For many companies, the Covid-19 pandemic necessitated rapid change. Microsoft Corp. CEO Satya Nadella noted in late April, “We’ve seen two years’ worth of digital transformation in two months,” due to the speedy adoption and implementation of new technology by the U.S. business sector to better serve customers and keep employees working safely during the crisis.
Navigating the short-term impacts of these shifts has bankers working round-the-clock to keep pace, but the long-term effects could differentiate the companies that take advantage of this extraordinary moment to pivot their operations. This transformation makes up the core of the discussions taking place at Microsoft’s Envision Virtual Forum for Financial Services. As part of that event, Bank Director CEO Al Dominick virtually sat down with Luke Thomas, Microsoft’s managing director, U.S. banking and financial providers, to discuss how financial institutions can use this opportunity to modernize their operations.
Financial institutions are increasingly looking outside their core provider for the technology solutions that are right for their bank and their customers. In this video, Aaron Silva of Paladin fs explains the challenges community banks face in working with new providers and how to overcome these issues. He also shares three key areas to watch before signing on the dotted line.
Changing your bank’s core technology provider is one of the most important decisions that a bank board and management team can make, and even when things go smoothly it can be the source of great disruption. The undertaking can be particularly challenging for small banks that are already resource constrained since the conversion requires that all of the bank’s data be transferred from one vendor’s system to another’s, and even for a small institution that can add up to a lot of bits and bytes. Also, changing to another vendor’s core technology platform typically means adopting several of its ancillary products like branch teller and online and mobile banking systems, which further complicates the conversion process.
“It isn’t something to be taken lightly,” Quintin Sykes, a managing director at Scottsdale, Arizona-based consulting firm Cornerstone Advisors, says of the decision to switch core providers. “It is not something that should be driven by a single executive or the IT team or the operations team. Everybody has got to be on board as to why that change is occurring and what the benefits are…”
The Bank of Bennington, a $400 million asset mutual bank located in Bennington, Vermont, recently switched its core technology platform from Fiserv to Fidelity National Information Services, or FIS. President and Chief Executive Officer James Brown says that even successful conversions put an enormous strain on a bank’s staff.
“It’s not fun,” says Brown. “I have the advantage of having gone through two previous conversions in my career, one that was horrendous and one that was just horrible. [The core providers have] gotten better at it, but there’s no way to avoid the pain. There are going to be hiccups, things that no matter how you prepare are going to impact customers. There’s this turmoil, if you will, once you flip the switch, where everybody is trying to figure out how to do things and put out fires, but I will say [the conversation to FIS], in terms of how bad it could have been, was not bad at all.”
But even that conversion, while it went more smoothly than Brown’s previous experiences, put a lot of stress on the bank’s 60 employees. “There was a lot of overtime and a lot of management working different jobs to make sure our customers were taken care of,” he says.
Banks typically change their core providers for a couple of different reasons. If the bank has been executing an aggressive growth strategy, either organically or through an acquisition plan, it may simply have outgrown its current system. A lot of core providers can handle growth, particularly in the retail side of the bank, so that’s not usually the problem, Sykes says. Instead, the growth issue often comes down to the breadth of the bank’s product line and whether staying with its current core provider will allow it to expand its product set. When banks embark on a growth strategy, they don’t always consider whether their core data system can expand accordingly. “Usually they’re unable or just haven’t looked far enough ahead to realize they need it before they do,” Sykes explains. “The pain has set in by the time they reach a decision that they need to explore [switching to a new] core.”
Banks will also switch their core providers over price, especially of they have been with the same vendor through consecutive contracts and didn’t negotiate a lower price at renewal. “If any banker says price doesn’t have an impact on their decision, they’re not being honest,” says Stephen Heckard, a senior consultant at Louisville, Kentucky-based ProBank Austin.
Although the major core providers would no doubt argue differently, Heckard—who sold core systems for Fiserv for 12 years before becoming a consultant—says that each vendor has a platform that should meet any institution’s needs, and the deciding factor can be the difference in their respective cultures. And this speaks to a third common reason why banks will leave their core provider: unresolved service issues that leave the bank’s management team frustrated, angry and wanting to make a change.
“The smaller the bank, the more important the relationship is,” says Heckard. “When I talk about relationships, I’m also talking about emotions. They get played up in this. For a community bank of $500 million in assets, quite often if the vendor has stopped performing, there’s an emotional impact on the staff. And if the vendor is not servicing the customer’s needs in a holistic manner, and the relationship begins to degrade, then I do feel that eventually the technology that’s in place, while it may be solid, begins to break.”
