Innovation Is More of a Cultural Revolution for Banks Like BNY Mellon

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Virun Rampersad is ebullient, at times even bouncing on the balls of his feet.

Standing in front of the elevators after Bank of New York Mellon's annual innovation contest for employees in June, he gushes over the talent on display from the company ranks around the world - eight regional winners earned a spot at this final level, including teams from Brazil, India and Singapore.

Executives are streaming past as they exit the room where the contest took place, and there is undeniably a current of excitement charging the hallway. Some wave to each other as they go by; others stop to trade opinions on the best ideas, the best presentations, the best presenters.

Rampersad is impressed with how the teams handled the grilling they faced and the gumption they showed in telling top executives what their company could do better and—importantly—how.

This all bodes well for his mission: to make innovation part of everyday culture at the 230-year-old bank.

Right at this moment, it doesn't matter that some of these ideas — perhaps most of them — ultimately won't work out, and that after investing months or even years of effort in their projects, these victorious teams will have to, as Rampersad phrases it, "shoot their puppy."

What matters is that employees are thinking about, acting on, developing, pitching what could be the next big idea. In other words, they're innovating.

For many companies, innovation is almost synonymous with technology. But Rampersad does not oversee technology for BNY Mellon.

Instead, he is more like a chief cultural officer.

The job he's had for the past three years is head of global innovation, and he is responsible for getting BNY Mellon employees - all 50,000 of them worldwide - into a more flexible mindset that is not only open to doing things differently but is actively pursuing that as an ideal.

"We need everyone aware of the importance of innovation to the company and to them - every employee," Rampersad says. "This isn't just IT's job. This isn't just Virun's job — this is all of our jobs."

How banks are tackling innovation varies - whether it is by buying fintech companies, pushing employees to come up with patentable ideas, opening innovation labs in places like Silicon Valley, or a mix of all that and more.

No matter the approach, though, banks are focused like never before on creating a culture of innovation essentially for the same reason: to stay relevant in a rapidly changing industry.

As with a lot of buzzwords, the definition of innovation varies from one person to the next and sometimes from one day to the next.

But for Rampersad, the meaning is simple — it is about creating a roadmap to get the company from where it is today to where it wants to be.

"The future is the thing that all of us care about," he says. "Innovation is all about the future and how we build the future."

BNY Mellon has been around for so long that it is perhaps tempting to think of it as old-fashioned.

Rampersad says it could not have survived for so long if it were like that.

"If we look at what we've done as a company we can see that when we pay attention to our clients and pay attention to the markets, we figured stuff out," he says.

He points to BNY Mellon innovations like the creation of the money market fund in the 1970s; the introduction of triparty repo in the 1980s, which aided in tremendous growth of broker-dealers; and more recently, the prime custody solution that provided stability for hedge funds at the onset of the 2008 financial crisis.

He says the bank also was the first to use the Internet to process securities transactions.

Many of those innovations originated in-house, so mining the employee ranks for ideas is not new to the bank.

"At the end of the day, no one knows your organization better than your employees," says Karen Peetz, BNY Mellon's president and Rampersad's direct boss.

"Getting them engaged in constant improvement becomes part of your fabric — it is the only way to get continuously better."

The internal contest is one of the ways the bank encourages creative thinking — and it might never have happened if not for reality television.

One night in 2013, as Rampersad watched "American Idol," he began to wonder about the appeal of singing competition shows.

He had taken over innovation in the fall 2012, right before Hurricane Sandy hit New York, One of the first things he did was create and promote a portal where employees could make suggestions. But to really ignite a cultural revolution, he needed something bigger. "I needed a match," he says.

As he tuned into the popular singing competition that night, "I thought, 'Why do people watch this thing?'" he says. "They watch it because regular people become stars."

That gave him the idea for a competition at BNY Mellon, which Peetz approved. In its inaugural year it received 468 ideas from more than 1,000 employees.

The A.C.E. competition — A.C.E stands for Accelerate, Collaborate and Execute— is now heading into its fourth year.

The 2013 winners created a type of receipt for trading that essentially allowed for a broader range of assets to be used as collateral on syndicated loans. After incubating the idea for a couple of years, the bank expects to start beta testing this fall.

Last year's winner developed a currency hedge that is being evaluated by the Securities and Exchange Commission and this year's winner came up with a way to improve liquidity for debt markets in southeast Asia by pooling the collateral of multiple countries.

The presenters had five minutes to pitch their idea in the finals and then the judges got to ask questions for five minutes.

The judges this year were: Peetz; Gerald Hassell, chairman and chief executive; Curtis Arledge, CEO of investment management; Doug Shulman, global head of client service delivery; and Rich Brueckner, chief of staff.

The contestants come from across the globe — several of the teams picked a representative to travel to New York to present while they joined by video conference — and many are visibly nervous.

"Most of the people who presented would rather have a root canal than present," Rampersad says, not in a negative way, but rather as a point of pride, because the egalitarian nature of the competition gets him fired up.

"No matter who you are, no matter what you do, no matter where you work, if you have a good idea and you can prove it is a good idea, you have a chance to pitch it to the CEO and not only win prize money but have a chance of seeing that idea started up," he says.

"No more tinkering in the garage; you can do that here."

The winners this year won $100,000 to split among the four team members and the idea will enter incubation.

All seven of the other finalist teams received an executive committee sponsor and some additional funding to further validate their idea before having the opportunity to pitch their ideas again for incubation.

In his role as innovation champion, Rampersad also works with the innovation centers BNY Mellon operates. These are in Jersey City, N.J., Silicon Valley and London, plus two in India. A sixth is set to open in Pittsburgh.

