The Business Year

Soren Nikolajsen

SAUDI ARABIA - Finance

Fast-tracking Innovation

Managing Director, Alawwal Bank

Bio

Soren Nikolajsen was appointed Managing Director of Alawwal Bank in 2017, after serving as Board Director since 2013. He has three decades of experience in the global financial industry and briefly worked in Saudi Arabia before in the mid-1990s. Before Alawwal, he worked with the Royal Bank of Scotland for eight years, most recently as Managing Director of Capital Resolution. Prior to that, he served at Lehman Brothers and Deutsche Bank in executive capacities. He is an alumni Copenhagen Business School and London Business School.

“The digitalization of our business is extremely important and will be a key deciding factor in why customers will want to bank with us.“

What is your general fintech strategy for Alawwal Bank, should innovation come from within or are you looking to partner with, and absorb new concepts into your bank?

Innovation should come from within and from outside. It is very important to create an environment internally where innovation thrives and is encouraged by everyone. It should never be one person or one team’s sole responsibility to innovate. It is everyone’s ‘business,’ and good ideas can come from anywhere in the organization. We need to make sure we capture them and are agile enough as a business to bring new ideas to market quickly. Innovation does not start with technology; it starts with people. At the same time, innovation and new technologies are developing so rapidly that it is equally important to keep an eye out for developments around us. Tapping into the expertise of fintechs is a key part of fast-tracking innovation and meeting customer demand.

How would you regard Saudi Arabian Monetary Authority’s (SAMA) recent involvement to coordinate development in the fintech space?

It is very positive that the banking regulator takes a proactive approach to innovation and works alongside banks on this important issue. At Alawwal Bank, we have participated actively in the sandbox initiative and have also worked bilaterally with SAMA. The dialog has been truly helpful in getting services approved that help us serve our customers better. Saudi Arabia has a young, tech-savvy population that demands the very best digital banking services. We are fortunate to have a forward-thinking regulator that is open to exploring new technologies and willing to help banks evolve their services for the digital age.

In 2017, Alawwal Bank launched its first digital bank coffee branch in the Kingdom, with online solutions offered in a bricks-and-mortar environment. How do you plan to further incorporate technology in your customer interaction?

Our digital branch, which we named IBDA, is a great example of creative internal resources and external expertise coming together. The traditional branch model has not changed much over the decades, though the technology available to us has. We were keen to try something completely new that capitalized on new technologies to serve our customers smarter and faster. By teaming up with a coffee shop and creating a more relaxing environment, it gave us a dual-purpose branch—a place where customers could socialize and do their banking at the same time. We have done away with counters and queues—everything has been designed to provide the best possible customer experience. We have self-service screens throughout the branch, and all our services have been digitized. One can walk in, order a coffee, and walk out with a new account and a working card in under 10 minutes. IBDA opens twice as many new-to-bank customer accounts compared to our best-performing traditional branch. It has also been extremely popular with women and younger customers. IBDA is so unique in its approach and success that University of California, Berkeley contacted us to learn more. It is now using it as a case study in disruptive innovation to teach students globally. The technology that was developed for IBDA is now being rolled out in traditional branches so all our customers can benefit from it. We will continue to look to improve our services by listening to what our customers want. It is hard to say what a bank branch will look like in 10 years’ time; however, I am confident it will look much more like IBDA than the traditional bricks-and-mortar model.

The merger between Alawwal Bank and HSBC-backed SABB is reaching its final stages. What synergies do you strive for in terms of digitisation, efficiency, and jointly capitalizing on financial technology?

The digitalization of our business is extremely important and will be a key deciding factor in why customers will want to bank with us. Whether we are talking about how our customers interact with us, internal efficiency, or our control environment—digital is at the heart of all that. We are operating in a market with a high proportion of young, tech-savvy customers on the retail side and a corporate customer base for whom efficiency and reliability are both important. The merged bank will have the scale and capacity to innovate to help customers benefit from the best of new technologies.

What are your strategic priorities and ambitions for the coming year?

We have an exciting task ahead of us as we commence on the integration of Alawwal Bank and SABB to create the best bank in the Kingdom. We are already starting to see Vision 2030 taking root and drive social and economic transformation—we have to create a new bank that is in tune with these changes and ready to support them. At the same time, it is important we maintain the same high levels of service our customers rely on day to day and continue to play our role in supporting the Saudi economy.

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