An interview with Mary James


FST Media: What are your priorities for the next 12 to 18 months?

James: My major initiatives are around enterprise mobility, which has become a bit of a buzz word in the industry. It is also important to our bank. Over the last couple of years, we have implemented some building blocks to launch us into enterprise mobility. For example, we have put infrastructure in our organisation to virtualise our applications. 

We have started enterprise Wi-Fi and enterprise VPN. That is moving towards mobile device management and security, which is very important for us. 

We are also looking at certain other initiatives which include infrastructure and virtualisation. We have had great successes in terms of cost reduction for virtualisation and we continue to invest in that from a business perspective. We also continue to look at our channel strategy and mobile strategy.

FST Media: How has the development of Alliance BizSmart and Alliance Online added value to the business and how will you measure its success?

James: SME customers and business customers are very important business for the bank. We have won many awards in that arean. We have looked at our customers and their needs not only in the technology space, but also products and a quick turnaround time to help make our customers successful. Alliance Online was an important project for us. We had a data platform which was about 14-years old before we decided to launch it. And we looked at what works for our customers, what types of different services they require, and made the processes simpler. We looked at not only large customers, but also at sole proprietors and how the solution should work for them. It not just a piece of technology; it is a customer enabler. 

We measure success by the number of transactions and number of customers we have signed on, and we look at the transaction volume. The number of customers that have signed on is exponentially larger than what we used to have, and so we have achieved success. Do I want all customers on it? Yes, because in the end, it benefits the customers. We want to offload them coming to the branch and do more transactions themselves.

FST Media: What technology or innovation is proving to be the single biggest game changer in banking?

James: I do not think there is any one piece of technology that will be the game changer. The game changer for banks is to look at how the customer base is speaking differently. It is not your traditional customer anymore; the new customer base is very different and banks have to modify their behaviour and look at risk differently. The rules are different.


FST Media: Do tech disrupters like Google and Apple pose much of a threat to banks?

James: No, Apple and Google should be used, and the wave should be ridden to make sure banks are part of that ecosystem. Banks should not distance themselves away from either of these parties. I do not believe they are disrupters. For me, the true disrupters are the people who disrupt our banking services like hackers and those who distribute denial of services. Those are the ones that banks have to look out for. Apple and Google are more than disrupters. I believe they enhance us.

FST Media: How do you encourage a culture of innovation in your team?

James: One of the things that is important is for the team to actually look outside of Malaysia. Traditionally, we have looked inwardly at what other banks are doing. As a small bank, we like to look at what CIMB is doing as opposed to looking at what someone outside Malaysia does. I encourage my team to research outside of the organisation, outside of the region into what people are innovating, and what people are doing. 

Alliance Bank is starting a journey into social media. Like everything else at Alliance Bank, we like to take measured steps. We do a lot of research into what has worked at other banks and also look culturally at how Malaysians interact on Facebook and with social media like Instagram and Twitter. I have seen some very bad examples of companies not using social media well, not providing adequate training. The customer responses on Facebook is very different from how you would respond to a customer on the phone and it is essential people understand the new generation will use messages. At Alliance Bank we need to take measured steps towards fully launching ourselves into the social media.

FST Media:  What is proving to be your most effective customer acquisition channel and why?

James: In terms of customer acquisition, without a doubt, it is always our sales people. It is still our number one acquisition channel. I believe for most banks it is still sales people. Will it change over time? Maybe in the next 10 years it might, but that has not actually changed.

FST Media: What is your definition of success?

James: For me, as a senior manager in the bank, the bank’s success is also my success. I am just as responsible as each of the business heads and my job is to support them in achieving our holistic goals –  from revenue, to how satisfied our employees are and whether we have the right culture in the bank. All of that contributes to the success of the bank.

FST Media: Every leader has a legacy they wish to be remembered for, what is yours?

James:  My legacy is to build a good team. For any leader, people are important, and that you do not leave a legacy where once you leave the place collapses. So in terms of that, I am always building people up, I want them to make sure they are always innovative, that they are inclusive. This means they include people in their ideas. I want to create a team of people who know how to brainstorm, so it becomes very people oriented. Technology will come and go, but if I build and groom a team of people who know how to react to changing technologies, how to react to changing overtures, that is a legacy that I would like to be remembered.