Some teams at these labs are focused on developing products in-house, while others have broader missions. For instance, some are partnering with startups and telecommunication companies to look at how blockchain technology and cell phones could work together to make banking services more accessible in third-world countries.

BNY Mellon, a custody bank whose only individual consumer clients are the super-rich, is not the first name you think about when it comes to providing banking services to villages in Africa, but Rampersad says big ideas often start small.

"Traditionally, these types of technologies start off at the low end of the spectrum. Very small. We don't play in that space," Rampersad says. "But you know what? Little boys have a habit of becoming big boys."

Much of Rampersad's job involves technology, so it may come as a surprise that he doesn't have a tech background.

He joined BNY Mellon as a client executive in 1998 and served in that role until 2009, when he was recruited by Peetz, then the head of financial markets and treasury services, to help improve efficiency across the organization.

That job focused on cross-selling to grow revenue and market share, but Rampersad sees synergies with what he's doing now, in that he "looked across businesses to get people to change the way they do things."

In keeping with this banking pedigree, he doesn't look like the part of a typical tech-oriented executive trying to spur innovation.

Rampersad dresses like the New York banker he is: pinstriped suit, tie in a full Windsor and French cuff shirt with Paul Smith cufflinks.

Even when he visits the company's innovation centers, he doesn't try to fit the tech stereotype. No iWatch or Cole Haan shoes with the colorful athletic soles. (No cowboy boots either.)

That's partly out of convenience - he has likely just come from a meeting where he is expected to look professional. There is another reason, though: he wants the innovators in the labs to also see themselves as bankers.

"In that area, God is Google," Rampersad says. "Me coming in looking like this helps them remember the family they've joined. You need to know who we are and what we've done. If you don't understand that, it is hard to get passionate about what you're working on."

BNY Mellon moved its New York headquarters this fall from One Wall Street to Brookfield Place. In a way, the move is a physical manifestation of the decision to pursue innovation as a major business strategy.

BNY Mellon left an art deco landmark from the same era as the more famous Empire State Building in favor of a modern space with lots of windows and natural light.

Getting the company to embrace innovation was a tenet that Hassell and Peetz laid out when Hassell became chairman and CEO in 2011 following the resignation of Robert P. Kelly. Peetz was named president of the company in early 2013.

"Different companies have different models, a lot of companies take innovation and they park it in technology or they put it in a high-growth business and leave the stable, mature businesses alone," Rampersad says.

"Gerald and Karen looked at this and said in order to take BNY Mellon forward, we needed to have it across the whole organization. Innovation as a focus was built as part of our business strategy. And they decided to make it global."

Implementing an enterprise-wide effort is the right move, says JP Nicols, president and chief operating officer of Innosect, an innovation enablement and analytics company. He is also the co-founder of the Bank Innovators Council, a global organization that promotes bank innovation. Nicols refers to such effort as social innovation, meaning that it aims to get more people involved in more ways.

"In many ways it is synonymous with culture. It should start at the top with leadership saying, 'I expect you to be innovative. I want you to take risks and fail,'" Nicols says. "That is shocking to most career bankers, who have been raised to be risk-averse. They've been told to find all the risks and avoid them."

Nicols says he expects to see more banks appoint heads of innovation, but worries that boards might be short-sighted with such folks. They tend to want tangible evidence of change quickly - and it is hard to quantify a cultural shift.

"We will see more people getting hired to head innovation, but the worry is that a year from now a lot of those folks will be gone because a lack of a return on investment," Nicols says.

Peetz says that BNY Mellon's decision to focus on innovation was shepherded by board member Nicholas M. Donofrio, a retired executive vice president of IBM where he oversaw innovation and technology.

"He helped us tremendously in how to structure our push for innovation to be successful," Peetz says.

Further, the board has other members from other tech companies, including John Hinshaw, an executive vice president at Hewlett-Packard.

In other words, Peetz doesn't think the board will take a short-term view on innovation — they get that it is not the easiest thing to measure.

The value of the innovation initiative needs to be assessed each year and tactics need to be tweaked over time, she says.

But so far BNY Mellon always comes up with the same answer to the question about whether this is an important effort to continue. "Every year, we say, 'yes, it is,'" Peetz says. "I've just been through the budget and we absolutely agreed to continue."

Still, as innovation becomes increasingly trendy in banking, there is a need for it to be tangible.

It is perhaps telling that the three winning ideas from A.C.E. have been product-based.

The same is true for competitions held by other banks, which, unlike BNY Mellon, invite outside talent to participate. For instance, two loan products recently won at BBVA's Open Talent competition in New York.

Sarah Biller, chief operating officer of innovation at State Street's Global Exchange, says her company looks across the fintech spectrum for partnerships, but there is a need for something that will ultimately benefit customers.

"The tangibility of innovation is what is critical," Biller says in October at the demo day of Fintech Sandbox, an incubator to help startups gain scale. The event was held at State Street's One Channel Center — a tech-focused workspace the company opened last year.

State Street, another custody bank that is one of BNY Mellon's main competitors, has tended to focus its innovation strategy around working externally. For instance, it has long-standing partnership with Harvard University and MIT, Biller says.

But State Street's innovation effort is increasingly internally focused too, Biller says.

Although it doesn't have a competition like A.C.E., Biller says there is an increase in "intrapreneurs" - employees who come up with ideas that can improve something that State Street does today.

Whether the focus is internal or external, Nicols says it's important that banks like BNY Mellon and State Street remain committed to a culture of innovation.

More important, Rampersad says, is to keep the momentum going.

"I'm just a custodian of this generation of innovation. The next generation will do it differently and hopefully better," he says.

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