Home Banking Interview with Mr. Ellis Wang, Group Head of Technology, Transformation and Information, Mashreq Bank

Interview with Mr. Ellis Wang, Group Head of Technology, Transformation and Information, Mashreq Bank

by Prashant
The business lounge located in Mashreq’s Muraqqabat branch

The oldest privately owned bank in the United Arab Emirates (UAE) is also its most innovative, intent on adding value to everything it offers to customers. Mashreq Bank, headquartered in Dubai, traces its roots back to 1967 when it began operations as the Bank of Oman before being renamed Mashreq Bank in 1993. This dynamic bank is one of the country’s top financial institutions with offices in several other regions of the world, including Africa, Europe, Asia and North America. Over the years, it has sealed its reputation as a bank of firsts—for example, by being the country’s first bank to install automated teller machines (ATMs), the first to launch debit and credit cards, the first to offer consumer loans, the first to roll out digital point-of-sale readers…the list goes on.

Mashreq is a well-rounded bank completely committed to “customer-driven innovation” and today provides both conventional and Islamic products and services in areas such as retail, asset-management, corporate, investment and international banking, rendering the bank an indispensable component of the country’s financial landscape. As a result of its commitment to its three-part strategy of “innovation, consistency and prudence”, Mashreq has been rewarded with numerous awards from industry leaders acknowledging its unique and invaluable role in the UAE’s evolving financial sector. Following its vision to be the region’s “most progressive” bank has led Mashreq Bank to unceasingly scale new heights, and all the more so as digitalization continues to offer even more opportunities for the bank to transform itself. As the bank has learned from experience, by closely engaging with its customers, it can then develop tailor-made products and services that perfectly satisfy their needs.

International Banker had the privilege of interviewing Mr. Ellis Wang, Group Head of Technology, Transformation and Information of Mashreq Bank, who brought us up to date on the bank’s latest efforts to break new ground.

Mr. Wang, we appreciate your taking the time to talk with us today….

Mr. Ellis Wang, Group Head of Technology, Transformation and Information, Mashreq Bank

What do you consider to be the single biggest factor that makes Mashreq Bank’s banking business stand out from its competitors?

At Mashreq, our customer-centric approach is our biggest differentiator. We have always been focused on innovating for the benefit of our clients in order to provide them with solutions that meet their evolving expectations and day-to-day requirements. Therefore, all of our products and associated processes, including technology, are designed with one fundamental objective in mind: to enhance the customer banking experience.

As I understand, one of the bank’s aims as far as its digital strategy is concerned is to “behave like a BigTech firm with a banking license”. What does this mean? And what would such behaviour involve in practice, particularly vis-à-vis how the bank has traditionally behaved?

Agility, innovation and data are the three key components that have enabled big techs to diversify and succeed. For Mashreq, these three elements form the core of our digital-transformation strategy. From our branch transformation to our partnerships with fintechs (financial-technology firms), we are investing in solutions that are innovative and, more importantly, add value to our customers.

As far as big techs are concerned, they start with a core competency and later diversify, analysing their customers’ behaviours and transactions. Google began with a search engine and diversified into payment and analytics by analysing the customer-usage trends. Similarly, Facebook commenced as a social-networking platform and has successfully enabled commercial utilization of its platform for businesses based on customers’ sentiments and their needs. On the other hand, Amazon transformed from being an online bookseller to literally selling every possible item online.

Mashreq has been able to gather significant insights into its customers and their behaviour over the years through solid engagement with customers. That, coupled with our strong digital capabilities, puts us in a strong position to deliver tailor-made products and services geared towards our customer’s requirements.

A few years back, Mashreq took the strategic decision to adopt cloud technology. For what main reason was this decision taken? And what improvements have you observed as a direct result of adopting this technology?

Mashreq’s cloud strategy was designed with the ultimate aim of enhancing the customer’s banking experience. The key benefits of having a cloud-first strategy are:

  • Increased internal productivity and faster time to market—by adopting the DevOps and Infrastructure automation, we have shortened the product release cycle from weeks to minutes.
  • Enhanced customer experience by designing services around the cloud-native architecture along with leveraging the cloud ecosystems; we have increased the performance of our products and improved innovation.
  • Increased cost transparency by moving to a service-based model and pay-as-you-go billing; we have achieved complete cost transparency on our infrastructure.
  • Finally, by relieving ourselves from the overhead of managing and running data centres, we were able to dedicate more time and effort towards banking products to improve how we service our customers.

What have been some of the key partnerships the bank has formed with the fintech sector? And do you see collaboration—rather than competition—as being the generally preferred route for the bank to take with regards to its digital strategy?

In recent years, Mashreq has engaged effectively with fintechs to bring innovation and automation of its internal processes. Fintechs bring with them nimbleness of execution, agility and experience in latest technology stacks, all of it aiding innovation. Our engagements with fintechs have not only helped the bank progress in its digital-transformation agenda but also helped us to attain global recognition through prestigious awards. We have undertaken several initiatives to digitalize our processes and create efficiencies in our operations. As a leading fintech investor in the UAE banking sector, we have collaborated with several fintechs across the world to upgrade our business systems, having been the first bank in the Middle East to launch a KYC (know your customer) platform underpinned by blockchain.

