In July 2021, First Horizon Corp. bought IBERIABANK Corp. and launched an experiment that few banks of its size have attempted: a conversion to an alternative core provider.
But the $88 billion banking company based in Memphis didn’t want to replace its core, the basic nervous system of the bank. It wanted to replace the core of a virtual bank acquired from IBERIABANK. Doing so would allow First Horizon to test the waters with Finxact, a cloud-native core that offers banks a fully open architecture to pick and choose what software and services to offer customers, providing the chance to quickly update and offer new products as customers’ needs change.
Finxact had all the bells and whistles of a modern system. “The way someone designed a mainframe 30 years ago isn’t dictating what we’re doing today,’’ says Tyler Craft, senior vice president and head of First Horizon’s VirtualBank.
Although a few brave souls such as Seattle Bank have accomplished a complete core conversion to a modern, alternative core such as Finxact, some others are testing the waters with partial conversions. While a complete core conversion to an alternative core may feel time consuming and risky, there are a variety of options, including First Horizon’s approach. An increasing number of banks are trying their options.
In fact, it was First Horizon CEO Bryan Jordan who first put that image in my head of an operating table and a skilled surgeon going to work on the very cord that makes the bank function. “This is probably not a great analogy, but changing your core system is, in my mind, about as complicated as a spinal transplant,’’ he says.
This report delves into why and how some banks have leaped off that cliff, the strategies for success, how to get buy-in at your bank and what to ask potential core providers.
Years before the Covid-19 crisis pushed the banking industry headfirst into a digital-forward ecosystem, many financial institutions felt stuck in place. While a few front-runners were making technological headway with modernized, adaptive core technologies — such as Deland, Florida-based Surety Bank, with $183 million in assets — many banks were tied to on-premises, decades-old systems.
Still today, replacing the core — the backend system that processes all transactions — hasn’t become mainstream as a way to upgrade a bank’s technology. Instead, much of the industry seems to be moving toward a variety of outside solutions.
And one of the most popular solutions has become application programming interfaces (APIs). In Bank Director’s 2021 Technology Survey, 63% of banks report using APIs.
APIs function as passageways between software systems that facilitate data exchanges; in simpler terms, they allow systems to talk to each other. Layering APIs on top of legacy core systems allow them to interact with disparate third-party technology companies almost instantly, among other capabilities.
Finzly, a Charlotte, North Carolina-based alternative core provider, advocates that banks not break their core contracts. The company’s Director of Marketing Suja Ramakrishnan says, “The core has been designed for certain functions. Let’s allow it to do what it is made to do and build a new innovation layer on top of it to let [the bank] do what it wants to do.”
Finzly integrates with a bank’s existing core via API calls. It’s hosted on Amazon Web Services, so no on-site installation is required. Once integration is complete, a bank can access Finzly’s products, as well as ancillary technologies that handle payments, account opening, foreign exchange and commercial business needs. “Alternative cores are breeding grounds for innovation,” Ramakrishnan adds.
U.S. legacy cores aren’t standing on the sidelines, watching foreign fintechs provide the technology their bank clients are asking for.
To retain their customers and poach new ones, some of the leading providers — Jack Henry & Associates, FIS and Fiserv — have all invested in API and similar functional technologies to be included in their technology stacks. Jack Henry’s jXchange, FIS’s Code Connect and Fiserv’s Communicator Advantage are the providers’ way of offering real-time communication capabilities with selected third parties not included in their core contract.
But these API marketplaces come with a catch.
Tom Grottke, managing director at Crowe LLP, notes that banks can’t self-select the third parties they want to work with and go to market the next day. The providers are the ones to vet, certify and onboard the services they want to offer to their bank clients. “They [legacy core providers] are more open than they have been, they’ve added more functionality … but it’s not an open architectured marketplace,” he explains.
While banks are still wondering how they can add more digital features and services, Grottke says banks have realized that they won’t have to change the core to find those answers.
There may be many advantages to replacing legacy cores, but it appears that many banks are content in using APIs as a Band-Aid to temporarily fix a longstanding problem. And with core conversion costly, replacing the core could be daunting for many banks. APIs buy a bank more time in figuring out their long-term core strategy.
Banks are discovering that the stronghold they once held on payment processing, a thriving revenue-generating machine for their industry, is beginning to slip away. Corporations are finding fintech companies, a community of organizations built upon entrepreneurial business models, disruptive technologies and agile methodologies, can serve their payment needs better. Unlike organizations in any other industry, financial service organizations are enduring exploding information technology costs at a time when major leaps in technology seem to occur daily. This increasing pressure on banks comes at a time when client expectations and behaviors continually shift to the latest modernized convenient options with no expected cost to them, all while regulators pile on new rules. Banking organizations are under considerable stress, and lack the strategic bandwidth to modernize their core payments infrastructure.
