Strong Board. Strong Bank

Quickly:

  • A bank’s CEO, Chairman and board of directors face a number of challenges in today’s ever competitive, highly regulated and rapidly evolving financial services industry.

By Al Dominick, CEO of DirectorCorps — parent co. to Bank Director & FinXTech

ATLANTA — Complex regulations, technological innovations and a highly competitive environment that leaves little room for error have placed unprecedented demands on the time and talents of bank boards.  Still, no one I’m with today seems interested in pity or sympathy.  To wit, I’m in Atlanta, at the Ritz-Carlton Buckhead, as we host Bank Director’s annual Bank Board Training Forum.  With us are 200+ men and women committed to strengthening their bank’s performance by enhancing the skills and abilities of their boards.

I’m buoyed by their collective optimism, especially having surfaced myriad governance issues, compliance challenges, audit responsibilities, risk concerns and areas of potential liability. What follows are five takeaways from presentations made today that are growth, risk or team-oriented.

  1. When it comes to growing one’s bank, an acquisition of another institution certainly helps a buyer achieve operating scale efficiencies, which in turn increases its valuation.
  2. In addition to traditional M&A as a driver of growth, we are seeing more partnerships with (and outright acquisitions of) non-banks in order to enhance non-interest income and the expansion of net interest margins.
  3. Personally, I appreciated Jim McAlpin (a partner at the law firm of Bryan Cave) for elaborating on the phrase “Strong Governance Culture.” As he explained, the regulatory community takes this to mean a well developed system of internal oversight and a board culture focused on risk management.
  4. When it comes to risk, financial institutions face a quite a few. Indeed, Eve Rogers, a Partner at Crowe Horwath, touched on cybersecurity, economic factors, regulatory changes, shrinking margins and fee restrictions. As she made clear, proactively identifying, mitigating, and, in some cases, capitalizing on these risks provides a distinct advantage to the banks here with us.
  5. In terms of compensation, a good checklist for all banks includes (a) the bank’s compensation philosophy, (b) specific details for how to incorporate a performance plan against a strategic plan and (c) details around how one’s compensation peer group was formed — and when was it last updated.

Tomorrow morning, I share some new ideas for approaching technology in terms of growth and efficiency given the digital distribution of financial goods and services.  As I noted from the stage, we’re seeing some banks, rather than hire from the ground up, take a plug-and-play approach for partnering (or acquiring) FinTech companies. While I certainly intend to talk about the culture and team aspects of technology tomorrow, my focus goes to how and where machine learning, RegTech, payments, white labeling opportunities and core providers allow financial institutions to present a cutting-edge looks and feels to its customers under the bank’s brand.  (*If you’re interested, click here.)

Looking for Inspiration? Look to USAA

Quickly:

  • Next week, my team hosts 350+ leaders from across the United States at Bank Director’s annual Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference at the JW Marriott Chicago.
  • In advance of welcoming people to this popular event, it strikes me that the business of banking remains difficult despite improving economic conditions; indeed, the drive to digitize a bank’s operations continues to pose significant challenges to most.
  • Digital is, in my estimation, a CEO topic that requires a healthy dose of creativity and ambition.  As such, I’m sharing the following article on innovation — authored by John Maxwell and featured in Bank Director magazine’s current “Great Ideas” digital issue.  It focuses on how USAA taps the creative side of its employees to pre-position itself for the next new products, tools and technologies to benefit its diverse customer base.

USAA - ASD

“USAA was the first major financial institution to allow customers to deposit physical checks by taking a picture of them on their smartphones, rolling out the service in August 2009. It wasn’t until months later that Bank of America Corp., the nation’s second biggest bank by assets, said it would test the same functionality, by which point upward of 40,000 USAA members had already used the software to deposit more than 100,000 checks. And it wasn’t until the following year that JPMorgan Chase & Co., the nation’s biggest bank by assets, followed suit.

This was neither the first nor the last time that USAA, a niche player in the financial services industry serving current and former members of the military and their families, had beaten larger rivals to the punch in introducing a big, transformative idea. In 2015, the $78 billion asset company became the first major U.S. financial institution to roll out facial and voice recognition technology that allows members to log in to its mobile app without entering a password.

What is it about USAA that explains how it’s regularly at the forefront of big ideas? Is it serendipity, or is there something more at play? And if it’s the latter, are there aspects of USAA’s approach that can be replicated by other banks that want to accelerate their own internal innovation engines?

