Feature interview: Chris De Bruin on Digital Banking Transformation

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By Jonathan Woods | 5 December 2016

After 18 years of international experience in Retail Banking and Strategy, Chris De Bruin recently joined Zafin as its President of Digital Platforms, where he will be responsible for Global Innovation and laying out the roadmap for investment in new technologies.

Chris was a pioneer in digital banking, co-founding digital bank 20twenty in 2000 which was acquired by Standard Chartered three years later. With the bank, Chris then moved throughout the world, heading different divisions throughout Asia and the Middle East. In his most recent role at the bank as Global Head of Retail Products and Digital, Chris oversaw the overhaul of Standard Chartered’s digital channels, lifting online sales ten-fold, increasing branch sales volumes 30 percent and reducing costs by US$500 million.

We sat down with Chris to talk about digital banking and his new role at Zafin. The following is part one of a two-part interview we will publish in Relationship Banker.


You came to Zafin from Standard Chartered where you were heavily involved in digital channels. Can you describe that experience?

Basically for the past five years I’ve had a role of some kind in what others would call the digital transformation at the bank. For the last three years I have chaired some form of a digital council or steering committee that deals with all of the programs of change for Standard Chartered’s retail banks – all around retail products and retail distribution. We looked at how we would improve and adapt Standard Chartered’s digital channels – mobile banking, internet banking, and the broader website infrastructure of the bank.

I also oversaw the development of the underlying processing infrastructure and all the retail bank’s core processes and how we drove the digitization of those.

How would you characterize Standard Chartered’s performance at that time? What level of success was Standard Chartered able to achieve?

I think Standard Chartered did a fantastic job. I think we created a general strategic alignment in the bank that was important. Everyone in the bank needed to do that. The CEO of the retail bank made digital a key pillar, and we set aside the investment to do it. We made it a point. If digital is a strategic pillar, we will allocate money there first, and make sure we’re funding it. It got lots of air time, it got a decent amount of money, and we carved it out as a strategic area of responsibility, so we had the most talented people on it, and we created centres of excellence to drive different areas.

Having set it up properly, you end up with Standard Chartered being the first mover and one of the most effective participants in changes in the payment systems, doing a lot of work across Asia with Apple Pay, Samsung Pay, and Google, leading the movement of micropayments onto the handsets. Standard Chartered is very much on the cutting edge.

The other area that I think Standard Chartered does very well – and they again this year were the best digital bank in the world for retail banking – is putting a real focus on improving the utility, functionality, and ease of use of their online and mobile channels.

They’re doing really well, both in terms of giving clients opportunities to buy stuff online as well as have very easy service experiences. There’s a constant drive to do that. Now, it’s pretty much a two horse race between Citi and Standard Chartered for who’s the best in the world.

Are there any common ways that the banks below that upper tier are fumbling with these new processes?

The interesting thing about digital is that it isn’t that people don’t understand that they need to have very good digital channels. It’s about how much money, energy, and time they’re willing to put into it to make it good. But at the heart of the digital journey is something really important, which is that as soon as you make good digital capabilities available to your clients, you expose the inner workings of your company. Any flaw in a process, anything that’s not real time, anything that’s illogical in the mind of the client very quickly becomes public to people that are using the service.

So the premium on design and on ease of use puts a lot more pressure on having the most talented people designing these transactions and these user experiences, and that is where I think a lot of people are struggling as there are very few user experiences that are truly delightfully digital from the get go.

Sometimes it’s quite difficult to build the user experience from the ground up because you have systems constraints, process constraints, and so on. And ultimately, if you don’t have the right underlying infrastructure and processes, your digital experiences will be suboptimal and will expose your clients to the compromises that you’re making in your design. Thinking about how the underlying processes and systems feed into those client journeys is something I think that most retail banks are really struggling with.

Pretty much everybody knows that you have to get involved in payments. Everybody knows that you have to have great channels. A core belief with me is that unless you have a healthy core process and technology infrastructure, it’s very hard to succeed in digital banking.


Digital banking is not a wrapper on a bank. Digital banking is, at its best, a manifestation of a truly digital delivery throughout the bank.


So if you’re part of an executive group in charge of competing through digital advancements, what are the questions you should be asking?

I think generally people have the header topics correct. It’s important to think about payments, and how you process payments. It’s important to think about how well your digital channels work and so on. It’s important to worry about fintech and the advancements. It’s important to think about applications ecosystems and how you can take functionalities from other people. I think the part that doesn’t get enough attention is the part that’s called “digitizing the core.”

It’s going back and making it very clear to yourselves as senior banking leadership that you run a digital business. You don’t have digital channels. A lot of the digital world is alluring and distracting. The frenzy around fintech is something all ought to be wary of. It’s important to be present and to look at all of those things, but what you really have to look for is the substance of what underlies each one of those things and your own in particular.

Do you have the capability in your own infrastructure? Are you able to run the processes extremely efficiently?

I think that the reassessment of core infrastructure is probably not getting enough attention, so that would be one. I think the whole area of fintech accelerators is probably getting too much attention. And when we’re talking about fintechs, it’s exciting to have your incubator and accelerator but how do you make that stuff of real value to your clients?

Banks are generally not spending enough time on talent and design thinking around having the right people in the company to be truly digital and how to have the right architecture, both functional and technical, to be a truly digital company.



Chris De Bruin, Zafin’s President, Digital Platforms


Do you have any speculation on how the market will evolve over the next five years and how Zafin plays a role in that?

Yes and no. I have a strong opinion. What I think we all understand is that the transformation is so fundamental and so broad based that you’re as likely to be wrong as you’re likely to be right.

The thing that I like about where Zafin is positioned is that we provide tools and infrastructure and products that allow our clients to respond very rapidly to changes in their environment, very rapidly to competitive dynamics, and very rapidly to changes in clients’ behaviour. We create tools that help drive institutional flexibility.

No one quite knows where this ends. We all know that it’s changing.

But to survive in this industry you have to be able to run an options-based strategy that allows you to respond to its evolution. It’s no longer comfortable and linear. My view is that it’s not as important where it’s going as it is that we should be a company that’s flexible and able to respond quickly to how things change. I think very fundamentally, fast beats slow. Big doesn’t matter quite as much anymore.

I think we have a view that increasingly banking becomes around a series of interconnected digital ecosystems that are fully accessible to the public and no longer tightly controlled by the providers. The banks are increasingly going to open up how they work. There will be more people providing thin slivers of value, and increasingly all of these people will have to work together within ecosystems – so that there’ll be more specialists co-existing and big banks and generalists will be less dominant than they are now.

You have to be digital to be player. You have to be flexible in your model to be a player. And you have to disaggregate your willingness to take risk, to risk your equity and your capital, from your ability to provide value-added services or interesting utility from your ability to distribute or source. I think these all over time become unpacked. Historically they’ve been bundled by the bank, but increasingly they become unpacked as we go forward, and they all become digital.


About the author: A regular contributor to techvibes.com and Relationship Banker, Jonathan Woods is a technology journalist based in Vancouver, Canada.

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