Interview

Sikoia Unified meets Abhinav Kumar

Join us as we engage in a conversation with Abhinav Kumar, a seasoned Strategic Delivery Leader at NatWest. In this interview, we delve into Abhinav's remarkable career journey and gain insights into his observations on the ever-changing landscape of the banking industry.

By Alexis Rog • 5 min read

Abhinav, it's a real pleasure to have you here today. We're thrilled to welcome you as our second guest in our new interview series, 'Sikoia Unified.' Just like we did with Jenny, we're eager to learn from your experience and uncover some of your insights.

Let’s dive right in, could you share a bit about your background and the journey that's brought you to where you are today

Certainly. I began my journey in Bangalore, a southern city in India. My desire to explore the world led me to decide to not join the family business. Instead, after completing my Master's, I started my career at JPMorgan in Mumbai. I soon ended up in South Africa, working in Johannesburg and Cape Town for a few years, specifically in Asset Management. I've always had a penchant for peregrination, so after some time, I returned to India and joined HP Consulting. This eventually took me to the Netherlands, where I was part of the team working on ABN AMRO. RBS was in the process of acquiring ABN AMRO, and I joined the [M&A] team responsible for merging and demerging the businesses, especially focusing on commercial and retail businesses. This assignment required even more travel: Italy, Greece, Belgium, Qatar, and many more—approximately 25 countries over a couple of years. The seven years spent on these activities were intense, involving complex integration and separation processes. Towards the end of this period, my role involved handling the demerger of Citizens, a significant entity within the RBS consortium deal.

Following this, as we wrapped up the project, the ICB (Independent Commission on Banking) introduced ring-fencing regulations in the UK. Like other banks, RBS had to make a strategic decision regarding its international banking operations. We opted to divest, and refocus on the UK and Ireland. This presented a crossroads in my career—stay in the Netherlands or move to London as part of RBS's team here. I chose the latter, leading to one last leg of my international journey before considering my next steps. That's how I ended up in London. Subsequently, in London, I took on various transformation roles. Post-ICB, I established Open Banking initiatives, aligning with the regulator's push for open APIs and data accessibility. Additionally, I worked on projects related to Channel Islands and offshore regulations.

After setting up digital banking services for RBS – a project that evolved into the Mettle proposition – I shifted my focus to financial crime, where our main goal was keeping ahead of fraudsters during the COVID era. This role involved a large-scale program to introduce AI and machine learning capabilities into customer due diligence. Following its successful completion, I transitioned to my current role in C&I commercial and institutional banking, where I lead futures service model.

That's an incredible journey! How has all that global exposure influenced your perspective on business strategy and transformation?

I would advise anyone in their twenties to consider roles that involve sales or consulting. Experiencing the world from various angles significantly broadens your outlook. First, you start to see how small you are because there is so many perspectives and views and how important it is to include those diverse points as it encourages creativity and innovation. In my experience working in Italy, I was always fascinated by their creativity, which sometimes didn't align with the structure of a project plan. By contrast, the Dutch are known for their direct approach. I preferred the straightforward way of handling tasks – but international experience transforms the way you perceive and manage situations.

It sounds like the exposure to diverse perspectives is one of the significant advantages of working in large institutions; and it's fascinating to see how they adapt to local markets. Do you believe that major banks are doing enough to adapt internationally?

Interestingly, it seems that the tide has shifted now. Back in 2015 and 2016, many major banks were retreating from the international scene, opting for a regional focus. In Singapore, you would find buildings for Barclays, RBS, Credit Suisse, and others. However, if you look at Singapore today, many of these global players have scaled back, making room for regional players to take centre stage. It makes sense from a cost perspective. Nevertheless, this presents a golden opportunity for fintechs.

If they can devise innovative approaches to address international needs without adhering to traditional banking models, there's a significant entrepreneurial landscape to explore.

It's fascinating how the industry continues to evolve. Can we focus on your pivotal role in setting up Open Banking - could you share the story behind this project, the team you assembled, and some key milestones achieved?

Certainly. The critical aspect of the project was ensuring everyone understood the journey, especially for Open Banking. It was crucial to get not just the bank on board but also regulators and customers who valued privacy, such as those in Guernsey, Isle of Man, and other locations. We needed to demonstrate the benefits of open banking to everyone. Only after achieving this alignment did we build the necessary technological capabilities. Gaining support and securing funding for such a regulated program wasn't straightforward, but it was essential. Lastly, we needed to effectively harness the innovation benefitting the customers that came with this project. We ended up creating over 70+ APIs and a sandbox environment, which fintechs could use to benefit customers.  

It seems like a multifaceted project, heavily influenced by regulatory requirements. Do you think banks, in general, have recognized the advantages of opening up their data?

