In rural Germany, ‘mobile banking’ means a bank on a truck

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A customer withdraws money from a cash machine at a mobile office bus of the savings bank Sparkasse in Tschirn, southern Germany, in this January 30, 2018 photo. (AFP)
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Juergen Schaller (L), employee of the savings bank Sparkasse, serves a customer in a mobile office bus in Tschirn, southern Germany, in this January 30, 2018 photo. (AFP)
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Juergen Schaller, employee of the savings bank Sparkasse, poses for a photo in a mobile office bus in Tschirn, southern Germany, in this January 30, 2018 photo. (AFP)
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A customer withdraws money from a cash machine at a mobile office bus of the savings bank Sparkasse in Tschirn, southern Germany, in this January 30, 2018 photo. (AFP)
Updated 21 February 2018
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In rural Germany, ‘mobile banking’ means a bank on a truck

TSCHIRN, Germany: Bank manager Juergen Schaller never expected to end up getting a trucker’s license and driving 20,000 kilometers (12,400 miles) per year.
But as brick-and-mortar branches vanish from the rolling Franconia region of northern Bavaria, the neatly dressed savings bank executive jumps behind the wheel four days a week to bring mobile services — including cash machine and consultation room — to tiny countryside villages.
The switch from desk to dashboard has enabled Schaller “to do something else while staying in touch with the customers,” he told AFP.
High-street banks are increasingly being forced to shutter branches, as more and more customers go online, rural populations shrink and low interest rates eat into profits.
As a result, banks such as the public-sector Sparkassen, where Schaller is a branch manager, are having to rethink their business models.
In Schaller’s Kronach-Kumbach district alone, tucked away in the southeast corner of Germany, six branches sporting the red “S” logo of the widely popular savings banks group closed their doors last year.
A similar trend is seen across the country as a whole: nationwide, the number of physical bank branches has plunged by a quarter over the past 15 years to 35 per 100,000 people, according to a study by public investment bank KfW.
The European average is 37 per 100,000, with Spaniards the most spoiled for choice with 67.
Steffen Haberzettl, the sales director for the Kronach-Kumbach Sparkasse, said it was primarily local businesses and older people who had not embraced online banking who were taking advantage of the mobile branch, which first set off on its rounds in 2015.

Haberzettl estimated that around 20 people visited the bank at each stop, equivalent to 12,000 customer contacts a year — a tiny number compared with some 8,800 online banking logins per day.
But “we invested in this service for our clients knowing that it wouldn’t make enough money to pay for itself,” he said.
Local politicians who sit on the Sparkasse board were reluctant to plunge their constituents into a bankless wilderness as the number of closures mount. So, they opted to hit the road instead in one of Germany’s 66 itinerant branches.
In the bank’s trailer, 70-something Maria Neubauer is happy to wait for an appointment with Schaller in his tiny office during his 90-minute stop opposite the church in the slate-tiled village of Tschirn.
“The Sparkasse bus is great for making transfers, or doing anything you need,” she said.
“We’re happy, especially those of us who don’t have a car” to visit a branch further away, another villager Maria Greiner said as she printed an account statement from a nearby machine.
Other customers were busy withdrawing cash on the chilly town square from the ATM embedded in the flank of the trailer.
Schaller makes his rounds to small villages such as this from Monday to Thursday, keeping Fridays free to do maintenance work on the red and white truck and trailer.
He has no access to the cash on board, and so far he’s had no run-ins with would-be bankrobbers.

Banking sector experts predict that the Europe-wide trend toward fewer bank branches will continue apace.
“The speed at which it will happen is hard to predict, and will depend above all on how the banks manage to keep branches relevant as a channel for their customers,” said Thomas Schnarr of consultancy Oliver Wyman.
Nevertheless, “human relationships remain fundamental. Especially complicated questions require personalized advice for retail clients and businesses,” his colleague Alexander Peitsch said.
For his part, Juergen Schaller said he is not qualified to provide such specialist counselling to his clients, many of whom know him by name.
Instead, he passes on individual requests for loans or investments to a colleague sitting in one of the Sparkasse’s brick-and-mortar branches.


Saudi falcons find relief at Abu Dhabi bird hospital

Prized female Saker falcons in flight. (Getty Images)
Updated 22 September 2018
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Saudi falcons find relief at Abu Dhabi bird hospital

  • Dr Margit Muller treats hundreds of injured falcons from the Kingdom each year, many of them flown in by private plane
  • The Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital was the first and largest hospital in the world dedicated to the bird of prey

