In the business world in 2020, as in all parts of life in this most testing of years, we all seem to be ‘looking for the positives’. It is clear that positivity to Santiago Castro, Chief Data Officer of First Bank of Nigeria UK, is not an empty buzzword, but something that comes naturally. Positivity is something that Castro has in spades - and, as we learn during a wide-ranging and animated interview, it has been the driving force behind FBN Bank’s success in recent years.
The threat of Covid-19 to the banking sector
Castro’s optimism is on show when the conversation turns to the turbulence of the last five months. When he says that the Covid-19 pandemic has forced FBN Bank to adapt to a new reality, he adds that this has been welcome. “These challenges have allowed us to learn, and to eliminate the ways in which we are inefficient. This allows us to do more of what we are doing well, and actually to learn and evolve. Being under stress has allowed us to push our boundaries”.
Discussing how the coronavirus crisis will change the banking sector in the long-term, Castro is similarly bullish: “The future is going to be different to what we used to. There is no doubt we are not coming back to what we had. But if we take the opportunity to eliminate our inefficiencies, we can learn, we can become much more collaborative, and much more data and technology driven”.
Harnessing next-generation technology
Castro joined FBN Bank two years ago, tempted by an ambitious new project after a successful 17-year career in consulting. He was tasked with overseeing the bank’s digital transformation, at a time when adopting the latest technologies was becoming ever more crucial for the finance industry. In light of what has happened to in-person banking in 2020, making sure that FBN’s remote banking keeps its clients happy is now a matter of life and death for the organisation.
With the investments made in Oracle’s next-generation banking solution, FBN Bank is now at the forefront of payment innovation. With an ISO20022 based data model, SWIFT gpi, PSD2 and open banking technology leadership, modern technology architecture, and machine learning for STP improvements, FBN is now able to offer a superior customer experience to our institutional clients in the UK and Europe.
As Castro talks about spinning various unfamiliar plates - AI machine learning, cloud systems, 5G, automation, data analytics - with the margins for error shrinking by the day, his innate positivity shines through once more. “Before you needed to create the data warehouses, for people to self-serve. Now we have intelligent algorithms, machine learning, like an enterprise Google Search functionality Io-Tahoe, where our business users can search for the type of data that they need. They can now leave the machine to go discover the data for them, which gives them more time for other things”.
Of all the technological solutions that FBN Bank has introduced, Castro is most keen to credit automation and machine learning for improving efficiency. “Technology is key because it allows us to collaborate more. Now we can share the same data platforms, where we all interact. With a little automation, we can actually communicate and help each other more easily”. In many companies, staff see automation at best as a hindrance, at worst as a threat; but at FBN, it creates harmony. As Castro puts it: “A lot is about trying to realise efficiency gains, trying to empower our employees to do more with, for example, automation. In bringing in machines as an ally to our people, we have created a lot of automation that has helped us to actually reduce time on dealing with repetitive types of tasks, and in doing so becoming more efficient”.
FBN Bank’s digital strategy
A topic that Castro keeps coming back to is resilience; being prepared for all scenarios. Under his leadership, FBN Bank had the foresight to invest in digital solutions that enable and simplify remote banking for its clients - and remote working for its staff - before the coronavirus outbreak forced consumers and employees out of physical banks. Castro recognises that the banking sector as a whole was much better prepared for this situation than it would have been five years ago. Becoming efficient five years ago has allowed them to be resilient today: “It’s about being competitive and resilient. As you become efficient, you also become more resilient”.
He illustrates the point with a metaphor. “Actually it’s a little bit like when you want to learn to swim. You need to jump in the water. If you don’t push yourself, you don’t learn. This is how our team felt at the beginning. It was difficult, it was challenging - but now they are not just doing it; they are enjoying it”. Castro continues the metaphor: “Flexibility and collaboration only work because we empower our people with technology, and with the right skills, to be able to always learn and jump in and help their colleagues”.
The biggest factor in the digital journey is the total commitment of top management. After this is investment in the right technology. Unless the team owns and understands the technology and its benefits, they will face hurdles in its implementation and the outcome will be sub-optimal.
He also acknowledges that in the banking world, companies pay a heavy price for standing too long on the diving board. “Now, if you stop, you will be left behind. And that's kind of what has happened to the very big established companies. Their life expectancy used to be hundreds of years - now it's 20 to 30, because the fintech startups that are born into next-generation technology are already comfortable with this completely new model”.
FBN is at the forefront of digital technology. Its core banking technology partners have enabled the bank to deliver superior corporate banking services that leverage best of breed technology, such as microservices architecture, API first approach, machine learning and Artificial Intelligence.