From his lab, deep within the 333 Market Street tower in San Francisco, Bipin Sahni is dreaming up Web 2.0 applications for Wells Fargo's customers.
Tablets. Voice Commands. Gesture technology that opens up a spreadsheet with a wave of a hand.
Whatever big business customers will someday use to access cash management tools from Wells' online portal for corporates, Sahni must envision first.
He is in charge of emerging technologies for Wells' Wholesale Service Group, and leads a small team focused on research and development.
For corporates, these portals - websites that allow executives to manage many accounts, and payments, at once - are what separate banks from one another.
And, make no mistake, business customers, like everyone else, want it all at a click.
"Things are a little simpler on the consumer side, from an experience point of view, because you are doing eight or nine things," says Sahni. But with corporate users, "you see a portal that supports over 60 applications and 65 lines of business."
Wells is in preliminary tests of gesture recognition technology, which could potentially be used to allow business customers to navigate their online banking tasks through hand movements.
The bank is farther along with an upgrade of its Commercial Electronic Office portal for the iPad.
Though business executives can view the CEO portal on the iPad now, things don't display the same way they do in the browser of a desktop, or laptop.
But with the upcoming change, drop-down menus and the look of the CEO applications will be better formatted to the smaller screens of Apple's iPad.
New applications, such as charts and graphs, will appear as a customer tips the iPad from one side to the other.
Sahni and his team have been working on the improvements for more than two years - since Apple first announced its iPad.
The declining profitability of credit and debit cards, the impact of the overall malaise on consumer spending, and shrinking revenue, among other contributing factors, have created a laser focus on corporates, says Celent senior analyst Gareth Lodge.
He says all the improvements in corporate portals boil down to a simple goal. "It's all about the management of payments," he says. "It's about making sure that's as efficient as possible."
That coupled with extra room banks are now finding on their balance sheets, now that the economy seems to be getting brighter, is causing those companies to spend a little more on technology.
"Banks are now having to look at their longer term ledger, because it's simply becoming much too expensive, and risky, to keep trying to maintain themselves through short term patches," says Lee Kidder, a practice director at the CCG Catalyst Consulting Group.
For instance, some banks that recently acquired others with separate corporate portal systems "would, instead of integrating the two systems, simply run a wire from one system to another and put a little software mask [over the gap] and try to integrate the two," he says.
Credit card companies such as American Express, are also building better tools for businesses to use.
AMEX "PAYVES" THE WAY
In June, Amex announced the launch of a new digital service, called Payve, that streamlines the processing of multiple types of payment methods.
The platform gives large and midsize businesses the option to send checks, make ACH payments and route international wire transfers, among other payment types, to vendors.
"This is just a way, a different way, that we can sweat our assets," and make them provide more value for corporate customers, and ultimately Amex itself, says Andrew Jamison, the company's vice president of global corporate payments, in an interview this summer when the service launched.
"This for us is a complete natural extension."
The new service, he admits, will allow Amex to sign up more customers that had been turned off by the company's previous lack of options in regard to payments. "It allows us to have these unique discussions," Jamison says.
Indeed, the technology surrounding these portals is continuously evolving.
"It seems like every 18 months, everyone is looking for newer, better, faster," says Greg Braca, TD Bank's head of corporate and specialty banking. TD recently began rolling over customers from two different corporate portals - the remnants of legacy systems from the Banknorth and Commerce Bank acquisitions - into a new portal called TD eTreasury.
"Everything from more robust security to better content," Braca says. "It's really all about that when you think about cash management."
The new system brings all of TD's corporate customers under a single umbrella, says Rick Burke, TD's head of Treasury Management Services.
"It's more of a customer friendly environment than it had been before," he says.
TD is adding a variety of new features that include alerts and extended access to customer information, such as seven years' worth of check images.
TD began migrating customers over to the new platform around Memorial Day and will complete the conversion early next year, says Burke.
Similarly, Bank of America has been streamlining its corporate portal after a series of acquisitions that has left the company with customers that previously used seven different platforms, says Cindy Murray, BofA's head of global treasury product infrastructure and platforms and eCommerce
The new system is called CashPro. The bank's old system, BA Direct, was phased out after BofA acquired LaSalle Bank in 2007, and adopted its corporate portal - which had enhanced security, among other features.
CashPro was scaled and expanded to accommodate all of BofA's customers in 2010.
"We had these multiple applications that had inconsistencies in look, feel, and navigation," she says. "So we built out the portal, which is not just for treasury, but it's really the electronic door into the bank for our commercial and corporate clients... we have centralized the administrative functions."
That means client administrators can give different permissions to others within their companies. CashPro also gives those admins the ability to approve payments and other functions from a mobile device.
BofA is also planning upgrades to the system.
At the end of August, BofA was planning to roll out new dashboards to the CashPro "splash page" that will give customers a look into many of the applications that they use without having to navigate to multiple different pages.
The bank is also rolling out a security feature for a user's smartphone or tablet that will provide users the ability to retrieve one-time passwords on a mobile device rather than a key-ring sized security token.
In the meantime, Wells is tirelessly working on playing to its sweet spot.
That means "everything that would be appealing to a corporate finance department or the management of a small business," says Secil Watson, Wells' head of wholesale internet technology. "How people access their commercial accounts and use them."
You can be sure, she says, Wells won't stop at iPads.