Banking’s legacy infrastructure is built on check-dependent data structures that achieve scale by volume. They are managed by outdated operating models and designed on the physical movement of payments. However, payment volume is no longer the basis for achieving economies of scale. Fintechs build smart technologies deployed in nimble fashion to right size applications, architected to streamline information capture and transform simple data into actionable intelligence.
The legacy core platform has seen its share of changes in technology, products and regulations. Generations of bankers have tried to reinvent their legacy core platforms for decades. Yet the systems survived each generation, unrecognizable from their original state and containing endless numbers of integrations pinned to it. Like a massive spider with hundreds of legs, the core has spun a web so complex that even the brightest banking IT professionals have been tangled up by its beautiful complexity. As the payments industry evolved, it began to do so in singular fashion, feature by feature, product by product. What remains is a core littered with integrations that at the time were modern, but today just difficult to support and expensive to manage.
Increases in regional, national and sector-specific regulatory scrutiny and oversight create major obstacles due to the lack of available insight of legacy core technology. Much of the allocated working capital at financial institutions is dedicated to compliance-related initiatives rather than put to use on modernizing or transforming payment-related infrastructures and platforms. The legacy payment silos of the past provide little to no data insight capabilities resulting in constant reactive work efforts to acclimate products to the fluid nature of consumer and corporate payment behaviors.
Many banks are on defense in the payments arena, late to market, missing premium-pricing periods, and struggling to gain market share. The community of companies in the financial technology space has been quick to step in, developing new products in old arenas, introducing easier to manage data exchange protocols and adding robust business intelligence; stripping some of the market from traditional bank participants. The arduous task of replacing or repairing the core payment platform is beyond reach for most banks. Many banks are looking to the fintech community, once thought of as augmented service providers, to become strategic partners charged with overhauling and replacing the legacy core. This is not a retreat from payment processing but rather the recognition that financial technology companies are better positioned to respond quickly to change. Even better for the banking system, fintechs are no longer at odds with banks and today’s fintechs are collaborating at every opportunity with banks.
Bankers can no longer turn their heads and wish the problem away. The core platform is holding the organization back. Replacing or repairing it are no longer viable options in today’s dynamic payments industry. Replacing the core with an elusive payments hub is not only impractical but also nearly impossible, unless the bank has a lot of money to spend and access to a lot of talent. However, all is not lost. The answer is an overhaul of your payments strategy. That strategy should be realistic in that payment processing has become an ancillary service for most banks and the bank would be better positioned focusing on its core competencies. As payment behaviors continue to shift, those that look to strategically source their payment services may fare the best. Demands from regulators, costly compliance operations and stricter evolving information security protocols are only going to continue and ultimately render the payment infrastructure obsolete. Not processing payments on your core platform is smart business.
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.”
Your bank’s survival could hinge on how you answer this question.
In recent years, we’ve seen a tremendous increase in use of technology. According to a range of surveys, at least one in every three people in developed markets now carries a smartphone. And in the United States alone, smartphones account for more than half of all mobile subscriptions, meaning that at least a third of all consumers potentially will use their phones to make payments and purchases.
The digital era is here to stay and adopting a digital-first mindset is no longer a matter of preference but rather, a question of necessity. Traditional banks need to recognize the need to expand their own digital services and capabilities, and many have started innovating and investing heavily to do so.
If you’re ready to become a part of the digital revolution, that means your core banking platform needs to be up to the task of helping you establish a strong digital presence. Evolving into a more fully digital organization with the right core in place can help financial institutions deliver quicker and more reliable services, strengthen the relationship with current clients while helping to acquire new ones—all the while delivering a unique, personalized customer experience to all of their customers.
Looking into the future, a 2014 McKinsey & Co. research predicted that within a few years over two-thirds of all banking users will be fully adapted to the online world. However, a 2016 Bain & Co. study also indicates that adding channels to a customer’s experience can increase confusion and frustration. In other words, there are still some bumps in the road to a purely digital experience.
With the increasing adoption of digital channels, despite some snags, it’s easy to see an emerging trend: to succeed, financial institutions must adopt a digital-first view of how to do business (PDF).
The average customer will interact at least twice a day with their bank, checking on payments and balances, paying bills or making purchases. Because of this heightened activity, an increasing number of financial institutions are beginning to grasp the importance of the digital-first view of banking. North American banks have begun to invest heavily in apps that, when working in concert with existing core technologies, will improve the customer experience and cultivate stronger and longer-lasting relationships with their clients. These new apps allow banking clients to perform a range of financial activities while on the go, offering services more sophisticated than mere paperless customer experiences, which have been around for nearly a decade.