One explanation for USAA’s success is that the company has always had to think creatively about distribution because of its dispersed member base. With members stationed at military installations around the world, some in active combat zones, simply building more branches has never been a viable distribution strategy. It has a single bank branch at its headquarters in San Antonio, and it wasn’t until 2009 that it began opening a small collection of financial centers near domestic military bases—there are 17 of these centers currently. This is why USAA so readily embraced mobile banking, which enables its members to access their accounts irrespective of location.

Yet, chalking up USAA’s accomplishments in the sphere of innovation to the idea that “necessity is the mother of all invention” doesn’t do the story justice. More than any other major company in the financial services space, USAA has made it a priority to harness each of its 30,000 employees in order to stay on the cutting edge. It began doing so in earnest in 2010 by launching a so-called ideas platform on the company’s intranet. Anyone from the CEO to frontline personnel to security guards can post and vote on ideas that have been entered on the platform. Between 10,000 and 11,000 ideas were submitted in each of the last two years. Ideas that get at least 1,000 favorable employee votes are escalated to USAA’s in-house innovation team overseen by Zack Gipson, USAA’s chief innovation officer.  Last year, 1,206 employee ideas were implemented, while 189 of them have come to fruition thus far in 2017.

USAA also hosts events and challenges for employees that are designed to elicit ideas for new or improved products and services. There are 28 such activities planned this year, taking the form of multi-week coding and design challenges as well as single-day hackathons where teams are tasked with solving a specific problem, says Lea Sims, assistant vice president of employee and member innovation. At an event in 2015, USAA happened upon the idea for voice-guided remote deposit capture, which uses voice commands to guide visually impaired members through the process of depositing checks on a mobile device. The service went live in July of 2016.

On top of these specific initiatives, USAA uses incentives and a consistent messaging campaign to encourage employees to brainstorm and share innovative ideas. Rewards are handed out to winners of challenges, as well as to any employee behind an idea that gets 1,000 votes on the ideas platform—an additional reward is meted out if the idea is implemented, explains Sims. These rewards come in the form of company scrip, which can be redeemed for actual products. A total of 94 percent of USAA employees have participated one way or another in its various innovation channels, with three quarters of a million votes submitted on its internal ideas platform in 2016 alone. “We put a premium on innovation,” says Sims. “It starts in new employee orientation as soon as you walk in the door to be part of our culture.”

USAA has taken steps to crowdsource ideas from its 12 million members, or customers, as well. In February it introduced USAA Labs, where members can sign up to share innovative ideas and participate in pilot programs of experimental products. “The goal of our membership channel is, quite frankly, to replicate the success of our employee channel,” says Sims. Thus far, over 770 members have signed onto the program, which is still in its early stages but could become a major part of USAA’s innovation channel in the future.

Last but not least, sitting atop USAA’s employee and member-based innovation channels is a team of 150 employees who focus solely on bringing new ideas to life. This is its strategic innovation group, which executes on crowdsourced ideas but spends most of its time brainstorming and implementing large, disruptive concepts such as remote deposit capture and biometric logins. It’s this final component of USAA’s strategy that adheres most closely to the institutional structure articulated by Harvard professor Clayton Christensen, a leading expert on the process of innovation. In his seminal book, The Innovator’s Dilemma, Christensen makes the case that established firms should vest the responsibility to bring ideas to life in organizationally independent groups. This is especially important when it comes to disruptive ideas that threaten to cannibalize other products and services sold by the firm, not unlike the way that remote deposit capture reduces the need for physical branches.

In short, the reason USAA has consistently been at the forefront of innovation in the financial services industry has next to nothing to do with serendipity. It traces instead to the company’s strategy of engaging all of its stakeholders in the idea generation process, harnessing the creative power of 30,000 employees, 12 million members and a select team of internal innovators who focus on nothing but bringing new ideas to life. It’s this structural approach to innovation, and the focus on employee engagement in particular, that offers a valuable model for other banks to follow. Indeed, out of the many big ideas USAA has introduced over the years, its strategy of crowdsourcing innovation may very well be the biggest.”

*John J. Maxfield is a writer and frequent contributor to Bank Director.  To read more of this month’s issue (for free), click here.  In full disclosure, I’m a loyal USAA member — as is my entire family — tracing back to my father’s days at the Naval Academy.  I can attest to the “awesomeness” of the bank’s various mobile offerings — like facial recognition, remote check deposit, the integration of Coinbase (that lets me see the balance of my bitcoin and ethereum balances alongside my checking and savings accounts), etc.

