Change offers opportunities

SARAH BASHIRIEH & PAULUS DE WILT

HE HAS BEEN AT THE TOP OF THE BANKING INDUSTRY FOR MANY YEARS; SHE VIEWS THE BANKING WORLD FROM A FRESH, YOUNG, TECHNOLOGY-BASED PERSPECTIVE. TOGETHER, SARAH BASHIRIEH, ENTERPRISE ARCHITECTURE MANAGER AT NIBC AND CEO PAULUS DE WILT DISCUSS NIBC’S DEVELOPMENTS OVER THE PAST 75 YEARS. IT IS A CONVERSATION ABOUT A BANK THAT HAS CONTINUED TO EVOLVE AND WHOSE ‘THINK YES’ MENTALITY HAS SERVED AS A DRIVING FORCE. THE BANK HAS CHANGED AND WILL CONTINUE TO DEVELOP IN THE FUTURE. “BANKS USED TO BE ADMINISTRATIVE OFFICES, AND NOW WE’RE ALMOST IT COMPANIES,” SAYS PAULUS.

THE HISTORY OF THE BANK

Sarah: “NIBC has now been around for 75 years. How do you view the history of our bank?”

Paulus: “NIBC was founded straight after World War II. An important task involved releasing the Marshall aid and the frozen assets at the major banks. The government wanted all the funds to go

towards rebuilding our country. An institution was needed for that, and so the Maatschappij tot Financiering van het Nationaal Herstel N.V. (Society for the Financing of the National Recovery) was founded, later renamed De Nationale Investeringsbank and abbreviated as NIB, without the C. The role of our bank involved


assessing responsible investments. And how did we do that? By putting the client first. We explored what entrepreneurs and the country needed. The bank first hired engineers; bankers were hired later. Engineers and bankers knew very well how to rebuild the country. We needed brickworks and roads: that’s what society needed. Of course, a banker was also needed who understood that this required funds. But it happened in that order. First, understanding the client and finding out what’s really needed and then seeing what can be done.”

Sarah: “That client focus hasn’t changed, but there have been many other changes, such as the bank’s external form. After all, we started out as a government bank, we became private equity and now we are listed on the stock exchange.”

Paulus: “Our shareholder structure, has indeed changed many times in our 75-year history. We have been a public bank and private equity. We’re currently listed on the stock market but it seems that we’re returning to private equity. Personally, I hadn’t expected that initial public offering at all. When I came here six years ago, the bank was in a bad shape. We began a restructuring and reorganising process. Little by little, that Think Yes mentality returned. Within four years, the bank was back. It gave us a great feeling as we were ‘allowed’ a listing on the stock exchange; a feeling that we were back in action, with due pride.”

Sarah: “And now we are probably going to leave the stock exchange again.”

Paulus: “We didn’t stop developing after that initial public offering, and you can see that the IPO was perhaps the intermediary step we needed in order to move on to the next phase. During an IPO, you have to deal with extra compliance and regulations, which is quite difficult for a small bank such as NIBC. It isn’t that important who the shareholders are; entrepreneurship is much more important. We may leave the stock exchange a little sooner than we’d thought, but that’s the way it goes. All the curves in our industry are shorter at the moment; everything is moving faster and the market is more volatile. All that movement is what makes it so enjoyable.When the world is standing still, running a bank is boring. Movement is fun, although not easy.”

AN EVOLVING BANK

Sarah: “What actually happened to De Nationale Investeringsbank after the reconstruction?”

Paulus: “When the reconstruction of the Netherlands was complete, our goal had also changed. Factories had been built; roads had been built. But the bank had accumulated a lot of knowledge about how society was organised and that knowledge was used for further development. We come from a traditional infrastructure, but new client groups, new solutions and new services

were being added all the time. Offices were added both in the Netherlands and abroad. There was even a period around the start of this century when we were operating worldwide. That period is now behind us. We’re now downsizing again and the business is mainly based in north-western Europe. A retail offering has been added, which enabled us to get into the mortgage market. We added savings and now we are exploring our role in consumer finance. All of these developments have been at the heart of the bank for the past 75 years. That is clear proof that this bank is entrepreneurial. We are able to constantly adapt to what’s going on around us in the outside world.”

Paulus: “What’s your experience of that, Sarah? You have worked here for two years now. How do you feel about the bank?”

Sarah: “My first experience with NIBC was through my previous employer, a consultancy firm. I led workshops about IT and business and noticed straightaway that NIBC wasn’t a typical bank. The people I spoke to were curious, open to change and prepared to participate in that process.That wasn’t something I was used to. In fact, people are often a little anxious about change. When I subsequently came to work here myself, I had the same experience. NIBC turned out to be a very dynamic organisation with a lot going on. I think the

size of the bank is key to this. NIBC is not too large and not too complex. I also have a lot of final responsibility. There is little stratification, so you quickly take on a lot of responsibility. That’s great because it makes you broadly deployable. But it also allows ideas to be realised faster and more efficiently.”

