Digital business model pays off for Toyota Financial

As the pandemic unfolded, the company launched a private-label digital platform that allows motor vehicle makers to offer financial services to consumers, says TFS CIO Vipin Gupta.

A new digital business that Toyota Financial Services (TFS) launched as the pandemic gripped the U.S. is already paying off. The automotive finserv’s private-label platform enables other motor vehicle manufacturers to offer consumers lending, payment and insurance services, and is part of a digital transformation intended to streamline operations and improve customer service.

In April, Mazda North American Operations signed on as the first tenant for TFS’ private-label service, launching Mazda Financial Services to provide consumer auto loans and leasing, says TFS CIO Vipin Gupta, who built the tech foundation for the service. Gupta says the platform, built from scratch in the cloud and accessible to automotive tenants through APIs, underscores Toyota's broader strategy to offer digital services in addition to making cars.

"It's not just about making cars; it's about enabling any service product that gets people from point A to point B," Gupta says. "That opens up the scope and the possibilities."

TFS' creation of the private-label platform is part of a growing trend in which companies integrate and weave digital services throughout their core operations, says Tom Reichert, who researches digital transformation as the global leader of DigitalBCG at Boston Consulting Group. Ideally, the goal is to blend digital technologies, data and talent to boost cash flow and enterprise value, Reichert says.

And while such transformations are hardly new, Reichert says the COVID-19 outbreak has bumped them to the top of corporate priority lists worldwide. More than 80 percent of 5,000 managers and employees BCG surveyed said that digital was helping them get through the economic slowdown triggered by the pandemic. Reichert adds that more IT leaders have become "very involved" in building digital platforms.

A digital business guided by product management

At TFS, Gupta is leading efforts to digitize TFS and drive agile service delivery while embracing Toyota’s hallowed manufacturing traditions.

Shortly after he arrived at TFS in 2019, Gupta realized he had to revamp the company's computing architecture and infrastructure. But he first had to change TFS' culture and operating model to treat software as products to be built, delivered, and refined regularly. Initially, there was resistance among IT and business lines, which required Gupta to sell them on the vision and roadmap for TFS’ future architecture and potential return on investment.

"Before we transformed the underlying platform we had to change the way we work," Gupta recalls telling them. “There was no point investing in new technology if we were not going to change the behaviors and build a standard operating model.”

Ultimately, staff got on board and Gupta proceeded by applying Toyota's lean manufacturing “just-in-time” principles to software development. He and his team crafted a multi-tenant cloud platform to facilitate scalable computing, as well as a data lake and analytics using Amazon Web Services. An API management system from Salesforce.com’s MuleSoft helped make the platform accessible to customers.

“Literally everything was new, from the underlying data and data supply chain to the operational systems and analytics,” Gupta says.

With the platforms in place, TFS built digital "factories" for more than 70 software products, standardizing processes to boost speed and scale while reducing waste by eschewing projects that required rigorous documentation and several approvals. To help boost the digital fitness of employees, Gupta also launched TFS Digital Academy, which provides training on how to work with cloud software and APIs. 

Gupta says he could have cobbled together the platform from existing TFS systems, but shoehorning the system into legacy apps and infrastructure would have been a long, arduous process — one that was unlikely to deliver the value TFS sought.

“It was a good opportunity to change what we have and focus on what we should be,” Gupta says.

Private-label payoff

By the time the pandemic hit, TFS’ IT was enjoying the fruits of its new operating model, which spawned the private-label service in time for its target launch in April. Gupta says TFS was “fortunate” to have its model in place as the pandemic escalated and most businesses scrambled to remain operational. "We launched the platform with amazing speed and quality," Gupta says.

The initial results have proved positive for both Mazda and Toyota, he says, adding that TFS will add more automotive brands to the platform in 2021.

This digital product approach also enabled TFS to focus on offering payment relief options to customers who may have fallen on financial hardship during the crisis and enabled IT to shore up business continuity efforts to enable thousands of employees to work from home.

For example, Gupta’s team implemented a new call routing system in 9 days so that customer service representatives could field inquiries from their homes.

Even pre-pandemic, the creation of new digital business models had become table stakes for organizations trying to disrupt competitors or pre-empt their own disruption. During the pandemic, it’s become more mission critical, forcing C-suite executives to treat product management as an accelerator to the firm’s transformation, rather than simply a nice thing to have.

The trend is catching on at firms outside the automotive sector, including in online grocery provisions and quick-service restaurants.

In recent weeks, Nestle acquired meal-kit concern Freshly, while GoPuff bought BevMo. McDonald's earlier this week announced to its investors that it plans to jumpstart sales through its drive-through windows using mobile software, loyalty rewards and machine learning.

Copyright © 2020 IDG Communications, Inc.

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