The Covid-19 Shift

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.

They address:

  • Accelerated Adoption of Technology
  • Legacy vs. New Core Providers
  • Ensuring Continued Improvement

Innovation Spotlight: Howard Bank


innovation-10-3-17.pngScully-Mary-Ann.pngMary Ann Scully, CEO and chairman
As a lifelong banker with over 30 years of varied executive experiences, Mary Ann Scully headed the organizing team for Howard Bank of Baltimore, Maryland, and currently serves as a board member of the Baltimore Federal Reserve and a community advisory board member for the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Under her leadership, Howard Bank recently announced its fifth acquisition in five years, which will make it a $2.1 billion asset institution. It has maintained a commitment to high touch service throughout each integration.

When you started at Howard Bank, what did you want to do differently with innovation?
We have always viewed our differentiation as high touch expertise and advice. Therefore, we tried not to be leading edge from an innovation perspective. However, we also recognized that to attract small and medium-sized businesses that we should not and would not ask our customers to make a choice between competitive products and delivery available at larger banks and our high touch advice. So we have always had to be competitive and with a more sophisticated customer base, the bar was set higher.

Over the years, how has your digitization strategy changed?
We opened the doors in 2004 with online banking, online check images, hand scan safe deposit boxes—not your typical start-up community bank mix. Over time, we have become more and more committed to being leading edge in the utilization of information to inform our decisions, optimize our processes and advise our customers. Our recent project with [commercial lending platform] nCino is an example of this commitment. Our commitment to a new universal banker branch model is another.

You were once quoted as saying, “Thriving is different than survival and relevance is more than profitability.” What does it take for a bank to thrive AND stay relevant in this competitive environment?
It requires, first, great clarity of strategy: “What do you want to do, how and when, for whom?” And that requires being able to articulate the more painful, “What do you not want to do or whom are you not targeting?” The second requirement is a long-term vision because relevance requires constant investment in the business—in people and technology. It also requires access to capital, both financial and human, to facilitate those investments.

Finally, it requires flexibility because the world changes at a faster rate than ever before and it is important to be able to reallocate resources to what our customers feel is relevant for them. Our high growth trajectory requires a mindset throughout the organization that acknowledges the need for change. For example, we have attracted five teams from other banks in five years. We’ve done five acquisitions in five years, the most recent and largest just announced in August. We’ve accomplished seven capital raises in 13 years, the most recent and largest in January of this year.

After being involved in several M&A deals, what lessons have you learned about integrating technology platforms to ensure business continuity?
First, we always remember to view integration from a customer’s perspective. There is always disruption involved in a merger, some sense of “I did not ask for this,” and flowery promises do not alleviate the skepticism even when an in-market merger is perceived by a community as being positive. So we plan, plan and plan to ensure that customers never lose functionality and if possible, gain something in the process. This means being willing internally to change the “host” systems as well as the acquired bank systems. It means viewing integrations as an opportunity, not a necessary evil, to take the best of both and occasionally the best-of-breed, not just as a way to save costs and slam things together but as a way to enhance the combined systems. We have a cross-functional team who has worked together on each transaction, some who started on the acquired side who are now sitting as an acquirer and their experience and perspective are invaluable. That team always has representatives from each bank for each function. Conversions are not for amateurs or the faint of heart so constant communication between providers and users is also important for successful platform integration.

Digital Innovation: From the Boardroom to Execution


innovation-8-28-17.pngThe pace of innovation is increasing exponentially. For traditional financial services firms, partnerships with new technology companies are now essential for driving digital change and staying competitive in today’s environment. The move toward a distributed economy and digital transformation is manifesting differently in jurisdictions around the world. The United States and Europe are driving early idea creation, while companies located in the Asia-Pacific region and the United Arab Emirates are gaining strong momentum boosted by a pro-innovation regulatory environment.

Now more than ever, the right investments made in technology and innovation have serious and material implications to the long-term success and viability of a business. Missing opportunities to capitalize on new technology to enhance capabilities, products and services could result in lost market share, reduced ability to participate in upside gains of new business models, inability to capture the customers of the future, and in the worst case, extinction altogether. Institutions that are able to re-imagine their business, maximize investments in technology and evolve their business effectively to harness the current innovation cycle will determine the next generation’s winners and losers.

