An interview with Mary James


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

James: Alliance Bank’s IT priorities over the next 12 to 18 months will include but are not limited to enterprise mobility, virtualisation, and the mobile ecosystem. Over the past couple of years, we have begun initiatives that enable us to launch into enterprise mobility in areas such as application virtualisation, enterprise wireless, enterprise virtual private networks, mobile device management and more.

Concurrently, we will continue to look for opportunities to capitalise on virtualisation in our daily operations. We have witnessed considerable and encouraging successes in cost containment and management with infrastructure virtualisation, and are continuing to explore investment into this.

A mobile ecosystem is also one of the bank’s priorities in system upgrades, and we will soon embark on several initiatives to make our customers’ lives easier with the availability of this application.

FST Media: What will be the most significant challenge facing the financial services sector in the year ahead?

James: The key challenges for the banking sector in Malaysia continue to be: net interest margin compression; the rising personnel costs due to competition for talent in the industry; and tighter regulatory guidelines aimed at curbing household debt levels

From retail banking’s standpoint, it will be challenging given the four significant contributors:

The slowdown in the property market. The property sector has always been the catalyst of economic growth due to value chain creation – both forward and backward. With the demands for property slowing down, we expect developers to scale down on the launch of their projects until the dust has settled. We foresee a slowdown to take place for a period of six months before any meaningful push or launch of new housing projects will gain momentum. We are currently seeing a reduction – at least 30 per cent – in requests for end financing projects compared to the same period last year. 

Secondly, the expected quantitative easing tapering in the US will see a lot of volatility in the foreign exchange, equity, capital and fixed income market in the region. With economic volatility, consumer sentiments will be impacted and thus, the demand for banking products will slow down.  However, with uncertainties come opportunities. While we take note of the expected market volatility, we believe in providing our customers with the right solutions to weather the impending storm. There are products within the consumer space that allow customers to reduce market volatility and hence, giving customers an enhanced yield or a decent return on their investments. Alliance Bank is in the process of developing one such product by partnering with a well-known professional fund manager, to create a product that will allow customers to gain regardless of the market cycle. 

Thirdly, the roll out of the ASEAN Link will provide Malaysians the opportunity to tap into investment opportunities 

Fourthly, further margin compression is expected to impact the banking industry as a whole. However, with the opportunities that we have identified, we are of the view that fortune favours the bank that is well prepared to weather these changes.

FST Media: What are the benefits from Alliance Bank’s virtualisation process of infrastructure and applications?

James: The benefits are both from a cost perspective, and the agility that virtualisation allows. The cost optimisation comes not only from maintenance costs of reduced infrastructure, but also the data centre space, and all the associated costs that come with reduction of floor space.

FST Media: How are you leveraging big data and analytics, after upgrading your data platform, to meet customer demand for personalised banking products?

James: Analytics play a big role in our business as we continually evaluate the relevancy of our products and services and ensure that they fit our customers’ lifestyle requirements. Whilst we are making great strides in this area, we believe that much more remains to be done.

We are in the midst of exploring its use as it will have a positive impact on the business as we continue to evolve in the social space. However, we have yet to embark on it.

FST Media: How are self-service terminals changing the role of the physical branch, and what are your plans for expanding on this?

James: Self-service terminals complement our physical branches and help us to move traffic away from the branches. They continue to be an important channel for us as our customers still require the use of self-service terminals for their banking services. However, self-service terminals will soon evolve as transactions progressively move into the digital sphere.  

FST Media: How will Alliance Bank build on the successes of Alliance BizSmart Online Banking and Allianceonline Personal?

James: Alliance Bank is widely recognised as a long-term ‘trusted partner in growth’ for its small and medium enterprise (SME) clients, offering holistic propositions to SMEs at every life-stage. Alliance Bank’s BizSmart online banking is the first in Malaysia to offer ‘big business online banking tools’ to small businesses including sole proprietors and SMEs.

Instead of just another ‘online banking system,’ we successfully launched a comprehensive solution bundle that addresses the transaction banking needs of SMEs. BizSmart is the culmination of many months of solution design and development, and extensive market research to gauge the voice of the business customer to understand their needs and behaviours.

We will continue to raise the bar by our continuous engagement with SME clients by listening to their needs and demands. In doing this, we are then able to adapt and innovate ahead of our competitors.

FST Media: How will the role of mobile affect the future of customer acquisition?

James: Customers lead increasingly busy lives. As a service provider, if we do not provide our customers intuitive technology and convenient mobile ecosystems to conduct their financial transactions, then we will lose out in customer acquisition.

Hence, there is a need for all finance organisations to not rest on their laurels but to deliver the best with new innovations and enhanced ecosystems in order to attract and retain customers.

FST Media: What do you consider to be the greatest achievement of your career to date?

James: I remain heavily invested in people, and consider it the greatest achievement to date in my career. Any boss can achieve his or her financial objectives and KPIs, but to be known as someone who goes after the ‘intangibles’ edge – encouraging  the team to be more daring in their goals, broadening their minds about the possibilities that exists in the technology realm, and inculcating in them leadership qualities, is what matters most.

FST Media: What skills do you think aspiring technology chiefs should invest in now for future success?

James: I would advise those who are interested in being good technology chiefs to learn all aspects of business, and to not just be a technologist. Technology for the sake of technology is meaningless. To be a good chief information officer, one needs to enhance one’s ability to be able to engage both global- and linear-thinking abilities.

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

James: A lasting legacy lies in leaving behind a team that is capable of innovation, is ideas-oriented, quick to adapt and take advantage of the changing technology landscape, and has the ability to manage and continue to groom the next generation.

This interview first appeared in FST Media’s annual magazine The Who’s Who of Financial Services Asia Pacific, which launched at the Technology & Innovation – the Future of Banking & Financial Services conference in Melbourne on 4th June, 2014.