Before fintech became a business buzzword | Fin24

Before fintech became a business buzzword

Sep 15 2016 14:34
finweek team

Jacques Celliers has been with FNB for 16 years and has served as CEO since 2014. We caught up with him at the recent FirstRand financial results to talk about tech, digitisation, innovation, disruption and the future.

Founded in 1838, FNB has become known for its innovative initiatives in delivering financial services products, which has seen the bank increasingly branch out into the digital space in recent years.  


When talking to FNB CEO Jacques Celliers (who originally joined the bank in 2000 to help launch eBucks) about tech and innovation, it becomes clear why he is the one leading FNB in the “e-race”, as he calls the digitisation story that has played out so rapidly in recent years.  


FNB has been a part of this storyline for a very long time, explains Celliers. “We are very privileged to have very innovative people.”  


For Celliers it’s amazing to see how fast things are happening in terms of tech development and innovation.  


“Clearly our challenge is ‘How do we stay ahead?’ Honestly, apps like [traffic and navigation tool] Waze and [ride-hailing tool] Uber could be our next competitor – competitors aren’t exclusively in our sector. We think these types of apps can take over banking. Think about Uber today: payment has become invisible. You get in and out and take the trip, the payment just happens – you don’t even know what you paid until much later.” 


By using Uber as example, Celliers explains that banking and finance are now included in everyday life as it were, which makes it easier to disrupt.  


“Because while you can control the conversation, you’re actually there and you can influence the change, the fee, the price, etc., or the instrument that people use. When it’s integrated into society or the Internet of Things, it’s quite hard to see where you can stop and start influencing things and not be totally vulnerable to massive disruption.” 


Referring again to FNB’s early adoption of financial innovation, Celliers explains that in 2000 FNB created the world’s first bank-backed e-currency with eBucks, “which today is what Bitcoin seems to be”. 


Back then already, FNB wanted to float eBucks as a currency, but regulatory structures forced the bank to monetise it back to the rand. Celliers’ point is that FNB has been playing with the constructs people are seeing opportunities with today for a very long time.  


“We have been innovating finance through technology for a very long time,” says Celliers. Long before the ‘fintech’ buzzword entered the conversation. 


That said, “it is impressive to see how things are nowadays maturing, and things are becoming possible that we thought might never happen and all of a sudden it’s happening. So it’s incredible stuff and we’re enjoying it.” 


So what does the future look like? 

FNB has aggressively pursued its e-migration strategy, aimed at moving customers to electronic and digital platforms, and launched the FNB branded smartphone for customers in August. 


Celliers says the bank sees its world evolving, and that it’s about getting the right platform for its customers. “If our infrastructure and stuff can’t get to you, we might be vulnerable to someone else getting there.” 


Does FNB see the future as an exclusively digitised one?  


“I don’t think anything in life is purely digital and that we’ll never need people.” 


Celliers says the way we engage with the tools at our disposal will evolve, and the tools themselves will also change. This will change the way FNB plays its innovation game. So it’s not complete digitisation per se – “it’s just the direction we are moving in”. 


According to Celliers, instead of going to a financial adviser (“as you did in the olden days”) who “had to be this brilliantly clever person”, big data and machine learning is going to mean that the clever person isn’t going to keep up. “They are just going to be using the same tool that you could be using yourself, but you might be uncomfortable with it or find it overwhelming. The clever person might be able to help you simplify, activate and execute it.


“So we just need to be able to set ourselves up for the future, which is very exciting.”  


For Celliers it’s about utilising data capabilities (FNB has been at big data for a long time already) and tech capabilities to “think differently about how you could do finance”.  


“What we do a lot is reflect not only on how we can run our worlds better, but also how to solve people’s problems better. Our purpose is very well articulated: being helpful.”


FNB’s ‘exponential helpfulness’ 

Whether you bank with FNB or not, the ‘How can we help you?’ pay-off line is well known. And this is central to the way FNB develops products and solutions for its customers, says Celliers.  


“You can call it exponential helpfulness if you like, but through the access [FNB’s] infrastructure provides to finance and tech, we can make your life much easier. And we’ve tried to find solutions to facilitate this, from consumer spaces right up to the commercial spaces all the time. And we come up with meaningful innovations… I think people always try and find fads – it’s not wrong to find new things but it is essential to make a meaningful difference to people’s lives through the things they deal with today, everyday.” 


FNB’s payment innovation, eWallet, as an example, has been in play for over five years. This solution allows users to access cardless cash. If you have lost or had your wallet stolen, you can transfer money to an FNB ATM online and draw the cash without a card. Similarly, unbanked users can draw cash at an FNB ATM when money is transferred to them. 


It’s the same principle that Kenya’s M-Pesa and Zambia’s Zoona are based on: mobile money. 


“We don’t always have to be first,” says Celliers. But when something new and innovative enters the market, FNB will look at it and if we find it to be powerful, we will try our hand at it and try to do it better. 


Of course, FNB does come up with new solutions and innovations but what is important to Celliers is that they don’t waste time “on fintech and IT innovation for the sake of it”. 


FNB’s “plumbing”, as Celliers refers to the bank’s infrastructure, has allowed it to create a value chain for solving “the real-life problems that people struggle with”. 


Whether you want to call this fintech, digitisation or any other new buzzword, as sure as FNB has been playing in this space for a while, it will continue to do so.

Please note this is a shortened and edited version of the original article that was published in the 22 September issue of finweek. Buy and download the magazine here.



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