Typically, firms have approached digital innovation or large-scale technology change projects facing their organization with a “build versus buy” philosophy. Today, with the emergence of innovative fintech companies, which are more nimble and faster to market than legacy financial institutions, the transformation decision has now expanded to encompass: build, buy, invest or invent. Each option must be evaluated in the larger context of the ultimate business strategy and desired outcome. Navigating through the options, complexity and uncertainty to ensure optimal choices are made is no easy feat. Further complicating matters are budgetary constraints, board members who don’t understand how technology can enable the business objectives and turnover of executive leadership driving the multi-year transformation.

Similarly, business change projects have primarily focused on three elements within the organization: people, processes and tools. For digitalization in today’s environment, this approach needs to ensure an agile, actively managed and risk-aware approach around six key elements:

  1. Strategic alignment
  2. People
  3. Processes
  4. Technology
  5. Customer experience
  6. Partnerships

All of these aspects need to align to drive business value and outcomes, which should be orchestrated meticulously for a digital transformation project to succeed. Few companies are integrating and delivering all six aspects well across the dimensions for their digital transformation and innovation projects. Consequently such projects often fail or the desired outcomes aren’t realized due to the high interdependence of the elements working in unison. This results in delays and large investments where the business is realizing value far below expectations, which leads to a loss of board advocacy and support from the business. This in turn leads to reduced future investment that only puts the organization at even more risk. In contrast, successful companies are able to work across those six dimensions seamlessly in a manner that is more efficient, risk sensitive, compliant with regulations, well controlled and enabled by leading technology and data to emerge as the digital leaders of the future.

Technology is the future and the ability to enhance and unlock new capabilities through digital channels can drive tremendous value for industries. Being able to discern value-add investments in innovation that complement the business and preserve the value through the transformation process versus just chasing new shiny objects will be increasingly important to do well. Furthermore, the ability to effectively measure against value drivers such as revenue growth, simplification, speed-to-market and competitive positioning will help to validate return on investment. In reviewing the upside potential, it is also important to be aware of risks and consequences if digital transformation programs are not implemented effectively.

With proper planning and execution, organizations can drive business outcomes, realize benefits and better mitigate risk through digital investments by understanding and implementing digital transformation programs effectively around these six elements.

How USAA and Nuance are Helping Millennials Save Money


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Serving over 11 million members, USAA has been providing financial services to military members and their families in the United States since 1922. And with baby boomers retiring in increasing numbers, USAA is using fintech innovation to better serve the next generation of millennial service men and women coming through the ranks.

According to Moody’s Analytics, U.S. adult millennials ages 35 and younger have a savings rate of negative two percent. Compare that with the 45-54 age bracket, which saves around 3 percent, or people 54 and older, who save 13 percent. For some millennials, serving in the armed forces may be their first real job. Or a millennial’s first experience with USAA might occur when a teenager is opening their first savings account and their parents are members.

USAA is recognizing the need to help millennials achieve their financial goals, and is leveraging technology innovations (and innovators) to do just that. What the company has done is partner with language and voice recognition software company Nuance to develop an app called Savings Coach to help millennials sock away more money.

With over 14,000 employees spread across 75 countries, Nuance is one of the larger players in voice and language technologies. Products like Dragon translation software, and now the Nina multilingual virtual assistant, are used by nearly two-thirds of Fortune 100 companies. Nuance’s Nina technology creates a virtual assistant that can communicate and respond to customers via voice or text. Companies create these assistants, tailored to their own industry, brand and customers utilizing Nina for the underlying architecture. That’s why it made sense for USAA to partner with Nuance to develop Savings Coach, one of the first proactive virtual banking assistants that is specifically designed to help Millennials save money. In fact, USAA was already working with Nuance on a separate virtual assistant initiative utilizing Nina technology when it decided to partner for Savings Coach.

Savings Coach interacts with users through a fun mascot called Ace the Eagle, which can speak and formulate certain responses, effectively creating a basic conversation with users. On the back end, Savings Coach crunches financial data and recommends a daily amount of money that users should have in their savings. It also gamifies the process of saving, something that can hook millennials—a generation that grew up on video games—into the process. For example, Savings Coach will reward users with a badge for completing certain money saving tasks, like cooking at home instead of spending more money ordering pizza delivery.

In a four-month trial pilot, USAA says that Savings Coach helped a cohort of 800 participants save a total of nearly $120,000. One of the things that makes Savings Coach both unique and effective is that Ace interacts and negotiates with users. Didn’t transfer that $100 to savings that you were supposed to this month? Ace might pop up and ask why you forgot, or even suggest transferring $90 if money is tight for that month. One strategy to help millennials save more money is to provide constant re-enforcement of good behaviors, using technology nuanced enough to recognize (and react to) all the small daily decisions that affect one’s ability to save money.