COLLABORATION

Paulus: “That’s very nicely put about the size of the company. Our size ensures that we can continue to adapt, innovate and invest in new companies, even in the current times of crisis. Especially now, in fact. As they say in America: ‘Never waste a good crisis.’ I agree with that. And it especially applies to investments in your field of IT, Sarah. Our size sets us apart from other banks because we can’t develop everything ourselves. We are forced to collaborate a lot. Good examples of this are our collaborations with fintechs such as Oaknorth and Ebury. This shows how we adapt our business model to the outside world, our clients, and internally. We are exploring how we can form a kind of platform with our partners in the future, so we can put each other’s strengths to best use. As a smaller bank, we have to outsource tasks, which is something we already do. We have outsourced our IT architecture to Cegeka, our back office for mortgages is with Stater and for portfolio management we use Oaknorth. Together with these modern partners, we are striving to create the bank of the future.”


Sarah: “Extensive outsourcing also involves risk. What are third parties doing with our data and how can we remain in control as a bank?”

Paulus: “That’s true, but we shouldn’t let it stop us. We need to effectively manage these types of problems. After all, I prefer to manage problems of the future rather than problems of the past.”

PAULUS

“Consolidation is the key word but as the hunter, not the prey.”

NIBC VALUES

Sarah: “We call ourselves a professional, entrepreneurial and inventive bank. Did we have these values in the past?”

Paulus: “We have always been professional. It’s almost a hygiene factor for a bank; everyone is professional otherwise they wouldn’t work here. When I joined NIBC in 2014, the spirit of entrepreneurship had ebbed away a little and inventiveness was hard to find. But now, it’s almost the other way around. We’re still professional, of course, that’s our foundation, but we’re known for our entrepreneurship. Our focus is on inventiveness, especially over the past two years. We look to the future: Think Ahead! How can we continue coming up with new things? I’m proud that we have managed to achieve that.”

Sarah: “That inventive and entrepreneurial spirit is what makes NIBC quite unique in the banking world. Do you have an idea how we manage to achieve that?”

Paulus: “The bank has been able to act as a kind of chameleon in the past. We’ve always been able to adapt to the environment. That’s mainly due to the people who work here. Change sounds very easy, but it isn’t. People are responsible for what they’ve built up and to change that all over again would be asking a lot. But apparently NIBC employees are capable of doing it. In larger organisations, you often see that the people making changes are different from those who set up the organisation. There seems to be a separation between spirit and execution. But at NIBC it’s often the same people. It says a lot about us that our own people are prepared to move the curve up and down.”

Sarah: “You often talk about such movement, but can you give a concrete example?”

Paulus: “NIBC has launched lots of new initiatives recently. We brought buy-to-let onto the market. We had already launched Beequip, followed by OIMIO and Lot Hypotheken, and we’re now working on Lendex and yesqar. Over a period of five years, we have established several new labels, which is extraordinary for our industry. After all, everyone is more concerned with regulations, with what we need to do and with what can and cannot be achieved. The fact that we have been able to set up these new initiatives is a great sign of our entrepreneurial and inventive culture.”

THINK YES

Sarah: “I agree; our strength is definitely spotting and seizing opportunities. Just take the COVID crisis. Talks are being held with employees about it and they are mainly asking about the opportunities and options we see for NIBC and our clients. This could concern new services, other services and even working from home and the advantages it brings. Many people see the current situation as a threat, but at NIBC we see it as another opportunity. Think Yes!”

Paulus: “If we look beyond that, a crisis is always a time of change and disruption. That’s scary to a lot of people. They’re uncertain and don’t know how things will pan out. But if we reflect on the past 75 years, we see that it has been in times of crisis and major change such as this that the opportunities have arisen. So I think that’s also where our strength lies.”

Paulus: “In fact, COVID seems to have been the key word in 2020. But if you look a little deeper, you can see that our sector is facing yet another crisis: extremely low interest rates. That’s very unsettling for banks and our business models. But even now, we have to look for opportunities. The world is changing and, in particular, consumer preferences are changing. For instance, they want longer maturities for their mortgages but as a bank, we can’t have 20 or 30-year maturities on our balance sheet. So we looked for a partnership with an insurer, and chose AXA IM. That kind of partnership goes further than just business agreements. In this case, we are the point of contact for the client, and the service provider for AXA IM. They put their trust in us and that just shows how professional our organisation is.”

COMPLEX SYSTEMS

Sarah: “The interaction between client and bank has also changed drastically. Consumers want more control and want to do everything themselves, faster and online. When I look to the future, I see that we can play a different role in the long run. After all, we have a lot of data we can open up so that clients can get down to work themselves. That gives us the space to do other things. I think that’s something we can still improve on.”

