Uma Wilson, EVP, chief information and product officer for UMB bank, joined Finextra for a chat during a break in the action on the exhibit floor of last week’s AFP conference in Philadelphia. She talked about how banks can best answer calls for product innovation and partnership, and provide solutions to pain points that – in some cases at least – have long plagued customers, especially those in the corporate payments and treasury management space.
Wilson is a 16-year veteran of the Kansas City institution, with a clear and deep understanding of all things product when it comes to banking, payments, lending, and digital and channel transformation. She also sits on the boards of NACHA (National Automated Clearing House Association), a Federal Reserve Payment Advisory Group, VISA’s Senior Client Council, and other organisations. Not to mention she’s a Certified Treasury Professional (AFP manages this professional credential). Noting that she’s no stranger to AFP conferences: “I’ve been coming to this event for 10+ years […] and we’re still talking about how to optimise payments, and how you can be more electronic, provide straight-through-processing (STP).”
Wilson shared some keen historical insights into the trends most impacting the financial industry, including UMB and its peer institutions across America. She talked about the ‘ecosystem of banking’ and how “pieces of the (financial) pie” are now available for everyone, including fintech partners, to innovate within and share with traditional financial services providers. UMB has built some such partnerships themselves.
“Fintechs out there, doing great things […] they did challenge the thinking of traditional banking […] they did force that innovation. Maybe the top three or ten financial institutions did innovate aggressively because they had the budget [...] but after fintechs came in, it also made it very compelling for many financial institutions downstream to also be thought leaders […] to think outside of the box. So, thanks to them (fintechs) because if it wasn’t for them, we wouldn’t be as successful.”
UMB has indeed been successful, overachieving compared to its peers in most categories. It offers a full suite of retail and commercial, institutional, and wealth management products and has offices in eight states across America’s heartland.
After more than one hundred years of operation, the bank has a keen eye on its customers and their needs, and leaders like Wilson have met with many of these customers to help tailor UMB’s offerings to match marketplace appetites.
For commercial clients, these include strong offerings in real-time payments, integrated receivables, and payments fraud protection, in addition to the standard array of deposit, card, and cash management products.
Given her significant industry-forum involvement, Wilson is keenly aware of the opportunities and challenges emerging payment rails and standards bring. Take ISO 20022, about which, she notes some differences in product positioning in the US compared to other countries implementing the same data-rich, common payment standards.
“We (don’t) look at ISO format as a payment facilitator. We look at it as a file format in the US versus Europe [where] they look at it as the payment and data facilitator” that will bring great efficiencies to commercial transactions.
Another nuance of the US banking industry that makes it stand out from the rest is its willingness to customise solutions for customers. As these bespoke product offerings have proliferated, many financial services providers have been reluctant to shut them down in favour of newer, more efficient or more advanced options - because it was easier (at least in theory) to let the customer keep using them. As Wilson says, this has placed the US in a bit of a catch-up position.
“I would say that we are in many ways advanced on the technology side of the equation, but we did fall behind when it comes to faster payments. I will say this: in the US, when a new payment (method) comes into the spotlight, we never sunset it, because you want to embrace everything.”
Continuing, Wilson noted, “So what happens[…] then a lot of good things come, innovation is easy, right? So, everyone can innovate. That is fantastic […] but at the same time when you have an open payments framework, no payments (methods or processes) get sunset(ted).”
Cheques, she says, are a glaring example, unique to the US in their ubiquity, especially for various kinds of commercial transactions.
“Everyone can use whatever (they) choose […] rather than us taking a bold stand to say no, we should conservatively make the choice of saying no cheques, but we don't take that position or stand because we want to be nice to all the payment options.” That's one of the areas where US banks struggle compared to their counterparts in other countries, she said.
UMB is on the forefront of many innovations, however, and these include APIs. Wilson explained that the bank’s offering is very capable and flexible, but educating clients, and really listening to them, is still a big part of the process.
“We have some institutional clients, and ones that are in the fintech space […] and do provide banking service types of model API's. We're also now extending them to corporate customers. Our goal is to shift to where we can start providing APIs to our large commercial clients.” Even so, Wilson is pragmatic, pointing out that APIs - or other technical innovations - are not necessarily the answer for every business customer, even if they initially think they want them in lieu of more traditional file-based integrations with the bank.
“It's not that it cannot be done […] but a mind shift (toward) ‘What do you need? What are you trying to get? Are you trying to just understand your cash position? So you can figure out should I make my investments or keep more?’ That's API. If you want to see ‘Did Phil pay by check?’ You can do that. But if you wanted to know, ‘tell me who all paid me today,’ that's not an API, your (transaction reporting) file (shows this more easily). And I think that's a journey that we have to educate one another about.”
Asked her thoughts on data, one of the major buzzwords of the present financial world, Wilson says it starts with good questions: “I'm pretty sure everyone will say you need more data […] but it's not about the data […] What are you going to do with it? Then we'll figure out what data is needed for you to be successful. Right? You need to have those discussions. You cannot just put everything in one bucket and say I want data. And also, I think it needs to be ingestible usable data, because there’s so much data that may not be relevant.”
Pointing across the exhibit space at the scores of financial service booths, she said: “I mean, look around - the banks that are sitting in this hall (hold) probably easily over 60-70% of every human's data!”
Straight, sensible talk is expected from a midwestern banker, and Wilson is no exception when she speaks of UMB’s philosophy when it comes to matching solutions to customers.
“We don’t want to be a product pusher […] because we want to be in a relationship. The majority of our clients are tenured, and on average she says, customers have been with the bank a long time. “Trust is important. Innovation is disruptive […] we have to be thoughtful about if it may not apply to everyone.”
Wilson is proud of the bank’s Kansas City roots, and its career enrichment and community involvement efforts. As Missouri is known as the “Show Me State,” it’s especially appropriate how she expressed her pride in the results as much as the words defining UMB’s DEI programs and policies: “I feel very, very fortunate to be in a company that has just absolutely embraced diversity and inclusion and that just feels good. Thing is, I know we need to talk about it, but a lot of people would think ‘They're a small financial institution that doesn’t have the same outlook on stuff’ […] but if you're looking at our leadership team, and community investments that we do, and our participation and inclusion and diversity and equality, it's like we show it - rather than say it.”