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CIO interview: Hany Choueiri, chief data officer, Aldermore Bank

Digital transformation, cloud and data science are central to the specialist bank's response to the coronavirus pandemic

Experienced executive Hany Choueiri joined Aldermore Bank as chief data officer (CDO) in September 2018. He previously held senior data-led positions at a range of high-profile financial organisations, including AON, Bank of England, State Street, HSBC and Deutsche Bank, but joining Aldermore provided a fresh opportunity.

“I took the job primarily because the breadth of the role and the responsibilities were very different from my previous roles,” says Choueiri. “It’s the kind of role that many CDOs aspire to get.”

Aldermore is a UK retail bank that provides financial services to small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). It was founded in 2009 and was listed on the London Stock Exchange in March 2015. In March 2018, Aldermore officially became part of FirstRand Group, one of South Africa’s largest financial services institutions. 

“In big organisations, you tend to have your analytical functions embedded in the business, and you tend to have your digital marketing and your governance teams split out,” he says. “In a company the size of Aldermore, which employs about 1,600 people, it’s possible for a CDO to do all of those things.”

Choueiri heads up data governance, data science, web analytics and digital marketing, including the use of front-facing portals. He also champions the use of cloud services across the organisation and is the sponsor of the firm’s recently established Data and Innovation Lab. It is a multi-faceted role that presents challenges and opportunities.

“It’s a great organisation to be part of for two reasons – it’s small enough that you can really make a difference and also, as we belong to the FirstRand Group, you have support from a large parent,” he says. “So it’s a great place to be – you get the best of both worlds.”

Helping the bank to meet its mission

Almost two years after joining the bank, Choueiri says he still really enjoys his role, and the key reason for this is that he’s able to work in close collaboration with the people running the business.

“I work across the full chain – so I have conversations with heads of the business lines, talking about strategy and talking about their vision, and how my team directly contributes to that vision, be it through the channels that customers engage with or getting data that’s accurate and timely to the analytics and business-intelligence systems,” he says.

Choueiri reports to Aldermore’s chief operating officer, Zish Khan. As CDO, he also works closely with the bank’s IT team. He says the close collaboration that is inherent to the organisation means that he and his colleagues in data and IT can avoid becoming detached from the main strategic work of the bank – which can sometimes happen in larger financial services organisations.

“There’s nothing better than being able to go directly to the board and the CEO to talk with them about what they’re seeing in the next two to three years,” he says. “That’s all about having my team involved in all sorts of algorithms and looking at trends in the industry, and what our products are doing, how well our competitors are doing in that space, and really bringing value to the table.”

“We’re informing people in the business about the art of the possible – and we bring it to life with a proof of concept”

Hany Choueiri, Aldermore Bank

Right now, Choueiri’s focus – and that of the bank itself – is on creating an effective response to the coronavirus pandemic. In many ways, the key issue is to find ways to assist Aldermore’s customers in challenging circumstances, which was something at the heart of the bank’s strategy when it was formed just over a decade ago.

“The mission behind the bank is one of the differentiators for Aldermore – it grew from the financial crisis in 2008,” he says. “Since then, it’s had phenomenal growth, leading to the acquisition by FirstRand. Now, just over a decade after the bank launched, we are again at a point of a crisis – and our ability to help customers in need is coming to the fore again.

“In the financial crisis, SMEs were struggling to get financial support – and we were there. And now we’re doing a fine job being there 10 years on, in yet another financial crisis where companies, individuals and SMEs need increased support. We’re taking lots of calls from customers and trying to help them as much as we can in terms of informing them.”

Using data to generate insight

Since joining Aldermore in September 2018, Choueiri has spent a lot of time using data-led insight to help boost business performance. His team has done a significant amount of work to bring data to individuals’ desktops, including running the bank’s Tableau business-intelligence framework.

The data team has partnered with the firm’s line-of-business functions to help them visualise and report on the data they hold via dashboards, including trends about sales, performance of brokers and customer-retention rates. Choueiri says about 100 to 150 dashboards have been created in the past four or five months.

“We’ve done a bottom-up piece, developing hundreds of operational dashboards,” he says. “We’re also looking at it from the top-down and giving insights to the executive members of the organisation as well, so when they come in in the morning, they can look at a dashboard and it’s got all their key performance indicators in a quadrant, such as audit points, key risk issues, and performance figures for mortgages and sales.”

Choueiri says the bank also opened a data lab in Manchester pre-Covid, and the aim now is to use this lab to help foster a range of innovative propositions.

“We’re thinking about where we can spin up infrastructure in the cloud, execute a use case, and determine its viability and its benefit, and then either decommission it or consider it for roll-out,” he says.

Potential topics for further analysis include how the bank might use open banking to create a digital verification process. Choueiri’s team of in-house data scientists in the lab work with external partners to test potential use cases. “We’re informing people in the business about the art of the possible – and we bring it to life with a proof of concept,” he says.

Exploiting cloud and digitising operations

Choueiri says he wants to spend the next 12 to 18 months working on three key areas – cloud, digitisation, and making the most of the firm’s recently implemented Talend big-data platform. As the key sponsor for pushing cloud readiness across the business more generally, Choueiri says he wants to make the enterprise ready for on-demand IT.

“Our board is very engaged now,” he says. “So we want to power that cloud-led innovation, together with our data, to spin up innovative use cases through the lab and create digital-led journeys.”

That’s where Choueiri’s attention to his second key priority area – increased digitisation – comes into play. He says the response to Covid-19 has significantly accelerated the bank’s desire to digitise its operations. Managers in all departments have recognised how the bank must be ready to upscale digital requirements quickly when required.

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“Having ownership of the digital marketing piece is very important for me when it comes to the ability to influence end-to-end user journeys,” he says. “We’re just thinking through how we can improve the user experience, such as taking the customer through front-end portals and booking online for appointments.”

That shift is a big deal for Aldermore. Choueiri says many of the bank’s clients, such as small businesses or self-employed workers, tend to have specialist needs. These broad requirements mean it can be tough to create straight-through processing for a disparate range of customer enquiries.

“And so, typically, we’ve been more used to talking to our customers, as well as having a digital front-end, but not one that’s as heavily digital as other high-street banks,” he says. “But we want to flip that –  I think there’s a lot more we can do to serve our customers.”

Enhancing customer service

Choueiri’s attempts to increase the amount of straight-through processing will rely on the effective use of data – and that’s where he’ll turn his attention to his third key priority area during the next 18 months – making the most of the firm’s recently implemented Talend big-data platform. The toolset allows him to ensure high levels of data quality across the bank.

“It’s a platform that allows the data stewards to log on, monitor exceptions, track the data and release it where it needs to be released for internal consumers to access that data,” he says. “So that’s very powerful. Today, we have to build bespoke tools to go and query a specific table or a customer file to be able to assess its quality. But that platform gives us the tools and the capabilities built-in that help people engage with data upfront.”

Choueiri says the integrated Talend platform will help people across the business feel even more confident about the insight they use to analyse organisational performance and to create new customer-focused services.

“We liked the idea of having one big-data platform that does everything for us because I was very reluctant to get a best-of-breed lineage tool, dictionary tool and data-quality tool, and then we’d have to try to fit them together,” he says.

Choueiri hopes the hard work that his data team is putting in now will help to create a very different bank two years from now. He talks about the importance of “enhanced customer journeys”, where the effective use of data allows the bank to undertake more straight-through processing when it comes to client requests.

“It’s almost self-serve to a large extent, but we’d also continue to provide the ability for customers to call us when they need us – they know that we’re there,” he says. “So the aim is to develop significantly increased digitisation across that client journey.”

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