World’s Best Digital Bank 2020: Ping An Bank
Shenzhen-based Ping An Bank didn’t tweak the rulebook when it set out in pursuit of a better digital strategy. Instead, it tore it up and began again. The Chinese bank’s plans have worked beyond all expectations.
Digital strategies come in many guises. Some banks build or buy online services that adapt to what they have and what they can afford. In recent years, a host of others have opted for genuine root-and-branch reform that propels once recalcitrant lenders into the digital age.
A very few feel the need for a far more vigorous approach to digital banking – this is where Ping An Bank comes in. Since 2015, the Chinese bank, based in the tech-heavy southern city of Shenzhen, has pursued nothing short of a scorched earth policy in digital financial development.
The story begins in 2015, when the bank began to feel that something was going terribly wrong. Its digital platform wasn’t awful – but nor was it going to win awards anytime soon. So, the following year, it hired McKinsey to assess the level of quality of its digital offering.
The global consultancy firm analyzed the lender from top to bottom and then told senior management what they already knew: that for any country, let alone a hotbed of financial innovation like China, its online services just weren’t up to scratch, especially in areas such as digital payments services.
Instead of ignoring McKinsey’s findings or trying to water them down, Ping An Bank attacked the problem head on. It set out, says the bank’s chairman Xie Yonglin, to “make continuous breakthroughs through digitalization to set a successful example for China and for the world’s banking industry.”
Ping An wasn’t interested in marginal gains. It wanted to transform itself into a gold-standard financial innovator that delivered services that would “support the real economy, industries, and people’s livelihoods,” says Xie.
If that was its outsized ambition five years ago, then it has achieved it with plenty of room to spare. Ping An Bank has disrupted itself ruthlessly and almost entirely from within, using the dictum that you can’t make an omelette without breaking a few eggs.
Rather than buying facial-recognition technology, it built its own from scratch, in the process applying for and getting hundreds of new patents relating to blockchain and to the natural-language technology it also created and owns.
Instead of buying artificial technology software and trimming it around the edges to fit, it made its own.
[Ping An set out to] make continuous breakthroughs through digitalization to set a successful example for China and for the world’s banking industry
When a bank customer calls or clicks through to its service centre, the auto-bot at the other end adapts its ‘voice’ to mimic the user’s regional accent. For its part, Ping An reckons most users have no idea they are talking to a machine.
None of this is easy. It requires enormous and consistent levels of investment. Ping An says its digital expenditure rose 36% year on year in 2019. At the end of last year it employed more than 7,500 IT staff, a rise of 34% in just 12 months.
But it is clearly paying off. At the end of 2019, its digital banking app, Pocket Bank, had 89.5 million customers, up 43.7% year on year. Of that total, 32.9 million, or more than a third of all customers, were monthly active users, up 23.5% over the same period.
The bank crunches every piece of data it hoovers up. That’s how it knows that 90% of all new credit card applications were done by AI in 2019 and that the revenue generated by the average member of staff last year rose 17.7% on an annualized basis. And it is also how it discovered that by making every one of its 13 million yearly credit card loan collection calls voice-automated, it saved Rmb27 million ($3.88 million).
The fruits of Ping An’s full-throated pursuit of its digital strategy can be seen at both ends of the financial spectrum. It says its risk-control systems – again, built in-house – prevented Rmb1 billion worth of fraud in 2019 alone.
More digital also means less need for expensive real estate. Ping An Bank says it cut the amount of office space it uses by 29,400 square metres last year, saving Rmb447 million in the process.
At the other end of the spectrum, it has made a number of fascinating digital investments. Some have sunk without trace, others have added important layers of capacity and capability to the bank’s digital platform, and a few have paid off in a big way.
In December 2019, a division called OneConnect went public in New York, raising $312 million via its initial public offering. The company, which is backed by SoftBank’s Vision Fund, provides technology that helps more than 700 Chinese bank and non-bank financial institutions raise additional revenues and manage risk.
The world is full of banks with great digital ideas and platforms. Bank of America and Singapore’s DBS Bank were also shortlisted for this award. But the winner is the bank that tore up the existing rulebook and wrote its own.