Address the Culture Gap Between Banks and FinTechs

By Al Dominick, CEO of DirectorCorps (parent co. to Bank Director & FinXTech) | @aldominick

Quickly

  • A “bank|fintech partnership” narrative dominated the conversation at last week’s FinTech Week NYC events.
  • If I were running a financial institution right now, I’d focus on the word integration instead of innovation.
  • Culture is one of the best things a bank has going for it. It’s also one of the worst.

_ _ _

While I am bullish on the future of banking as a concept, I am admittedly concerned about what’s to come for many banks who struggle with cultural mindsets resistant to change. As I shared in an op-ed that kicked off last week’s FinTech Week NYC, the same dynamics that helped weather the last few years’ regulatory challenges and anemic economic growth may now prevent adoption of strategically important, but operationally risky, relationships with financial technology companies.

Most banks don’t have business models designed to adapt and respond to rapid change. So how should they think about innovation? I raised that question (and many others) at last Wednesday’s annual FinXTech Summit that we hosted at Nasdaq’s MarketSite. Those in attendance included banks both large and small, as well as numerous financial technology companies — all united around an interest in how technology continues to change the nature of banking.

More so than any regulatory cost or compliance burden, I sense that the organizational design and cultural expectations at many banks present a major obstacle to future growth through technology. While I am buoyed by the idea that smaller, nimble banks can compete with the largest institutions, that concept of agility is inherently foreign to most legacy players.

It doesn’t have to be.

Indeed, Richard Davis, the chairman and CEO of the fifth largest bank in the country, U.S. Bancorp, shared at our Acquire or Be Acquired Conference in Phoenix last January that banks can and should partner with fintech companies on opportunities outside of traditional banking while working together to create better products, better customer service and better recognition of customer needs.

The urgency to adapt and evolve should be evident by now. The very nature of financial services has undergone a major change in recent years, driven in part by digital transformation taking place outside banking. Most banks—big and small—boast legacy investments. They have people doing things on multi-year plans, where the DNA of the bank and culture does not empower change in truly meaningful ways. For some, it may prove far better to avoid major change and build a career on the status quo then to explore the what-if scenarios.

Here, I suggest paying attention to stories like those shared by our Editor-in-Chief Jack Milligan, who just wrote about PNC Financial Services Group in our current issue of Bank Director magazine. As his profile of Bill Demchak reveals, it is possible to be a conservative banker who wants to revolutionize how a company does business. But morphing from a low-risk bank during a time of profound change requires more than just executive courage. It takes enormous smarts to figure out how to move a large, complex organization that has always done everything one way, to one that evolves quickly.

Of course, it’s not just technological innovation where culture can be a roadblock. Indeed, culture is a long-standing impediment to a successful bank M&A deal, as any experienced banker knows. So, just as in M&A deals, I’d suggest setting a tone at the top for digital transformation.  Here are three seemingly simple questions I suggest asking in an executive team meeting:

  • Do you know what problems you’re trying to solve?
  • What areas are most important to profit and near-term growth?
  • Which customer segments are critical for your bank?

From here, it might be easy to create a strategic direction to improve efficiency and bolster growth in the years ahead. But be prepared for false starts, fruitless detours and yes, stretches of inactivity. As Fifth Third Bank CEO Greg Carmichael recently shared in an issue of Bank Director magazine, “Not every problem needs to be solved with technology… But when technology is a solution, what technology do you select? Is it cost efficient? How do you get it in as quickly as possible? You have to maintain it going forward, and hold management accountable for the business outcomes that result if the technology is deployed correctly.”

Be aware that technology companies move at a different speed, and it’s imperative that you are nimble enough to change, and change again, as marketplace demands may be different in the future. Let your team know that you are comfortable taking on certain kinds of risk and will handle them correctly. Some aspects of your business may be harmed by new technology, and you will have to make difficult trade-offs. Just as in M&A, I see this is an opportunity to engage with regulators. Seek out your primary regulator and share what you’re looking for and help regulators craft an appropriate standard for dealing with fintech companies.

Culture should not be mistaken for a destination. If you know that change is here, digital is the expectation and you’re not where you want to be, don’t ignore the cultural roadblocks. Address them.

A Technology Takeover on BankDirector.com

For the next 5 days, I set up shop in my former home of New York City for FinTech Week NYC.  Hosted by Bank Director’s FinXTech in conjunction with Empire Startups, the week can best be understood as a confluence of conferences, round-table discussions, demo days, meetups and networking events across the city.