There is no doubt that the world is already experiencing a digital transformation. But can the inevitable change be advantageous? It can, if you’re ready with solid core technologies already in place. By some estimates, adopting digital technology could allow banks to decrease their physical footprint by 30 percent, resulting in a significant reduction in costs and corresponding improvement in profitability. Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America Corp., cites the rise of digital usage among his customers as a prime driver behind significant workforce reductions in recent years.
Figures from the last few years demonstrate the success of digital banking. Online-only banks, for instance, saw more than a 30 percent rise in deposits between 2010 and 2013. Mobile banking will grow to more than 2 billion users worldwide by 2020. And according to a recent Accenture study, 20 percent of all bank customers are entirely digital users, meaning that if a bank wants to increase its customer base, catering to the needs of these new tech-savvy clients is a must.
The ability to deliver services the way customers want, including through digital channels, while not neglecting the core services that all clients demand, is increasingly crucial to establishing and maintaining long-term banking relationships. Digital change demands that financial institutions digitize their processes and drastically reset how banking staff reacts to customer needs. The adaptation of lean core banking IT systems and investment in new digital products and services that enhance and personalize customer experience will be key factors going forward.
In short, digital banking can realize astonishing improvements in earnings before interest, taxes, amortization and depreciation, while also enabling you to reach a wider set of customers through an expanded range of services. Experts estimate that a digital transformation of the financial sector and banking institutions can ensure secure transactions and minimize risks, reduce costs, ensure seamless integration with back office applications—and last but not least, streamline the customer experience.
Most banks have been reluctant to offer person-to-person (P2P) payments services, although the market—which the research firm Aite Group estimates has at least $1.2 trillion in annual payments volume in the United States alone—probably deserves a closer look.
Writing in a May 2017 research report, Talie Baker, a senior analyst in Aite’s retail banking and payments practice, argues that a P2P payments capability could be a “competitive differentiator” for financial institutions as they fight for market share in a crowded mobile banking market. And it’s a market that could be heating up as both traditional banks and fintech companies with their own payments offerings jockey for competitive advantage. “The P2P payments market is seeing growth in the adoption of digital payments, and both bank and nonbank providers, including tech giants such as Facebook and Google, are looking for ways to secure a piece of the P2P payments pie,” she wrote.
Most financial institutions offer a P2P option either through the Zelle Network (formerly clearXchange), which is owned by a consortium of banks and launched its new P2P service in June, or Popmoney, which is owned by Fiserv, the largest provider of core technology services to the industry. A total of 34 institutions currently offer Zelle, including the country’s four largest banks—J.P. Morgan Chase & Co., Bank of America Corp., Wells Fargo & Co. and Citigroup. Alternative providers include Facebook Messenger, Google Wallet, Square, PayPal through either its PayPal.me or Venmo services, and Dublin, Ireland-based Circle.
With 83 percent of the digital P2P market share in the U.S., compared just 17 percent for the alternative providers, banks are clearly in command of the space. Some of that advantage is attributable to the industry’s large installed base of mobile customers. “They have a captive audience to start with … and that gives them a one-up on, for example, a Venmo or a Square that don’t have a captive customer base and have to go out and build their business through referrals,” says Baker. However, the banks need to be careful that their big market share advantage doesn’t result in complacency. “Alternative providers are catching up from a popularity perspective and are doing more volume, and banks probably need to step up their game a little bit from a marketing perspective to keep their market share,” Baker says.
Why hasn’t the P2P market grown faster than it has until now? For one thing, P2P providers generally will have a difficult time charging for the service since consumer adoption has been slow. “Checks are free today, it’s free to get money from an ATM, so if [the services] are not free, I don’t know if they’re going to be popular for the long haul,” Baker says.
Another obstacle is the enduring popularity—and utility—of cash. Baker says that many potential users are still comfortable using cash or checks to settle small debts with friends and family—which is still the primary use case for P2P services. “I love being able to make electronic payments personally, I just have found that my peer group is not as up on it,” says Baker, who did not give her age but said she was older than a millennial.
The biggest impediment to the market’s growth, however, is the lack of what Baker calls “ubiquity,” which simply means “being available everywhere, all the time.” Cash and checks are widely accepted mediums of exchange, while most P2P services run on proprietary networks. “All of them are lacking in interoperability, so if we want to exchange money and I am using Venmo and you are using Square, we can’t,” Baker says. Baker points out that this is not unlike how things worked when email was becoming popular in the early days of the internet, where you could only exchange emails with people who shared the same service provider. Of course, a common protocol eventually emerged for emails and Baker expects the same evolution to eventually occur in the P2P space.
Why should banks care about a free service like P2P payments? Baker says that based on her conversations, many smaller institutions “don’t seem to understand that P2P helps drive consumer engagement. I think that P2P services keep them right at the center of a consumer’s life and keeps driving engagement with the banking brand.”
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.”