From Nuance’s perspective, the company is now able to explore the application of Nina technology in the financial services industry and hopefully gain a foothold in the future of artificial intelligence as customer facing entities. Savings Coach, unlike most financial apps, is a proactive virtual assistant. And that’s the wave of the future in fintech customer experience— technology that is both personalized and able to anticipate future needs or scenarios. For example, Savings Coach can predict what days a user will buy coffee based on past behaviors, and reward them with a badge or move money into savings when it sees they’ve shown restraint and skipped a day.

The successful partnership between USAA and Nuance to bring Savings Coach to market illustrates a broader trend of financial institutions focusing more than ever on the customer experience. And in today’s digitally dominated world, customer experience is nearly impossible to separate from technology. What makes Savings Coach so effective is that it combines great technology with a focus on personalizing the experience for each customer as much as possible.

Going forward, fintech bots (apps that perform automated tasks) and assistants are likely to broaden in functionality. Future apps will evolve to offer even more customized, proactive financial literacy and advice. The millennial consumer faces many challenges unique to that generation, like low savings, high student loan debt and housing prices that are beyond the reach of many of them. What USAA and Nuance realized is that by applying new thinking to existing problems and technologies, they’re providing millennials with their own personal savings coach, which could be their Ace in the hole.

This is one of 10 case studies that focus on examples of successful innovation between banks and financial technology companies working in partnership. The participants featured in this article were finalists at the 2017 Best of FinXTech Awards.

Advice for Fintech Companies Working with Banks


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For any fintech company that is just beginning to work with banks, the experience can at times be frustrating if ultimately rewarding. Banking and fintech companies are worlds apart in their perspectives. One is highly regulated and brings a risk adverse mentality to many of its decisions (guess which one that is), while the other is populated by entrepreneurial startups that fit the very definition of 21st century capitalism. One often approaches technological innovation with reticence if not outright resistance, while the other is all about technological innovation.

With such a profound difference in their basic nature, it might seem amazing that they are capable of working together, and yet there are many examples (and the numbers are growing) of banks and fintech companies cooperating to their mutual benefit. From the perspective of the fintech company, it helps to understand how most banks approach the issue of working with outside organizations, and their views on technological change in general.

“Fintech companies and banks each come with their own set of perspectives, and if you can empathize with each other, then you can marry those perspectives effectively,” says Sima Gandhi, head of business development at Plaid Technologies, a San Francisco-based fintech company that helps banks share their data with third-party apps through the development of APIs, or application programming interfaces. “Investing time to understand each other takes patience, but the returns are well worth it.”

For fintech companies, that can begin with an understanding of how many banks view technological change. Chicago-based Akouba provides financial institutions with a secure cloud-based platform for the origination of small business loans. Loan underwriting as it is still done today at most banks is a time consuming and paper intensive manual process, and Akouba’s goal is to speed up the application, decisions and administrative process by digitalizing it from beginning to end. And yet, according to Akouba CEO Chris Rentner, some banks push back at the idea of weaning their loan officers off paper. “They’re like, —Hey, you know what? We’ll just take the digital application, and we’re going to print off those forms and type the information into our old systems,’” he says. “I find it interesting that as banks are trying to buy new digital onboarding software, they don’t want the true digital engagement with a borrower.” The lesson here for fintech companies is that some banks will say they want to embrace innovation, but may limit themselves in the degree to which they will change old habits.

It’s also important to understand that the native conservatism that banks typically bring to third-party engagements is partly the result of strict regulatory requirements for vendor management, including data security. In recent years, federal regulators have become much more prescriptive in terms of how banks are expected to manage those relationships. Because in many cases, the bank would be giving the fintech company some access to its customer data, thereby creating a potential cybersecurity risk, it will most likely want to fully investigate a potential partner’s own cybersecurity program. This could very well include an onsite visit and extensive interviews with the fintech company’s information security personnel.

The federal requirements for vendor management that banks must adhere to are publicly available, so fintech companies should know them. “Don’t go into a bank trying to sell a product before you’ve gone through and collected your vendor management information, and reviewed and understood the standard that banks are being held to,” says Rentner.

The final piece of advice for fintech companies is to practice patience without sacrificing your company’s core principals. Gandhi says that successful collaboration rests on “the art of the possible.” “It’s important to remember that every problem is solvable,” she adds. “When the conversations get tough and you’re running low on patience, keep in mind that you’re both there because there’s a common goal. And you can best achieve that goal together.”