If you’re not familiar with the various events taking place, here is a quick snapshot of three we’re primarily involved with starting today and running through Friday, the 28th.

The common thread throughout each of these days? A desire to help leaders in the financial sector to better understand how when/where/why to engage with emerging technologies.

Given our cultural mindset to help make others successful, we’re kicking things up a notch with our on-line efforts.  Indeed, we’re “taking over” BankDirector.com and loading the site up with strategic issues and ideas that a bank’s CEO, board and executive team can immediately consider.  In parallel, we’re developing even more content to benefit technology companies keen to work with financial institutions and have some really interesting things planned for our FinXTech.com.  Three examples of this free content:

  • On BankDirector.com, Tips for Working With Fintech Companies by our editor, Naomi Snyder, provides insight from executives at Wells Fargo (one of the country’s biggest) and Radius Bank (a very strong community bank) on how they handle fintech partnerships.
  • On FinXTech.com, Advice for Fintech Companies Working with Banks by our editor-in-chief, Jack Milligan, shares suggestions from SF-based Plaid Technologies and Chicago-based Akouba as to how banks and tech companies can set realistic expectations in terms of cooperating to their mutual benefits.
  • Finally, I authored a piece on a major challenge I see confronting banks when it comes to their digital futures with A Roadblock That Ruins Futures.  As an optimist, things aren’t hopeless; you will see I find inspiration from the CEOs of U.S. Bancorp, PNC and Fifth Third.

Departing Administration Leaves Gift of Fintech Principles

By Al Dominick | @aldominick

Quickly:

  • The White House’s National Economic Council left a “framework for fintech” for the incoming administration.
  • I’ve been part of several conversations at the White House that helped shape today’s perspective.
  • I shared these thoughts on both our platforms – BankDirector.com and FinXTech.com earlier today (so apologies if you’ve seen this already).

It may strike some as odd that President Barack Obama’s White House’s National Economic Council just published a “Framework for FinTech” paper on administration policy just before departing, but having been a part of several conversations that helped to shape this policy perspective, I see it from a much different angle.

Given that traditional financial institutions are increasingly investing resources in innovation along with the challenges facing many regulatory bodies to keep pace with the fast-moving FinTech sector, I see this as a pragmatic attempt to provide the incoming administration with ideas upon which to build while making note of current issues. Indeed, we all must appreciate that technology isn’t just changing the financial services industry, it’s changing the way consumers and business owners relate to their finance–and the way institutions function in our financial system.

The Special Assistant to the President for Economic Policy Adrienne Harris and Alex Zerden, a presidential management fellow, wrote a blog that describes the outline of the paper.  I agree with their assertion that FinTech has tremendous potential to revolutionize access to financial services, improve the functioning of the financial system, and promote economic growth. Accordingly, as the fabric of the financial industry continues to evolve, three points from this white paper strike me as especially important:

  • In order for the U.S. financial system to remain competitive in the global economy, the United States must continue to prioritize consumer protection, safety and soundness, while also continuing to lead in innovation. Such leadership requires fostering innovation in financial services, whether from incumbent institutions or FinTech start-ups, while also protecting consumers and being mindful of other potential risks.
  • FinTech companies, financial institutions, and government authorities should consistently engage with one another… [indeed] close collaboration potentially could accelerate innovation and commercialization by surfacing issues sooner or highlighting problems awaiting technological solutions. Such engagement has the potential to add value for consumers, industry and the broader economy.
  • As the financial sector changes, policymakers and regulators must seek to understand the different benefits of and risks posed by FinTech innovations. While new and untested innovations may increase efficiency and have economic benefits, they potentially could pose risks to the existing financial infrastructure and be detrimental to financial stability if their risks are not understood and proactively managed.

A product of ongoing public-private cooperation, I see this just-released whitepaper as a potential roadmap for future collaboration. In fact, as the FinTech ecosystem continues to evolve, this statement of principles could serve as a resource to guide the development of smart, pragmatic and innovative cross-sector engagement much like then-outgoing president Bill Clinton’s “Framework for Global Electronic Commerce” did for internet technology companies some 16 years ago.

Bank Director’s new Tech Issue

Earlier this week, we published the December issue of Bank Director Magazine, our annual Tech Issue.  Stories range from the changing nature of mobile banking to institutions moving into the cloud to a venture capitalist’s perspective on the future of banking.  I invite you to take a look.

