= Subscriber content; log in or subscribe now to access all American Banker content.

B of A Tech Chief Bessant on Big Data, Emerging Tech

Comments (2)

Catherine Bessant hates the phrase "Big Data."

"As a term, it means different things to different people, and it creates a black box or a mystery around data," says Bessant, who is head of global technology and operations at Bank of America; the bank's CIOs report to her and she reports directly to CEO Brian Moynihan. "I think making data a black box works against its use. It overcomplicates the topic, when all you're really trying to do is add up the sum of the micro transactions to tell you something you couldn't see" before.

Data can be a distraction, she points out. "Data might tell you that you have a problem that happens only .3% of the time, and you might think you have a process or a platform that's in fully in control," she says. But there could be trends within that .3% that are important. "How do we make sense of everything that happens underneath the surface to turn it into something we can see?"

Rather than Big Data, she would prefer to just use the term "data."

Despite the overhyping and haziness of the phrase, Big Data is important to $2.2 trillion-asset Bank of America, which has been using data analysis to examine customers' branch visits, calls to the call center, chat sessions, and online banking sessions to get a full view of customer behavior.

In one outcome, the bank recently began a multi-market rollout in Boston of an ATM that can perform 80% of teller transactions, including cashing a check to the penny. To handle complicated transactions, the customer can speak to a bank employee live via video chat.

Data was analyzed to determine how people would want to use the new ATMs with Teller Assist and whether it would decrease or increase teller transaction time.

That the bank is deploying self-service kiosks is not too surprising given that Bank of America has closed 260 branches over the past year, or five percent of its total, leaving it with roughly 5,400 locations.

But Bessant says the new machines are not meant to decrease human interaction, but to be an additive channel. "The demise of the banking center has been predicted for a long time, and here we are," she says. "People go to branches for different things today than in the past, but the channel is still highly relevant."

Although she oversees about 100,000 employees (more than a third of Bank of America's total) and a $9 billion technology budget and is just ending a whirlwind business trip, hitting several cities in 14 days, Bessant is warm, relaxed and funny. She helpfully spells out words out for clarity (e.g. hearty vs. hardy) like the former English major she is. She remembers that the last time we met, over a year ago, I showed her my wireless keyboard for my iPad; she went out and got the same one. She demonstrates how her new MyCharge device for juicing up Apple, BlackBerry and USB devices speaks French.

She is keen to share the technology terms she would like to see eliminated from the industry vocabulary. In addition to Big Data, she dislikes the term "the cloud."

"First of all, there's no such thing as the cloud," she says. "There's the virtualization of a lot of elements of a technology stack, such as virtual servers and virtual storage. The virtualization of things that used to be physical is an important set of breakthroughs that have happened for efficiency and effectiveness."

Both terms — Big Data and cloud — needlessly create mystery around technology, Bessant says. "And technology as a mystery is a bad idea." It's harder to align the technology to the business under such a veil and "people don't know how to fund or prioritize technology decisions because we've made them so mysterious." She muses that this is why the average tenure of CIOs in general tends to be short. "Anything that distances technology from the business is inherently self-limiting," she says.


The IT transformation project Bessant has been working on since she took this job in 2010 is proceeding on track, she says, for its 2014 completion date.

The technology division has been unifying platforms, and has reduced the number of applications used in the bank by 17%. Where there used to be 22 collateral management systems, for instance, now there is one. The bank used to use eight different teller systems and has brought those, too, down to one. Myriad call center and IVR programs have been taken down to a narrow few.

"It's an efficiency play — you're more agile in a marketplace if when you want to implement a change you only have to implement it once and test it on one platform," she says. "We've also continued to make progress modernizing what we do, taking two down to not just one, but two down to best," Besssant says.


(2) Comments


The 25 Most Powerful Women in Banking
1. Irene Dorner

Irene Dorner's edge lies in her authenticity.

When the CEO of HSBC USA speaks, it feels real, not only because of the honesty and confidence she conveys, but because of the actions backing up the words. "If I am committed, then you'll get 200 percent, total energy; it will happen," Dorner says. "This is what I do."

Her current commitment: changing the culture at HSBC, where the 17,000 people who work for her are on notice that Dorner is demanding more from them.

HSBC has made some big missteps in the United States, from its 2003 purchase of subprime lender Household International to more recent problems in compliance with anti-money laundering rules. Dorner, an Oxford-trained lawyer who has spent most of her 33-year career with HSBC, was dispatched to New York in 2010 to help the company's U.S. business regroup.

Testifying on Capitol Hill this summer, she showed why it was smart to entrust her with the task. She struck just the right notes of respectfulness, resoluteness and reconciliation with the Senate panel probing the bank's AML problems. She promised to fix things, and left no room for doubt that she would.

"Irene connects on a personal level with employees, customers, industry colleagues and government officials," says her boss, Stuart Gulliver, Group CEO for London-based HSBC Holdings Plc. "Her words, like her actions, convey integrity and empathy. This combined with her keen business judgment makes Irene one of our most effective senior leaders."

Rebuilding the brand has meant more than just words.

"I have clawed back. I have sacked people. I have reduced people's bonuses," an unapologetic Dorner says. Her motivation for cleanings things up go beyond her concerns for HSBC.

"These crises ... just seem to keep coming down the pike," Dorner says of the industry's string of scandals this year. "I don't distinguish between our reputation and my competitors' reputations. Anything that happens now in the industry pulls us all down a notch."

Bringing things back to her $190 billion-asset slice of HSBC, she says, "One of the things that I am trying to get through to our entire bank is I would rather you walked away from a piece of business that has a question mark next to it than do it in order to boost your bottom line. I am looking for sustainability."

Dorner's career has been on fire the last few years, as she moved from CEO of HSBC Malaysia to CEO of HSBC Bank USA to her current role. A serious health scare didn't slow her down. Last fall, Dorner learned she had ovarian cancer. She underwent six months of chemotherapy and had surgery in May.

"It was an enormous shock," Dorner, 56, says of the diagnosis. "It was not in my game plan at all. But I was the luckiest person in the world" to have a surgeon discover the cancer while treating an unrelated problem.

Her overall fitness level and positive attitude (she says it never really occurred to her she might die) helped her cope. Now cancer-free, she says, "It has made me hugely grateful for everything that I've got. I am much more appreciative of home, husband, holidays, work, everything."
Comments (2)
Great article on a great profile!
Posted by FransRe | Monday, April 29 2013 at 7:06PM ET
Catherine Bessant is an amazing dynamo of a businessperson, and this is a great article about the incredible work she is doing.
Posted by Robert Harris | Thursday, May 09 2013 at 6:20PM ET
Add Your Comments:
Not Registered?
You must be registered to post a comment. Click here to register.
Already registered? Log in here
Please note you must now log in with your email address and password.
Already a subscriber? Log in here
Please note you must now log in with your email address and password.