But if patience and an honest search for common ground ultimately doesn’t lead to a solution, Rentner says that fintech companies should resist making material changes to their products if they don’t believe that’s the right thing to do. Banks are slowly beginning to change as a growing number of them see the need for technological innovation, even if the pace of change is still slower than what the fintech industry wants. “Hold to your guns,” Rentner says. “Move forward, continue to sell your product. If you have enough time with a good product, you will get customers.”

Banks and Fintechs Evolving from Foe to Friend


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FinTech startups were originally perceived as a significant threat to banks of all sizes. Today, we’re talking about “coopetition” between banks and fintechs. Why is that? Let’s start by winding back the clock just two years.

A 2015 Goldman Sachs research report estimated that $4.7 trillion out of $13.7 trillion in traditional financial services revenue was at risk due to new fintech entrants in the lending, wealth management and payments space. Similarly, a McKinsey report, The Fight for the Customer: Global Banking Annual Review 2015, suggested that as much as 40 percent of revenues and up to 60 percent of the profits in retail banking businesses (consumer finance, mortgages, small-business lending, retail payments and wealth management) were at risk due to dwindling margins and competition from fintech startups targeting origination and sales, the customer-facing side of the bank.

The advantage of fintech startups was their ability to offer higher quality solutions at a lower cost with dramatically enhanced consumer experience, innovative ways of assessing risk and a strategy for profiting on the growing popularity of mobile payments with millennials. As a result, the early wave of fintech startups, such as PayPal, Adyen, Stripe and Square, had tremendous success in gaining market traction and inflating valuations.

Early fintech success led to thousands of promising ventures gradually crowding the space and attracting the attention of industry stakeholders. In the last two years, financial services professionals, with decades of experience, have flipped fintech startups’ perceived threat into an opportunity, which kick-started the phase of collaborative initiatives.

Despite tremendous financial success of the fintech industry globally, startups find it difficult to succeed on their own. Matthaeus Sielecki, head of working capital advisory, financial technology at Deutsche Bank, noted in his article for LTP that despite having developed customer-focused, innovative solutions, startups lacked crucial ingredients to scale their product into a viable product or service. Startups lacked access to processing infrastructure, global industry reach and regulatory expertise, and many came without understanding customer behavior in the financial service sector.

Traditionally, community banks have not had many choices for technology innovation outside of their core banking provider. A March 2016 article on theCNBC.com website suggestedthat economic growth and predictions regarding interest rates are felt acutely by smaller institutions. Since smaller banks focus more on interest-sensitive products such as mortgages, prolonged low rates by the Federal Reserve hurt them disproportionately. Working cooperatively with fintech startups present community banks with an opportunity to achieve rapid gains in cost-efficiency, operational efficiency and new product offerings.

All of these factors combined led to the understanding between banks and fintech companies about the value of mutually beneficial work that would bring together the strengths of each party. As a result, banks have contributed significantly to the establishment of accelerators, incubators, innovation labs and other collaborative initiatives with fintech startups. In addition, forward-thinking governments have invested resources and efforts to launch Regulatory Sandboxes to facilitate a relationship between the traditional sector and fintech startups.

In a 2016 survey, more than half of regional and community bank respondents (54 percent) and fintech respondents (58 percent) indicated that they see each other as potential partners. Moreover, the same survey suggests that 86 percent of community and regional banks believe it to be absolutely essential to partner with a fintech company.

CNBC noted that the ability to outsource functions, such as customer acquisition, to startups means smaller banks have more clients to pursue. This enables smaller banks to tap into revenue that previously would have been inaccessible due to distribution, geographic or technical limitations. Advances like cloud technology, APIs, blockchain, InsurTech, RegTech and partnerships with online lending companies are in focus right now as they offer the most return on investment for all banks, large and small. For example, community banks can lower their costs by integrating a RegTech solution for compliance rather than hiring consulting firms or employing whole departments.

Examples of partnerships include Cross River Bank in Teaneck, New Jersey, which works closely with marketplace lenders to originate loans for borrowers who apply via online platforms. CBW Bank in Weir, Kansas, is another notable example. According to an August 2016 article on the Fortune.com website, over the last few years, the 124-year-old bank has become a secret weapon for fintech companies, which rely on both its technology and status as a state-chartered bank to build their own businesses.

For regional and community banks, enhanced mobile capabilities and lower capital and operating costs are seen as the benefits of collaborating with fintechs. For fintechs, market credibility and access to customers are seen as the main benefits to partnering with banks. The unlikely journey of fintech startups going from foe to friend will make the financial services sector one of the most interesting businesses to be a part of in the next decade.