by Divina Paredes

Stephen Bowe of Bank of New Zealand: The digital catalyst

Sep 26, 2016
Big DataBusiness IntelligenceCareers

The perception of the brand is going to be shaped increasingly by the perception of its digital capabilityStephen Bowe, Bank of New Zealand

When it comes to choosing your role, “be careful with what you wish for,” says Stephen Bowe, head of digital at Bank of New Zealand.

Bowe moved to New Zealand from BNZ’s parent company National Australia Bank (NAB). He was head of user experience and digital media at UBank, which was backed by NAB.

Bowe started his career at Accenture in the UK, working mainly with telco clients. In 2006, he felt he needed a “new challenge” and moved to Accenture in Australia.

He went to four banks, trying to open a local account.

“One of them was linked with my bank in the UK. I thought, there may be a synergy having my bank account in Australia and the UK.

“It was a waste of time,” says Bowe, who ended up opening three accounts.

“I remember distinctly in every single situation, the experience was awful.How can you have so little respect for the customer?”

Walking on George Street in Sydney, he thought, “If I ever got a chance to set up a bank, I will just focus on the customer. I will show them how to do it.”

Well, he got his wish. He joined the startup team at NAB that developed UBank.

From there, he took on the next challenge – head of digital at BNZ across the Tasman.

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People think digital is just about the front end. To have impact, you can’t just have cosmetic front end changes.Stephen Bowe, Bank of New Zealand

“I look after all our customer facing online channels and so that is the website, internet banking and mobile apps across both retail channels and the business channels.”

“I really believe banking is ‘broken’ from a customer perspective,” he states. “And what gets me out of bed in the morning is the opportunity to make it a bit better at BNZ.

“What I do care about are, did we create a product that made customers lives better? That is number one.

“Secondly, did we create an environment for our people where they love coming to work?”

Every week, he says, they run usability sessions with customers. “This involves customers coming into our offices but other times it involves going out to our customers’ homes or offices so we understand how our banking platforms get used in real life context.”

“We have this idea of helping you to begood with money,” he states. “It is a great platform for me and my team.

“We are about creating stunning customer experiences that people love,” he says. “We care about the design more than other organisations.

“It is a bit like Xero,” he says of this approach.

“They have got beautiful accounting software. Dare I say it? It [accounting] is not beautiful, it is boring. But Xero said, ‘We are going to change the dynamic, we are going to make it beautiful and totally different to the competition.’”

At BNZ, he says, “What we are trying to do, is moving past transactional relations and moving towards real engaging relationships with customers.”

In theinaugural New Zealand Digital Experience Report by SAP, BNZ was among three of the top performing brands in providing digital experience.

Of eight industries ranked in the report, banking was likewise the best performing industry, with 92 per cent of consumers interacting with banks online. The report says the positive digital-experience score shows banks are getting it right, and that other industries should follow their lead to build delightful services.

For Bowe, the survey shows the work the team is doing is having an impact on their customers.

“I confidently believe we have the best digital channel in the market. The new internet banking platform is as good as any banking platform anywhere in the world.”

For him, this is critical to the hyper-competitive digital world.

“The perception of the brand is going to be shaped increasingly by the perception of its digital capability,” he says. “We are making sure we are not just building beautiful products, we will make sure we tell our customers.

“Digital has become this arms race as to who has got the first widget,” he says. “That is absolutely the wrong dynamic.”

“In this widget-building philosophy anyone can copy you,” he says. “The only competitive advantage [you have] is in how well you execute” the projects.

“The most value that we can create with our customers is not building a new widget, and I can say this across the industry,” he states.

“The most value we can create is to help customers use capability. If we have 100 per cent utilisation of all our capabilities and have maximum impact, we would create far more benefits than any new widget we are trying to release.”

Teamwork and transformations

Bowe says the BNZ digital team is around 200 people. “We have an empowered design team that leads our product development,” he says.

We will have a product team, product management design team, delivery team and an operations team, he says. “When they come to work, the teams don’t see themselves that way. They operate vertically.

