Editor at Large

In a sprawling, anonymous-looking corporate park in the sleepy hamlet of Stamford, Conn., is a high-energy innovation lab that could rival any run by the big-city banks. It would also not be out of place in Silicon Valley.

The lab is run by Synchrony Financial, the credit card issuer that went public in 2014 and is now making a go of it after recently completing its spinoff from General Electric.

"We love to say we're an 80-year-old startup," Chief Information Officer Carol Juel said.

Perhaps it is that rare blend of old and new, practicality and dream factory, in Synchrony's history that makes its so-called Innovation Station stand out from many of the rest.

Its culture makes an immediate impression on a visitor. When the bitter cold wind could be felt through a down coat on a recent day in December, many employees walked among the buildings without coats or sweaters, shrugging off the cold — "Oh, we're not going far." There seemed to be a corporate-wide toughness, or an unspoken company code banning outerwear. Or maybe it's a Connecticut thing.

A palpable positivity is present, too. Music usually plays all the time, and employees take turns being the DJ for a day; a meeting room complete with foosball table is said to generate many loud get-togethers; and there's a signature board signed with messages of encouragement from members of Synchrony's board and many visitors.

The lab has its obligatory flashy side. There is a café with coffee and espresso machines as well as a working point-of-sale terminal and ancillary payment technologies, such as beacons, where new mobile app features are tested and afternoon pick-me-up espresso shots are had.

Yet whereas many labs go no further than serving as glorified showrooms, there is real work happening at Synchrony's, partly because there are existing applications to work on, as well as pressure to develop new ideas.

After all, the $79 billion-asset Synchrony is no garage business: it is the largest U.S. issuer of private-label cards, serving clients like the Gap, Banana Republic and Athleta.

"When something pops up, we've got to fix it — it creates a camaraderie that would be hard to do in any other way than supporting a real application," said Daniel Murphy, manager of mobile development.

Early Results

In one early project, the lab and Synchrony's Chicago-based analytics team built a data-driven rewards program called Next Best Offer, using software from Pivotal Labs. The app lets users see a list of offers targeted toward them, and everything they do on the app helps fine-tune the offers. If, for instance, they click "dislike" on several outerwear offers, those types of offers will go away.

Another product that's emerged out of the lab is an app for retailers that lets a tablet function as a POS terminal. The tablet app will have the capacity to control beacons, the wireless sensors retailers are beginning to deploy in their facilities to pick up data about shoppers' buying habits.

"Imagine you walk into a store, the beacon automatically recognizes you, it has additional data that you drive analytics off of, [and] that data is presented in real time," said Florin Arghirescu, senior vice president of information technology. Payments and reward offers could get integrated at the point of sale.

"Those are use cases we're actively working on," he said. "That world is not far away."

The team is currently gearing up for its annual New York City shopping trip, where it will check out what innovative technology retailers are using. (They'll be able to expense travel and lunch, not purchases.)

"We come back and a lot of the ideas get incorporated into our agile processes," Arghirescu said.

Inspired by Startups

The idea for the Innovation Station came from Synchrony President and Chief Executive Margaret Keane, who brought it back from a tour of West Coast startups. She wanted to create a space that would help inspire innovation throughout the organization, attract talent, enable developers to work with merchant technology and build new tech in collaboration with merchant partners. The lab is focused on customer-facing digital and mobile apps, with information-technology, marketing, user-experience, security, and risk teams all working together.

"One thing that was great to see was that cross-functional barriers went away" once the new lab was set in motion, Arghirescu said. "Innovation became an entity." People in the lab were given the authority to make decisions. A commitment was made to agile development.

One-day "bolt" sessions are held, in which employees go from identifying a business issue to prototyping and moving towards an agile development project by the end of the day. Sometimes these sessions are taken on the road, in visits with clients.

Every six months, there is a random shuffle of all the desks. The idea is everyone should know everybody else, and there should be an even playing field.

Meanwhile, the divorce from GE gave the company an opportunity to start fresh technologywise, as data centers and tech support from the parent company were withdrawn.

"When you're part of a big company like GE, there are a lot of things we call electricity — they just work," Juel said. "When I would get the bill from GE, I would say, hey, it went up by 5%. Then when you have to build it all yourself, you realize that bill wasn't so bad." The size of the tech group grew from 280 to 710 in two years.

Synchrony built out two collocated data centers and an analytics center in Chicago and launched 45 new platforms, some of them cloud-based. It runs a massive closed-loop payment network similar to Visa and MasterCard, but interchange free.

"We want to control that network," Juel said. "When you control that network you control the data that transacts over that network." This provides the innovation team the data that is so critical to their projects, such as Next Best Offer.

"Caring" as Innovation Catalyst

One of the values Synchrony took away from its breakup with GE was a "caring culture," Juel said. She is the first to admit that this sounds corny, but she insists that it's true and it works.

"We always assume positive intent, and that drives a culture that's much more collegial and it's a lot easier to get things done," she said. "You're not battling something to get something done. It helps drive a culture of innovation."

Sometimes people will stay until 7 p.m. to help someone else on their project even though it is not related to anything they are working on, because of the caring culture.

How do you balance the need to be edgy and innovative with caring? There are tough conversations sometimes, but also a commitment to working problems out, Juel said.

"You don't have here what you have in many places, where you walk out of a room and you have two arrows in your back and you don't even know where they came from," she said.

"If one of my colleagues and I are struggling with something and there's a lot of discussion, we ultimately end in a place where we could agree to disagree, we respect each other's opinion and we figure out a way to move forward," she continued. "That's why this place is unique; I feel privileged to be here because not all places operate like this. For us, the thing we're so cognizant of is, how do we ensure we continue to operate this way?"

Editor at Large Penny Crosman welcomes feedback on her column at penny.crosman@sourcemedia.com.