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Banking

Latin America: Valenzuela rides into a new world of challenges

When Banorte’s former CEO left Mexico’s top-tier domestic bank, few expected to see him return on a motorbike chasing gym owners for overdue loan payments. But in taking over challenger Banco Azteca, Alejandro Valenzuela has accepted a completely new professional and personal task – running a bank for the previously unbanked.

Alejandro Valenzuela illustration-350

Illustration: Pete Ellis

By Ben Edwards

Within just a few weeks of joining Banco Azteca, Alejandro Valenzuela was darting in and out of thick Mexico City traffic on the back of one of the bank’s fleet of 10,000 motorbikes to collect loan payments from his customers. As the new chief executive, and former head of Banorte, would quickly discover, Banco Azteca is not a traditional lender.

Azteca was founded in 2002 as the finance unit of Grupo Elektra – a Mexican retail chain that first opened its doors in the 1950s selling radios and televisions and pioneered the provision of in-store credit to its customers, many of whom were from lower socioeconomic backgrounds and lacked access to other banking services.

 To Grupo Elektra owner and chairman Ricardo Salinas, this unbanked segment of Mexico – thought to account for around six in every 10 Mexicans – was an untapped market, ignored by the larger banks as being too risky and costly to service.

Now, almost 14 years later, Azteca has popularized the store-banking model, operating almost 1,800 formal branches in Mexico – the second-largest bank by branches in the country – and attracting more than 12 million customers.

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