Digital Banker of the Year: Citi's Heather Cox

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Editor's Note: This article is part of a series of profiles of Bank Technology News' 2015 Digital Bankers of the Year.

As a young girl, Heather Cox raised and sold cattle while dreaming of roller skates and becoming a powerful businesswoman.

She's come a long way from those days on a farm in Illinois, a time that she credits for teaching her invaluable and lifelong lessons on hard work.

Now as Citigroup's chief client-experience, digital and marketing officer for the global consumer bank, Cox is focused on achieving her vision as a financial services exec: to help a more than 200-year-old institution adopt a modern attitude toward technology amid mounting regulatory and risk obstacles.

It's a time when banks bemoan their limitations in trying to keep up with consumer demands while regulatory scrutiny and newer threats to traditional business models are only growing. But Cox prefers to view the continued disruption as ammunition to create new identities and to shake up traditions. To say she's jazzed about the opportunity to redefine banking is putting it mildly.

"Holy cow, we can influence the way the world views banking," said Cox, who has oversight of 2,400 people. "It's a powerful motivator. I'm excited to be in the mix."

Citi is moving much quicker on digital initiatives under her leadership. In the last year, the bank beta tested and then was one of the first to launch a mobile app feature that lets people see their account balances and recent transactions without entering user names and passwords on itty-bitty screens. Citi had an app available for the Apple Watch before the smartwatch was even available to consumers — a project the bank pulled off in 120 days. And Citi made application programming interfaces (APIs) available to developers participating in its worldwide fintech challenges to rethink finance. All of which has helped earn Cox the accolades for this year's Digital Banker of the Year.

Cox, who most recently worked at Capital One, sees such efforts as a necessity despite all the rules governing the industry.

"I understand that it might be tempting for some to point to regulation as a barrier to innovation, but frankly that's a losing mindset for banks," said Cox. "We have an obligation to adhere to regulations and innovate at the same time, and we can do it."

At Citi, she's helping to create a culture that heralds how innovation can come from anyone and anywhere versus its older connotation of an elite group of developers working from inside the banking walls and launching something maybe ten years down the road.

Her outsider call-to-arms is most evident in what Cox calls one of her biggest pushes since joining Citi in 2014: APIs. The means to engage with external worlds is gospel in Silicon Valley, but in banking, open APIs are a bold move that could catapult fresh thinking.

Kristin Moyer, a research vice president at Gartner, said APIs can help companies reduce costs through faster time to market, lower delivery costs and easier partner integrations. They are the mechanisms used to crowdsource innovations from many.

In 2014, Citi sought pitches on banking app ideas for its Citi Mobile Challenge, an event that supplied the participants with APIs so developers could build working prototypes of their pitches. Anyone from anywhere could apply, but the live demo days — where developers presented their ideas — were held in the U.S. The fintech challenge, which built on a previous one the bank held in Latin America, received 744 submissions from developers in 62 countries with participants including high school students and execs from established companies. Plenty of Citi execs, including Cox, were on hand, too.

Yev Galper, one of the demo-ers whose team won for a "most transformative branch experience," was impressed with the united senior management front at the live demo days. "[Typically] someone has a vision and pushes it through while fighting the corporation," said Galper, head of the Mobile Competency Center at EPAM Systems, a provider of software development services. "Here, this is like everybody is aligned."

The winners continue to receive attention from Citi — including assigned representatives to guide them through the corporation's labyrinth. Nurturing innovation is still a process for Citi but its work to become more agile under Cox's helm is readily apparent. "Frankly, most banks have platforms that are very closed," said Galper. "Citi is trying to open up as much as possible.

"It just takes time to steer this big ship in a different direction."

Cox, who views APIs as the means to reinvent core products and services, sees the outsider strategy as the only way ahead. "In order to keep up, there is no possible way we can do it on our own," she said.

In 2015, Citi launched another global challenge with live demo days in Jerusalem, London, Nairobi and Warsaw and with new partners, including Uber. The popular car-hailing app provided APIs so would-be bank entrepreneurs could propose car banking ideas. Cox readily admits there are plenty of people who question what car-hailing services have to do with banking. But the only way to find out for sure is to try.

"We don't know if it's nothing," said Cox. "We have to be careful to not limit our thought set to what has traditionally been the case."

The idea offers a glimpse of what Cox imagines Citi becoming: an essential hub that helps tie seemingly disparate tasks together. "That would be my dream scenario," Cox said.

Not surprisingly, Cox is captivated by the promise of wearables, and more broadly, Internet of things (IoT) devices, that connect ordinary refrigerators and cars to the Internet and to one another, as the next evolution of digital banking. The devices, after all, could deliver more relevant information to consumers than the smartphone alone. She envisions a world where fridges let consumers touch a button to reorder and pay for milk when the beverage is low, for example.

For now, she's excited to observe how customers use Citi on Apple Watch — its first wearable app. As of May 4th, the bank had more than 20,000 downloads of the app whose hardware is on delivery delay for some.

"Early engagement signs are two thumbs up," said Cox. But she's not just watching.

In early May, Cox got her own Apple Watch that was already making her gush, "It's the coolest freaking thing" on day one of owning it. The device offers the latest example of how her dreams have changed: instead of breeding cattle to fund a college education, Cox is sourcing and testing what-ifs for banking's next metamorphosis.

"Who knew how the world would change with a supercomputer in our pockets," said Cox. "We are pushing the next edge."

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