Here's an upside to the rise in fintech that's often overlooked: It's making bread-and-butter banks a magnet for the brightest minds in technology.
Chief executives from several big banks said this week that competition from online lenders, mobile payments firms and other upstarts has pushed them to recruit more data science experts and engineers, making the banks a hotbed for young professionals in cutting-edge fields.
The competition has also motivated senior executives to adopt new skill sets, forcing them to learn the ins and outs of new technologies and how to drive innovation at a time when margins are tight, the CEOs said.
"What's exciting with the explosion of fintechs and shadow banking is that we are a beneficiary," said Beth Mooney, CEO of KeyCorp in Cleveland. "We're attracting talent into our organization that heretofore wouldn't have thought of going to work for a financial institution or a bank."
Banking was recently "an industry that nobody wanted to work for," said William Rogers, CEO of SunTrust Banks in Atlanta, noting that that attitude is rapidly changing. "The work is more interesting, and the skill sets are so much broader."
The comments – made Tuesday at a conference sponsored by The Clearing House in New York – provide a glimpse at what some of the biggest names in the industry think about the broad changes that have accompanied digital banking, including the rush of bank-fintech partnerships in digital wealth management advice, online lending to small businesses and other areas.
Bruce Van Saun, chief executive with Citizens Financial Group, said that banks should be wary of relying too heavily on "fintech partners" to drive growth in lending, and other areas of technology.
Van Saun also said that bankers should remember that innovation is oftentimes less about flashy new technology, and more about matching the right product to customers' needs.
For instance, he pointed to how Citizens has grown its student loan refinancing business in recent years. The Providence, R.I., company has carved out a niche in the market, competing directly with marketplace lenders such as SoFi.
"Somebody didn't sit in a field and smoke a pipe and think these big thoughts," Van Saun said. "They said, 'I've got customers who are burdened by this high-cost debt. How could I solve this issue? How could I make their life better?' "
Others had different takes on the role that big banks play in driving innovation in financial services.
Brian Moynihan, CEO of Bank of America, said that banks have a responsibility to bring some of the concepts developed by fintech firms to a much broader audience.
"When you talk about innovation … the art form isn't the actual code," Moynihan said. "To bring it to scale, which is what we do every week with a million-plus lines of code, it takes a little bit of innovation to figure out."
Moynihan also offered a note of caution about the push for faster payments.
The industry needs to take the long view in making big investments in real-time payments, he said. A number big banks – including B of A and U.S. Bancorp – recently started offering real-time, peer-to-peer payments in an effort to compete with PayPal and Venmo.
Moynihan reminded the audience that it took decades for consumers to grow comfortable with using ATMs. Similarly, it could take them awhile to adjust to new payments technologies.
Down the road, however, real-time payments should help banks cut costs, particularly expenses related to handling cash and coins, he said.
"We as an industry have to think about how we're willing to invest today, but this may take five, 10 or 15 years to get a transformation, where the real, hard benefits come through," Moynihan said.