UBS banks on tech and talent to weather industry changes

UBS chairman Axel Weber told a group of Asian journalists in Zurich last month that this transformation process has also involved assessing the make-up of its board.
UBS chairman Axel Weber told a group of Asian journalists in Zurich last month that this transformation process has also involved assessing the make-up of its board.PHOTO: BLOOMBERG

ZURICH - The name UBS conjures up a sense of history - hundreds of years of discreet Swiss private banking that has grown into a global behemoth - and a symbol of prestige, but there is much more to its brand than that.

In recent years, the bank has invested heavily in technology and talent to transform itself and stay ahead of the game amid a rapidly changing industry.

UBS chairman Axel Weber told a group of Asian journalists in Zurich last month that this transformation process has also involved assessing the make-up of its board.

There are now four women directors out of 11 but ideally, there should be a 50-50 split between the genders, Mr Weber said.

It should also be diverse in other ways, he added, saying the bank is looking at attracting younger directors and financial technology, or fintech, specialists to the board.

Within the bank's operations, too, a lot has changed in recent years given an increasing number of fintech start-ups working to change the banking industry, although initial fears about disruption have given way to a more opportunistic view, Mr Weber noted.

"Banks used to fear that fintechs would disintermediate their client relationships. Today, they understand that most fintechs are in the business-to-business space, offering their solutions to banks and not directly to consumers."

One way UBS has done that is by setting up innovation labs in Zurich and London. The first, in Zurich, was launched in July 2014.

At the lab, a diverse mix of staff study the megatrends that will shape human lives in the future, and how these will affect the way people want to bank. It goes so far as to spend whole days with clients to learn how they live their lives and how banking fits into their days. The lab also works with clients to co-create new banking products and solutions that are relevant to how they live today.

Mr Marc Michel, a director and innovation manager at UBS Wealth Management Innovation in Zurich, said the idea began with the realisation about the importance of staying relevant in the digital age.

"We realised a trend that when you inherit money from your parents, you probably do not want to 'inherit' the same banker. You'd probably want to do banking differently. So the question is how different, and what is it exactly that you'd expect from us in the future?"

UBS group chief technology officer Hans Jurgen Rieder noted that despite its long history and its global operations, the bank aims for a start-up mentality.

This sometimes means developing and redeveloping existing banking solutions.

After the successful roll-out of its globally unified platform in Germany, UBS launched it in Hong Kong and Singapore recently.

The platform streamlines multiple existing technology solutions onto a single operating platform.

"If you think about the number of transactions we handle and the level of security and operational reliability we need, there is no packaged software which we could just bring in that meet those standards," Mr Rieder said.

"But we built it in an open way so that we can integrate other things into it later."