Digital transformation, including adoption of cloud, artificial intelligence and blockchain technology, has opened up the financial services market to new types of providers such as fintech startups and, more recently, the big tech companies. To maintain a leadership position during the resulting disruption of the sector, First Abu Dhabi Bank (FAB) has undergone its own transformation over the past few years, rolling out a wide range of new offerings.
“One of our key focus areas is growing our digital capabilities and providing enhanced services to our customers,” says Yuri Misnik, group CTO at FAB.
The bank, the largest in the UAE, was formed from a merger of First Gulf Bank and National Bank of Abu Dhabi that was approved at the end of 2016. Two years later, FAB went live on an integrated banking platform with Temenos’ T24 transaction system (now called Transact) at its core. Last year, its first full year benefiting from the new banking platform, FAB registered growth in several different areas.
By the end of 2019, FAB had a 50 percent increase in mobile registrations and engagement, compared to 2018, and recorded a four-time increase in digital transactions for services available on its mobile and browser platforms, Misnik says.
“We have also launched a fully digital account opening for some of our accounts and automated a large number of manual processes across the bank. Also, thanks to our current retail banking digital platform, we were quickly able to assist our customers with functionality and features aimed at providing financial relief during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Misnik says.
Digital, mobile tech position FAB for growth
Over the years, FAB has made progress in delivering a digitally enhanced experience to its customers, which has positioned the bank for future growth and ongoing agility. Examples include the ability to open a current account in seconds through the mobile banking app, onboarding a steady stream of new PayIt mobile wallet customers and successfully migrating customers to digital platforms during COVID-19. In fact, the pandemic accelerated the execution of FAB’s previously defined digital plans.
“The bank’s digital uptake numbers have improved in 2020. Mobile registration and engagement were up by 70 percent compared with last year. We have also seen a substantial increase in the number of clients adopting electronic channels in our Global Transaction Banking platform, where over 90 percent of our clients are now engaging with us on FAB’s digital channels,” Misnik says.
The platform integrates banking systems based on T24 and some of the core business and technology capabilities that FAB created during the integration phase of the merger. “They are mostly running on-premises with some systems having development and testing recently moved to the public cloud,” Misnik says.
The bank has also started building new channel engagement systems and a CRM for corporate and retail customers. “The work is still in progress, but we are designing and building new systems which will run natively in the cloud and benefit from cloud native PaaS and SaaS capabilities. We are just starting our cloud journey, but we expect more production workloads to run on AWS and Azure in 2020,” Misnik says.
Transitioning to be a cloud-first company
The cloud hyperscalers will allow FAB to innovate and experiment fast while reducing operational costs.
“We are starting a strategic partnership with Amazon Web Services focusing on migrating our datacentre workloads to the cloud. Being a bank, we are working together with AWS to do this migration in a controlled, structured and secure way and in full compliance with local and international laws and regulations,” Misnik said.
Some of these regulations require certain data to be housed in-country.
“Some AWS services like AWS Outposts recently launched in the UAE will allow us to start running our most critical production workloads and data in-country and in our own premises, as well as connect to AWS Region for management and operations,” Misnik said.
AWS Outposts is a managed service that extends the hyperscale providers infrastructure, applications and tools to any datacentre on-premises facility, providing a hybrid cloud experience.
“We are also using Microsoft Azure for workloads like Office 365, Microsoft Teams and Windows Virtual Desktop. Building on these services allowed us to quickly pivot the bank into ‘work from home’ mode without losing productivity for our staff,” Misnik says.
Blockchain strategy stresses security, savings
As part of its digital transformation efforts, FAB has also embarked on a major blockchain initiative, which has several benefits for banks in general. Beyond the added security and transparency associated with the use of distributed ledgers, blockchain systems also provide meaningful cost saving and faster transaction processing.
The bank launched a new nationwide blockchain trade finance platform in partnership with Etisalat in July 2019. “The solution offers digitised trade finance services via the UAE Trade Connect (UTC) platform, with the aim to digitise trade in the UAE,” Misnik says. “The initial outlook behind the initiative was to address double financing and invoice fraud. The project also leverages artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics. The platform is fully operational and several UAE banks have already signed up on it.”
FAB believes that blockchain will be successful on a large scale as long as it is widely adopted by banks and businesses in the country and the broader region. The UAE is a hub where lots of innovation in the blockchain is taking place, and FAB is at the forefront of that particular ecosystem.
The bank has also moved to ensure that they were prepared for tough times, and were fortunate to have some of the technology foundations already in place that allowed them to react quickly to the pandemic. “More than 90 percent of the FAB team has been working remotely from a safe environment,” Misnik says.
FAB moves to remote work during pandemic
“What made this possible was a measured combination of robust security procedures, a fantastic team, as well as previous work we did in adopting tools like Microsoft Office 365 and Microsoft Teams,” Misnik says. “In addition, adopting a cloud-focused approach and using Microsoft Azure for managing virtual desktops gave us a great advantage and actually allowed us to rethink our workplace strategy moving forward. “
For office-based teams that still needed to work from an FAB location, split-team operations – including different groups rotating from remote to office work — further reinforced resilience, providing continuity of essential functions (even when a case of COVID-19 was identified within the workplace). Meanwhile, alternative work locations were prepared in case FAB work locations needed to be closed temporarily.
FAB thought about a variety of ways to mitigate risk, adapting how it worked with customers. For example, the bank quickly rolled out a number of initiatives focusing on reducing the need for customers to have in-person visits into branches, Misnik says.
“FAB has successfully migrated customers away from in-branch and face-to-face transactions to digital platforms, including online and mobile banking. This supported measures to achieve social distancing, thereby reducing the risk of spreading the COVID-19 virus,” Misnik explains.
Responding to the pandemic required work on a variety of fronts, Misnik says: “Having a combination of great customer-focused team, good technology choices and partners, and flexible processes, we are proud of how quickly we were able to pivot and adapt to the new environment while continuing to provide services to our customers.”