We believe it is important for banks to collaborate with tech companies as opposed to competing with them to offer the best experiences to their customers. Mashreq has been at the forefront of introducing innovative services. For instance, our branch network has transformed significantly since last year and now boasts of digital-only kiosks as well as personalized flagship branches for segments such as Mashreq Gold and Business Banking.

Last year, we also launched two major platforms for our customers: WhatsApp Banking, to offer more convenience, as well as NEOBiz, the UAE’s first digital banking proposition catered exclusively to SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises). The responses from our retail and SME customers to these initiatives have been extremely positive, with consumers embracing the convenience and flexibility they offer.

It seems that Mashreq Bank is a major proponent of big data, especially as a tool to improve the customer experience. What are some of the specific ways in which you are utilising big data? And how do you ensure that you maintain rigorous standards of privacy when it comes to procuring customer data?

We want to leverage the power of AI/ML (artificial intelligence/machine learning) in business scenarios, and implementing big-data tools is a critical pre-requisite. Mashreq has progressively started this journey by publishing predictive and prescriptive analytics through big data in operating units, and we are now ready to extend this to achieve and track business outcomes. It is our aspiration that big-data-driven AI/ML capability becomes part of our business DNA.

If I’m not mistaken, Mashreq is the first bank in the region to launch cardless cash for easy cash transactions from credit cards via ATMs. How does this work?

Mashreq was the first to introduce several products and services in the market. We were the first to launch a debit card and first to launch ATM services in the Middle East. Cardless cash is another such first to our credit. This service enables the sponsor (who holds the card) to generate a unique transaction reference with the amount that is required to be withdrawn and pass on this transaction reference to the beneficiary (who needs the money). The beneficiary can visit any of the Mashreq ATMs, choose the cardless cash option at the ATM, enter the transaction reference provided by the sponsor and withdraw the money.

Mashreq Bank is known for its relentless focus on improving the customer experience. Can you briefly describe the process the bank implements when designing new products and services to ensure that they maximise the customer experience?

Customer feedback is critical to enhancing our services, and we at Mashreq take their inputs very seriously. We have a Net Promoter Score (NPS) that gauges our products and services at customer touch-points such as kiosks and branches. The relationship-management team members have embedded KPAs that require them to periodically take feedback from customers on our products and services. Today, more than 85 percent of the bank’s transactions are digitally fulfilled, and, therefore, the bank now has come out with a Net Easy Score (NES) on how easy it is for customers to perform transactions digitally through its customer-facing channels.

Given how quickly customers’ needs and wants have evolved in recent years, how does the bank ensure that its products and services remain up to date and continue to evolve? How significant a role does customer feedback play in this process?

Since 2018, Mashreq has adopted an agile approach to addressing customer issues, feedback and enhancements, and there are cross-functional, agile teams (business, operations, technology, corporate affairs) operating on a permanent basis addressing these areas. These agile teams are organised by specific functions—products, processes, services, etc. For any new product or process, these teams come out with a 30-60-90-day plan to achieve the stated objective. This has hugely improved the way we respond to customer feedback/issues and has also improved the lead times in introducing new product offerings.

If you could identify the most significant method, strategy, philosophy and/or business model that a bank should adopt in order to truly be considered a “customer-centric” institution, what would that be?

At Mashreq, defining customer journey is a key element in any new initiative. The sponsors of any new initiative, be it a product or project, mandate how the customer journey needs to be defined. This is one way of ensuring we do not take our eyes away from how we positively impact the customer. In addition to this, we look at digitization—digital origination and digital fulfilment—so that we optimize productivity.

What is the single most important way in which the coronavirus has impacted business at Mashreq Bank? And how has the bank sought to respond and adapt to this challenge?

The outbreak of COVID-19 has caused strain on all sectors, including the banking community, and we continue to work with new developments every day to serve our customers and shareholders in the best way possible.

At Mashreq, we first ensured that we addressed the safety of our own workforce across the globe while at the same time continuing to service our customers effectively. We successfully ensured that 97 percent of our employees—except key branch personnel—had the necessary tools to work from home. For example, we mobilized 4,500 VDI (virtual desktop infrastructure) desktops for users—way up from our previous 1,200 desktops, representing a 350-percent increase in less than a month. A lot of this is down to our robust business-continuity planning, early adoption of digital processes and certainly the exceptional efforts of our employees, who have worked hard to make this a reality.

Thanks to our strategic focus on digital banking, we are able to offer our customers unparalleled services, 24 hours a day, from the safety of their homes. We also created a microsite with a full suite of digital and traditional banking services to meet the requirements of our retail and corporate customers.

Your commitment to innovation, with a central focus on your customers’ needs, is an inspiration. Thank you very much for talking with us today, Mr. Wang.

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