challenges the company faced during the Covid-19 pandemic. Since the financing business was not considered an essential industry at that time, they were forced to close shop from March 16 to May 31, 2020.
“There was a lot of uncertainty at that time because we did not know when we will be allowed to open our business again. Also, a big concern back then was the financial capacity of our borrowers that were affected by the economic slowdown. What was a big help for us was the Bayanihan to Heal as One Act where our borrowers were given extensions of up to 90 days to pay their loan obligations,” Cruz said.
Focus on MSMEs
As the company started its road to recovery, Cruz said SAFC decided to concentrate on helping micro, small, and medium enterprises (MSMEs) in 2021 because the banks slowed down on their approvals on loans for MSMEs.
“There was a gap that had to be filled and SAFC was there to do that. In every challenging environment, we were able to find an opportunity and because of that we were able to bring our sales back to P3.6 billion,” he said.
He is optimistic that SAFC is ready to make it big next year with the opening of 25 additional branches and the entry of a private equity investor.
“With these resources, we will be able to expand our business and open up to 25 more branches by June 2024. By 2026, the target will be at least 180 branch network. What we will be doing is to fight it out and take advantage of the huge market. We are targeting at least a 30 percent growth rate annually,” he added.