Industry Focus

5 in 5 series with industry leader Vivien Allen on digital innovation

Published on November 10, 2021

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Experteq values digital innovation, technology advancement and digital leadership. In our “5 in 5” series, we spend five minutes with inspiring leaders who are making a difference to achieve digital innovation, by asking five critical questions of the now.

The last 18 months have been challenging for the Australian financial services industry. In July 2020, mere months after the pandemic struck, the first phase of open banking in Australia launched. Not only did financial institutions have to cope with business disruption, an economic slowdown and an abrupt shift to remote working as a result of the pandemic, they also had to implement new open banking processes and systems. Leaders had to spearhead transformational change in a fast-changing, turbulent business landscape, while still ensuring business performance remained positive.

Vivien Allen, CEO of Victoria-based Geelong Bank, is one of these leaders. She speaks candidly about her experiences leading during these difficult times, and shares her thoughts about 2022 and beyond.

The state of Victoria has seen significant disruption due to the pandemic. What have been some notable hurdles over the last 18 months?

The pandemic has caused some problems, for us and for others, with skill shortages. There are many large IT projects in progress at the moment, such as open banking. Some of our partners are under significant pressure.

On a more personal note, I have to say that I’m a people person, and I found it really hard, not being physically connected with my team. I missed the practice of “managing by walking around” so to speak and being with the team. It may seem old-fashioned but I think it’s really important. Still, the last 18 months have shown how resilient people are. I get very emotional about this because the team was on the front line. When I think back to 2020, how scared everybody was – and my team just kept turning up day after day, doing the best they could. I have no words. It was remarkable and will stay with me.

In terms of emotional support during the pandemic, I was (and still am) very lucky. My family members were in the same boat; at one point, my husband, my son and I were all working from home. What was really nice and unexpected is that people I’d worked with before – in some cases, years ago – reached out to ask how we’re doing and coping with these difficult times. It’s amazing what a difference it is when you can share things with others and just have a proper conversation focused on how you are feeling, rather than purely about work.

Going digital is definitely a big one. We recently set our next three-year strategic plan and it is very much about digitisation and personalisation.

With the pandemic, people have had more time at home, so they’ve been able to review their financial situation and their financial goals; what they want from life and so forth. They are no longer content with one-size-fits-all solutions. There’s a greater expectation that if you have customers, you need to know and understand them. Customers don’t want to have to repeat their story over and over again. They want you to be able to suggest things to them that they may not have realised they needed. Data lets us tailor banking experiences so that it suits different groups of customers.

Going forward, we need to retain the human touch but deliver it digitally. In terms of foot traffic, the numbers have been declining for a long time, but it’s become even quicker with COVID. There’s also been increased use of digital payments. This means the amount of cash that has to be held is quite small compared to what it used to be, and there are some organisations that have decided to go cashless completely. We’re not contemplating that, but we do expect more and more people to be very comfortable doing things online and/or using digital wallets and the like.

What does the year ahead look like for Geelong Bank when it comes to ongoing digital transformation and your overall digital journey?

We’ve been on a journey with providing more digital services for several years. Our biggest project now is open banking. By the time this interview is published, we should be sharing data. Our aspiration is to become an accredited data receiver.

We have also taken the opportunity to look at ways we can improve our workflow to speed up decisioning. This is something that people expect. If they key in their information, they’ll want quick answers as to whether they can get a loan, open an account – all those sorts of things, they want it done really quickly. That’s a big piece of work that we’ve commenced and are working on.

Traditionally, credit unions and customer owned banks have had a lot of manual processes, which comes with lots of paperwork. Our goal is to go green and cut down on that. We’ve made significant progress, but have more work to do in in the coming year.

What digital skills does the bank need to harness and nurture in the new world? Are you looking for new hires with different skills?

Most of the people that we’ve employed recently have been digital natives. It’s been great when we’ve had older members who have had to learn how to use internet banking for example and we can rely on them for the ‘how’. These team members have been able to take people through step by step, to make them feel comfortable with using technology and realise, “Oh, it’s actually not that hard!”. With our size we will always need to rely on partners such as Experteq to assist us in that regard, but it’s terrific having people who have grown up with technology – they know the power of it and how easy it can make certain daily tasks like banking.

Do you have any advice for leaders in the financial services sector when it comes to digital transformation and success?

Start the journey if you haven’t already. Many mutuals have had to merge because they didn’t invest in digital soon enough. Yes, it can be daunting and costly, but you have to keep going.

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Vivien Allen
CEO, Geelong Bank
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