Since starting this blog in 2012, I’ve shared my optimism that the intersection of technological innovation with strong depository franchises may lead to more efficient banking processes, reductions in fraud and a win/win/win for banks, FinTechs and consumers.  So as I read through this current digital issue, a few key takeaways:

  • When San Francisco-based Bank of the West, an $80.7 billion asset subsidiary of BNP Paribas Group, analyzed last year the bottom line impact of customers who are engaged in online banking and mobile banking, it found some surprising results. Digital customers, or those who were active online or on their mobile phones during the previous 90 days, had lower attrition rates than nondigital customers, and they contributed higher levels of revenue and products sold, said Jamie Armistead, head of digital channels at Bank of the West.
  • Automating the small-business lending process requires some deep thinking from boards and management about how much faith they’re willing to place in technology, and their ability to embrace the cultural change implicit in basing lending decisions more on data than judgment. “The marketplace is demanding quicker decisions through technology,” says Pierre Naude, CEO of nCino, a maker of bank operating systems. Bank customers, he says, are clamoring for special products and specialized coding that enable greater automation of the small-business lending process. “Bankers are waking up to the fact that speed and convenience will trump price. You can lose a customer to an alternative lender if you don’t have it.”
  • As our Editor, Naomi Snyder, shares in her welcoming letter, banks tend to have the usual board committees (think audit, compensation and risk).  But we know that few have a board-level technology committee.  So I wonder if 2017 is the year that more institutions decide to create such a group to become better informed and better prepared as the digitization of the banking industry continues?

Concomitant to this issue’s release, Chris Skinner shared his perspectives on the state of FinTech our FinXTech platform.  In his words, “it is apparent that the fintech industry has become mainstream just as fintech investing cools. What I mean by this is that fintech has matured in the last five years, going from something that was embryonic and disruptive to something that is now mainstream and real. You only have to look at firms like Venmo and Stripe to see the change. Or you only have to consider the fact that regulators are now fully awake to the change and have deployed sandboxes and innovation programs. Or that banks are actively discussing their fintech innovation and investment programs… Fintech and innovation is here to stay.”

Clearly, the pace of change in the banking space continues to accelerate.  Accordingly, I encourage you to check out what we’re doing with both Bank Director and FinXTech to help companies who view banks as potentially valuable channels or distribution partners, banks looking to grow and/or innovate with tech companies’ help and support; and institutional investors, venture capitalists, state & federal regulators, government officials and academicians helping to shape the future of banking.

The Promise of 8 Blockchain Companies

Yesterday, I spent the majority of my day at the Economist Conference’s “Finance Disrupted” in New York City.  As an early hook to their first panel discussion entitled ‘Building the blockchain: The promise and perils’, we learned that venture capitalists invested nearly $500 million in blockchain business last year — up from $2 million just three years ago.  While I’ve shared my perspectives on the potential applications for blockchain in previous posts (Blockchain 101 – a Primer for a Bank’s CEO and Board), panels like these underscore the immense potential of this technology.

“Blockchain technology continues to redefine not only how the exchange sector operates, but the global financial economy as a whole.”

– Bob Greifeld, Chief Executive of NASDAQ

Like many, I see potential for blockchain technology to revolutionize many areas of the financial industry — think securities trading, payments, fraud prevention and regulatory compliance.  Moreover, a new report from Deloitte explores how blockchain could be used in loyalty rewards programs.  Still, as our industry transforms, there is real uncertainty around what the future of the banking industry will look like.

This is why I take note of comments like those from BNY Mellon’s CEO, Gerald Hassell. On his Q1 earnings call, he opined “we think blockchain can be transformative.  We’re spending a lot of time and energy on it, but I think it’s going to take some time to see it play out in a full, meaningful way. We actually see ourselves as one of the major participants in using the technology to improve the efficiency of our operations and the resiliency of our operations.”

While additional big-time players — such as Goldman Sachs, Visa and NASDAQ — garner headlines for their investments in crypto-currencies & blockchain technology, I spent last night and this morning looking at eight blockchain companies that might help you to form your own opinions on the potential of this technology:

For more about these companies — and their funding sources — I encourage you to check out this piece on Lets Talk Payments.  Not familiar with LTP?  It is a fast-growing global destination for news, insights & data-driven research in emerging financial services.  Much like the information shared by both FinXTech and Bank Director, LTP’s content is fiercely independent, thought provoking and always up-to-date, in a way that continues to inform, engage and inspire.