Heckard says that core providers should understand their clients’ strategic objectives and business plans and be able to provide them with a roadmap on how their products and services can support their needs. “I don’t see that happening near enough,” he says. And if the service issues go unresolved long enough, the client may begin pulling back from the provider, almost like a disillusioned spouse in a failing marriage. “They may not be as actively attending user groups, national conferences and so forth,” Heckard says. “They don’t take advantage of all the training that’s available, so they become part of the problem too.”
Brown says that when Bank of Bennington’s service contract was coming up on its expiration date, his management team started working with Heckard to evaluate possible alternatives. “We needed to implement some technology upgrades,” he says. “We felt we were behind the curve. Something as simple as mobile banking, we didn’t have yet.” The management team ultimately chose FIS, with Brown citing customer service and cybersecurity as principal factors in the decision. The decision was less clear cut when it came to the actual technology, since each of the systems under consideration had their strengths and weaknesses. “I’m sure [the vendors] wouldn’t like to hear this but in a lot of ways a core is a core,” Brown says.
Heckard, who managed the request for proposal (RFP) process for Bennington, says that bank management teams should ask themselves three questions when choosing a new core provider. “The first one would be, have you exhausted every opportunity to remain with the present vendor?” he says. As a general rule, Heckard always includes the incumbent provider in the RFP process, and sometimes having the contract put out to bid can help resolve long-standing customer service issues. The second question would be, why was the new vendor selected? And the third question would be, how will the conversion restrict our activities over the next 18 months? For example, if the bank is considering an acquisition, or is pursuing an organic growth strategy, to what extent will the conversion interfere with those initiatives?
Heckard also covers the conversion process in every RFP “so that by the time the bank’s selection committee reads that document they know what’s ahead of them, they know the training requirements…they understand the impact on the bank.”
And sometimes a bank will decide at the 11th hour that a core conversion would place too much stain on its staff, and it ends up staying with its incumbent provider. Heckard recalls one bank that he worked with recently decided at the last moment not to switch, even though another vendor had put a very attractive financial offer on the table. “The president of the holding company told me, ‘Steve, we can’t do it. It’s just too much of an impact on our bank. We’ve got a main office remodel going on,’ and he went through about four other items,” Heckard says. “I thought, all of these were present before you started this. But sometimes they don’t realize that until they get involved in the process and understand the impact on their staff.”
Bank executives don’t exactly give their core providers a ringing endorsement in Bank Director’s Core Provider Ranking, conducted in September and October 2016, particularly when it comes to these companies’ willingness to integrate with third party applications and their ability to offer innovative solutions.
Eighty-six executives, including chief executive officers, chief information officers and chief technology officers, rated the overall performance of their bank’s current core provider, and within individual categories that explored aspects of the provider’s service to the client bank, on a scale of 1 to 10, with 10 indicating the highest level of satisfaction. An average score was then calculated based on the individual ratings. Participants were not asked to rate other core providers. The executives surveyed represent banks between $100 million and $20 billion in assets. Forty percent of respondents indicate that Fiserv is their bank’s core provider, while 26 percent use FIS and 19 percent Jack Henry. Sixteen percent indicate that they use another provider.
While respondents express some disappointment in what is likely their biggest vendor relationship, one core provider does come out on top.
Average overall score: 7.18
According to 67 percent of its customers, FIS, headquartered in Jacksonville, Florida, is the only core provider that keeps pace with innovations in the marketplace.
FIS has been the most active acquirer of the big three core providers. David Albertazzi, a senior analyst at Aite Group, says FIS has a great track record of acquiring and integrating innovative companies into the firm’s suite of products. Beginning in 2012, FIS has acquired six firms, according to crunchbase, a data firm that tracks the technology sector. These include two compliance solutions, a payments technology company and a mobile banking solution. Its most recent acquisition was the software firm SunGard, in 2015.
FIS features nine different core systems in the U.S. The company came out on top within all individual categories but one, rating highest for being a cost effective solution, communicating with clients about new products and updates, providing high quality support, offering innovative solutions and for the company’s willingness to integrate with third-party applications.
#2 Jack Henry & Associates
Average overall score: 6.63
Jack Henry, based in Monett, Missouri, came in just behind FIS in many of the individual categories, but rated highest of the three when it comes to being easy to contact and responsive when issues and problems arise. Albertazzi says customer service is a core tenet for the company, and Jack Henry regularly measures how well its IT and support staff are performing. Those efforts are clearly recognized in the industry.
Jack Henry offers a more streamlined product selection compared to FIS and Fiserv— according to Aite, just six core systems. Recent acquisitions include Banno, in 2014, a mobile account platform, and Bayside Business Solutions in 2015, which expanded the provider’s commercial lending suite.
Average overall score: 4.97
Brookfield, Wisconsin-based Fiserv features 18 core systems, according to Aite—the most of the three core providers. That variety, along with its ubiquity in the banking space—Fiserv serves one-third of all U.S. banks and credit unions—may account in part for its low rating.