Some sectors, like retail, have seen benefits, especially with product propositions that align well with Open Banking APIs. However, the commercial side has been a bit more cautious. While some are using Open Banking APIs, it hasn't reached the extent we’d like. From an industry perspective, Open Banking may be considered something of a missed opportunity. The real issue was that it primarily covered current accounts and payment account products, and left out significant areas like lending and trade finance, which are critical for commercial businesses.


Open Finance is now gaining attention because it aims to address these gaps. Many businesses want to have their APIs, but the question in the industry remains: how many of these will be reused effectively?

A lot of focus on around PSD2 to was on the retail and less on the commercial but that seems to pick up now.

Exactly, commercial banking never fully embraced Open Banking because they struggled to see the use cases as clearly as retail did. However, with the evolution of APIs, it's not necessary to use Open Banking APIs anymore. Many banks offer multiple APIs through agreements, making it easier to connect to their platforms. For instance, one of our recent hackathon participants who focused on calculating carbon footprints integrated with NatWest app. They didn't use Open Banking but chose a different API for their needs.

And we can already see the impact this is having on the industry. Some banks already have hundreds of APIs available to benefit customers – going back is highly unlikely. It’s more likely that more APIs and innovations will continue to emerge.

Initiatives such as OpenAI have motivated many players to enhance their capabilities and release new products more rapidly. Can you share your insights on these changing dynamics?

Indeed, the pace has forced incumbent banks to become highly agile shops. While we're not entirely there yet, the drive, the will, and the talent are all present. Moreover, in regions like Africa and Latin America, we're seeing increased momentum.  

Let's shift gears and discuss another intriguing project where you played a pivotal role at NatWest, setting up customer due diligence as part of the financial crime efforts. Could you shed more light on this project?

The main driving force behind this initiative was the understanding that financial crime is not just an issue for individual banks; it's a collective challenge that requires all of us to stay one step ahead of fraudsters.  We wanted to lead the way in the industry by bringing in the best-in-class technology to protect our customers. And to be clear, this had to be technology driven: the sheer volume of records to manage and the number of transactions processed daily made it clear that we needed the right technology.

Looking forward, are there any technologies or trends that you believe have the potential to significantly impact the banking industry?

Quantexa is a great technology: their entity maps and related capabilities are groundbreaking; and now nearly every bank is now implementing Quantexa, making them an industry standard. Another significant development, in my view, is Kafka and StreamSets. They bring real-time capabilities for ingesting and processing data, which is crucial. We've adopted Kafka, creating a robust architecture. Ultimately, if we take a step back, AI is the key. AI learns from the vast amounts of data fed into platforms. This learning will shape policies and strategies in the banking industry over the next two to three years. The data is the game-changer.

Do you think there are other types of data within all the customer records that could serve as a good initial use case? And do you see specific areas with significant challenges that could greatly benefit from similar solutions?

One of the biggest challenges banks face is dealing with their primary source of data, which often resides on mainframe platforms. These platforms have grown over time to become too big to fail, and there isn't a straightforward method to clean up and manage the data effectively. This is a common concern for banks embarking on transformation projects – how to address the critical issue of dealing with legacy platforms.

I can imagine that transitioning away from such legacy systems poses a significant hurdle for broader transformation efforts.

Indeed, this is a widespread challenge across the banking sector. Many banks have legacy core banking systems from the 1960s, and even though they've layered modern technology on top of them, the underlying data is still housed within these mainframes. These mainframes are considered stable and reliable, but the real issue lies with the data residing within them. There isn't a compelling use case for transforming these mainframes, and it would require a massive investment.  

Do you have any advice for others embarking on similar transformation projects?

My biggest piece of advice would be to avoid making the project too large, with multi-year roadmaps, and a "big bang" launch approach. I recall illustrating this as a V-shaped curve when discussing risk management, emphasising how by the time an idea becomes a reality, the market has already shifted. So, I recommend starting small, with MVPs that can be deployed within two to four weeks. Learn, adapt, and iterate quickly. Start small, demonstrate benefits, conduct proof of concepts (POCs), and then scale based on results. This agile approach has proven to be more effective.

Thank you for sharing these valuable insights, Abhinav. Just one more question: what guidance would you like to share with younger people entering the industry?

The financial services industry is a fantastic place to be. However, consider joining growth-oriented startups where you can gain a wide range of experiences. I’ve personally experienced how M&A-type roles expose you to various aspects across, client services, operations, technology, administration, and more. In contrast, starting in a smaller niche limits your exposure, giving you only one side of the coin. So, my advice is to choose a place that allows you to learn comprehensively. Don't worry too much about money; it will come later. Focus on building your skills and gaining a diverse range of experiences.

If you had to do it all over again, would you choose the same path, or would you do things differently?

I'd make the same choice. I love what I do!

That's wonderful! Thank you, Abhinav, for joining us today and for the valuable insights you've shared. We very much look forward following your future endeavours.

Conclusion

Alexis Rog

Founder & CEO, UK

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