“There is a combination of people from the different teams and you are just a person in the team, trying to move the channel to where it needs to be.”

“You just can’t divorce digital from technology,” he states. “These technologies are having an impact on the the world in which customers operate.

“The single biggest, the flagship Bank of New Zealand store is not on Queen Street. It is our website,” he states.

“That is where we have traffic on a large scale,” he says. “That is the impression most of our customers will get at Bank of New Zealand.”

BNZ’s digital channels handle over 12 million sessions per month – with 88 per cent of total transactions being done through these channels. Mobile banking, meanwhile, has grown 37 per cent year on year.

“Our mobile app has become our ‘flagship’ store,” he states.

People are not giving up on desktop, he explains. “To me it is contextual, mobile is the everyday channel. The average desktop users check internet banking once or twice a week, with some visiting it less than once a week or maybe once a month.

The average customer is checking the mobile site every day or every other day. “For high transactional users, it is easily six or seven times a day.”

The branch remains important, he says, but at this point, the website and online channels are the main touch points for their customers.

Digital has become this arms race as to who has got the first widget…That is absolutely the wrong dynamic.Stephen Bowe, Bank of New Zealand

Digital is not just the front end

Bowe is based in Auckland, but travels to Wellington every week.

He reports to David Bullock, director – products and technology.

Bowe has technologists in his team right down to infrastructure design.

“One of my frustrations is the way people they think digital is just about the front end,” says Bowe. “To have impact, you can’t just have cosmetic front end [changes].

“Actually, it is the experience you create for customers. You have got to reach down all the way to the back. You have to change the processes, platforms and policies and procedures.

Thus, the digital team works closely withAaron Toatelegese, BNZ head of technology. He explains Toatelegese and his team look after the whole of the bank’s technology footprint.

Aaron Toatelegese, Bank of New Zealand

Toatelegese runs the underlying infrastructure, he states. This means the digital team works with the technology team as mobile banking experiences year on year growth.

In a recent work survey within BNZ, he reveals that the number one motivation in the digital team was that the work was stimulating.

“The number one thing in digital is the opportunity to work in interesting work.

“If you can give people the opportunity to have an impact on that, you can get some pretty motivated people,” he says.

“That is interesting because even if digital is about technology, it is actually about people.”

He tells his staff his only request is for them to do the best work. “I will remove all the reasons, the excuses that you can’t do the best work of your career.”

He speaks with pride about some of the social concernshis staff is involved in. The team, for instance, is now working with the New Zealand Blind Foundation on how technology can work for the visually impaired.

The aim was to better understand how BNZ’s online banking platform works for visually impaired customers. “It’s about doing more than just ensuring our software is fully accessible and ensuring that all our customers are able to use it effectively to help them achieve their goals.”


Analytics is a key part of their decision making.

“What I want you to do is to look at the data,” he tells his team members. “Use the data to justify you are making informed decisions, that you are thinking of the impact on the segments that are most important.”

BNZ has adopted Agile methodology for the digital teams, he says. Some team members are ‘co-located’.They have staff in Dunedin and Kapiti, for instance.

”We provide them work-life balance and this allows us a bigger pool of talent.”

This, he says, is also how some startups work.These startups have a core team that is based in a particular location, but have people working from disparate areas and different countries.

“Then the world is your talent booth,” says Bowe. “What that means is you have got to have the tools to allow effective collaboration.”

As for building a career, he says, “Whatever career anyone follows, do something you care about.”

He says people who work in the digital space must likewise have a passion for technology.

“You have got to care about how these technologies are changing the world we live. Someone who cares, will always do a better job.”

He looks further ahead, and thinks of his daughter, aged three and his son, aged nine months.

“They are going to have to know technology. You have to, if you want to contribute to the digital economy. If they can not code, it is like saying ‘I could not write my name’.”

Stephen Bowe, head of digital, Bank of New Zealand: “Use the data to justify you are making informed decisions, that you are thinking of the impact on the segments that are most important.”

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