DUBAI: As the national bird of Saudi Arabia, the falcon is both a symbolic marker of the country’s culture and tradition and a treasured pet to many of its residents — and it is the job of one Abu Dhabi avian expert to tender to hundreds of injured birds of prey flown in from the Kingdom each year.
On any given week, about 10 injured birds are transported from Saudi Arabia — many by private plane — to be treated by the expert hands of Dr. Margit Muller, executive director of Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, the world’s first hospital dedicated to the falcon.
An expert in the specialized field of avian medicine, Dr. Muller’s extensive knowledge means she is in constant demand to treat injured falcons from all over the world. She treats about 10,000 birds of prey annually, of which at least 500 — predominately the Saker falcon, the largest species of falcon — are from Saudi Arabia.
“Due to our international reputation as the largest falcon hospital in the world, our very advanced treatment methods and the latest technical equipment, every year we receive more and more falcons from Saudi Arabia for examination and treatment,” said the German-born avian expert.
“Most of the falcons that we received from Saudi Arabia are Saker falcons as they are the favorite hunting falcons in Saudi Arabia. Most travel by car or private plane. For a sick falcon, it is faster to come to us by plane than by car, which reduces delays until the treatment.”
Many Saudi Arabian owners are often distressed as they consider the falcon an integral “part of the family,” explained Dr. Muller.
“The vast majority of falcon owners consider and treat their birds like their own sons and daughters,” she said. “Their falcons occupy a special place in their homes — and even in their cars.”
“Therefore, the falcon owners are very much emotionally attached to their birds, as they really love them very much. Here at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital we often experience very distressed owners whose falcon has come in with an accident. They wait in our reception area until the emergency surgery is finished, even during night hours, just to see their falcon waking up again.
Only then they are relieved enough to go home again. ”Moreover, falconers bring their birds to Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital even when they notice the slightest problem — like sneezing or vomiting — because they are extremely concerned and worried about their beloved falcons.”
They are also a valuable asset. Dr. Muller estimates that the average value of a falcon can range anywhere from SR20,000 ($5,300) to SR50,000.
“The price of a falcon depends on its breed and gender, as females are more prized because they are bigger and better for hunting, as well as being more beautiful,” she explained. “Moreover, in captive-bred falcons, the breeder’s reputation also plays a role in the price of the falcon.
“However, there are falcons that are considered to be very special and beautiful. They may cost more than SR100,000.”
Dr. Muller, who fell in love with falcons when she was training to be a vet and took a two-month internship in Dubai before obtaining a doctorate in veterinary medicine, said there is now about a 20 per cent increase year-on-year in the number of birds passing through Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital.
Every day she will treat dozens of feathered patients with differing injuries or illness.
“In Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, we have treated many different kinds of injures,” she said. “Some of the cases that are being treated are falcons that have encountered major accidents, such as being hit by a car, have leg fractures, or are suffering from a bacterial and viral infection or a bleeding nose. They may be showing symptoms of being very weak, tired and emaciated, or are suffering from Aspergillosis (a fungal disease that affects the lung and leads to major breathing difficulties and loss of flight performance, and is potentially fatal).”
Dr. Muller said that her first step when interacting with a new patient is to examine the falcon to establish the correct diagnosis and treatment plan.
“Care and medical rehabilitation for falcons will depend on the bird’s medical condition, and ranges from normal hospitalization in our hospital wards, up to stays in our ICU for critically ill falcons,” she explained.
“They require 24-hour special care as well as specifically designed treatment protocols and special feeding programs.”
“In the case of bacterial upper respiratory tract infections, the falcon should be under medical care for one week. However, an injured falcon requiring surgical repair for a broken leg or wing should be under medical care for a month.”
Falcons who moult — the cyclic replacement of feathers by shedding old ones, while producing new ones in their place — usually stay for a minimum of six months.
“Here at Abu Dhabi Falcon Hospital, we have a very scientific moulting facility and it is really a big hit for falcons during moulting season,” she said. “Therefore, every year we receive more and more falcons from Saudi Arabia as their owners would like their falcons to stay in a professional and caring place during the moulting time.”
Dr. Muller, who concentrated her thesis on foot disease in falcons and also has a diploma in veterinary homeopathy, became director of the ADFH in 2001.
“I always found falcons highly interesting and fascinating,” she said, with a smile. “When I came into contact with falcons during my veterinary medicine studies, I was so immediately attracted to them. The look in falcons’ eyes is like magic.”
After deciding to be a falcon specialist, Dr. Muller went on to share her experience with other veterinarians and falcon rehabilitation experts throughout the world by publishing her book “Practical Handbook of Falcon Husbandry and Medicine.”
Every day is a new challenge, she explains, but her work — which has earned international recognition — is something she says she is thankful for every day.
“There are always special cases of falcons, especially those which are very hard to treat, such as major accidents and fractures. The harder the case and the more the falcons suffer from an injury or disease, the more likely I get attached to them.
“It is beyond words to describe how much the falcons fight for their survival and how much they communicate their need of help through their eyes.
“The moment I look into their big black eyes, I am immediately attached to them and try my very best to help them as much as I can to save their life.
“It is what I feel I am here for.”