Client perceptions of their core provider’s performance can be muddied by several factors, including the age of their core system, says Albertazzi. The client bank may be loath to take on a conversion, and instead remain on an old system that the provider is no longer fully supporting. Bank Director did not rank individual systems, but rather the companies’ performance overall. A client running an outdated, basic core would be more apt to criticize a vendor than one using a shiny new system tailored to integrate with the latest-and-greatest fintech solution on the market.
If acquisitions have the potential to jumpstart innovation for legacy core companies, Fiserv could see a boost soon. Fiserv has been a significantly less active acquirer in recent years, compared to Jack Henry and FIS, with just one acquisition in 2013. But Fiserv recently acquired Online Banking Solutions, an Atlanta, Georgia-based provider of business banking technology, which promises to deepen Fiserv’s relationships with commercial banks.
As a group, other providers averaged a score of 6.07, just above the overall average for all providers of 6.02. One-quarter of retail banks could end up opting for startup providers for their online and mobile banking solutions by 2019, predicts Stessa Cohen, research director at Gartner, a research and advisory firm. Currently, 96 percent of banks rely on their core provider for services outside of core banking, according to Bank Director’s 2016 Technology Survey. As banks open up to other technology vendors, it’s possible they’ll lessen their dependency on the legacy core providers, and even open up to newer core solutions.
In 2009, a former Google engineer and his wife decided to buy a little bank in tiny Weir, Kansas. At the time, the bank had less than $10 million in assets. Why would a tech guy want to get into banking, with all its regulation and red tape—and do so by buying the textbook definition of a traditional community bank?
“Money is a very fundamental invention,” says Suresh Ramamurthi, the ex-Google engineer who is now chairman and chief technology officer at CBW Bank. (His wife, Suchitra Padmanabhan, is president.) “The best way to understand the [changing] nature of money is to be within a bank.” So Ramamurthi learned how to run every facet of the bank, and then set about fixing what he says was a broken system. The bank’s new-and-improved core technology platform was built by Yantra Financial Technologies, a company co-owned by Ramamurthi.
Ramamurthi and his team “recoded the bank,” says Gareth Lodge, a senior analyst at the research firm Celent. Many banks rely on their core providers for their technology needs, but CBW, with Yantra, wrote the software themselves. The bank’s base technology platform allows it to make changes as needed, through the use of APIs. (API stands for application programming interface, and controls software interactions.) “What they’ve created is the ability to have lots of different components across the bank, which they can then rapidly configure and create completely new services,” says Lodge.
The bank has used this ability to create custom payment solutions for its clients. One client can pay employees in real time, so funds are received immediately on a Friday night rather than Tuesday, for example, decreasing employee reliance on payday loans. Another client, a healthcare company, can now make payments to health care providers in real time and omit paper statements; by doing so, it cuts costs significantly, from $4 to $10 per claim to less than 60 cents, according to Celent.
The bank created a way to detect fraud instantly, which enables real-time payments through its existing debit networks for clients in the U.S., at little cost to the bank, says Lodge. CBW also makes real-time payments to and from India.
Today, CBW is larger and more profitable, though it’s still small, with just $26 million in assets, and still has just one branch office in Weir. The bank now boasts a 5.01 percent return on assets as of June 2016, according to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., and a 26.24 percent return on equity. Its efficiency ratio is 56 percent. In 2009, those numbers were in the negative with a 140 percent efficiency ratio.
Not only has its profitability substantially changed, but its business model has too. Loans and leases comprise just 9 percent of assets today, compared to 46 percent in 2009, as CBW increasingly relies on noninterest income from debit cards and other deposit-related activities. CBW found opportunities in partnerships with fintech firms, long before the rest of the industry caught on. CBW provides the FDIC-insured backing for the mobile deposit accounts of the New York City-based fintech firm Moven, and also issues the company’s debit cards. “Every one of these opportunities is a learning opportunity,” says Ramamurthi.
Is it possible to duplicate CBW’s approach to innovation? The bank’s model and leadership is extremely unique. A large bank may have the technology expertise in-house, but completely changing a complex organization is difficult. On the other hand, while it’s easier to make changes to a small, less complex bank, these institutions often can’t attract the necessary talent to facilitate a transformation. To further complicate matters, many banks are working off older core technology, and their partnerships with major core providers limit their ability to integrate innovative solutions, according to Bank Director’s 2016 Technology Survey.
CBW, on the other hand, is nimble enough to transform seamlessly, due both to its size and its custom core technology. It also has leadership with the ability and the interest to implement technology that can help better meet clients’ needs. “They’re providing things that nobody else can do,” says Lodge. “It’s not just the technology that distinguishes them. It’s the thinking.”