Paulus: “It’s definitely something we need to improve on. I often look at other industrial sectors. Take Bol.com, for example. If you order something before 8pm, it’s delivered the next day. But if you want to take out a mortgage, that takes three weeks. We consider that normal, but it’s actually very strange because it doesn’t even involve logistics. It’s just data. We hide behind the complexity of systems and regulations, but that actually doesn’t make sense. We created that complexity ourselves. If, like us, you’re a company with a 75-year legacy and, on top of that, you’re in the banking world, then you’re working with old systems. The challenge is linking those systems with the latest data and systems. Beequip and yesqar are our new fintechs with a vast amount of valuable data. So the challenge here is connecting this data to our cumbersome banking systems quickly and effectively. That’s difficult, but not impossible. We have proven that through one of our latest acquisitions, Lendex, which enables us to extend consumer credit within three minutes on a fully mobile basis.”

Sarah: “Yes, we have that legacy and we have to remain aware of it. It is a challenge linking our old systems with the latest data and systems. That’s why we want to use a layered approach to incorporate new innovations into our existing application landscape. We want the front end to be flexible so that we can quickly experiment and innovate. The systems running at the back end remain a solid basis for connecting new systems. We do this through modular IT architecture. An important condition here is that we boost the maturity of our data foundation.”

Paulus: “The banking sector increasingly expects us to actively and continuously monitor our clients. We’re not used to doing that with our annual review cycle. We need to make progress here so we know what’s happening at all times. In doing so, our scale once again works in our favour. We are a relatively small bank, which enables us to take this step relatively quickly.”

Sarah: “NIBC is already conducting constant monitoring, but in the future we will be proactively monitoring, which involves looking ahead and predicting what will happen. If we align our IT systems with the ambitions of our organisation and enhance data monitoring, we can create real value in that regard.”

ECOSYSTEM

Paulus: “In any case, our IT infrastructure is important for growth while remaining agile. Besides our employees, our client data is the most important part of our bank. We must be aware of that. After all, data on its own is useless; you need IT systems to access that data.

The right connections need to be made within existing and new systems. Banks have historically been used to automating a kind of accounting system. We now need to set up our bank so that we can be connected to both internal systems and those of other parties.”

Sarah: “In the future, I see NIBC as part of an ecosystem of banks and fintechs. We will be a hub: we will be able to create value by aggregating data but if we design the integration in a modern way, we will be able to make good use of fintech functionalities. NIBC is already ahead of the industry average in this respect.”

IT ARCHITECTURE

Sarah: “The enterprise architecture is sometimes very opaque within organisations. You can’t see what’s going on in the background, which is actually indispensable. That architecture determines whether we will be satisfied when we look back in five years’ time. I’m pleased that we’ve managed to set up that architecture effectively at NIBC. What would you like to change in this area, Paulus?”

Paulus: “If I were an IT manager, I would manage more tightly in terms of what is and is not possible. In the past, the bank was used to managing from front to back: clients have their needs and we come up with solutions for those needs. But we can no longer afford to build something new for every client, so we also have to manage from back to front. The back needs to become more visible and give more guidance, explaining what is and what isn’t possible. As an IT department, you should not overestimate the knowledge of the rest of the organisation.


Take the Dutch men’s clothing company Suitsupply, for example. At Suitsupply, it seems like anything is possible, and everything can be made to measure. That’s because they are flexible at the front end: for instance you can choose from a variety of buttons and fabrics. But at the back end, it’s standardised. There are limited models and each jacket has two sleeves, because three sleeves won’t work at the back end. Everyone knows that, so nobody sells a suit with three sleeves because the back end takes precedence. So our challenge is to be creative, while bearing in mind the possibilities and the solutions that align with our back end, the IT systems. That means we shouldn’t sell suits with three sleeves.”

SARAH

“The old banking systems are solid and reliable, and that’s exactly what we need to make use of.”

INVENTIVENESS

Sarah: “So you’re actually saying that creativity is great, but it has to fit in with certain limits because if there are no limits it would be chaos.”

Paulus: “Exactly. Creativity has to be limited to focused creativity. I know that sounds contradictory, but what I mean is that we have to come up with solutions that also align with the back end and are supported by our IT processes. One example of this is Lego. Everyone likes to work with the bricks and you can use them to build anything in whichever colours you like. That can lead to new connections and links. And that’s what we want to achieve at NIBC. But you shouldn’t try to rebuild the bricks and come up with other shapes yourself. It won’t work. That has to be clear, and I know it’s possible at NIBC. That inventiveness is in our DNA. I am often surprised by employees who come up with great ideas and new plans, and every Christmas I find myself curious to see where we stand. Five years ago Beequip didn’t exist, two years ago we had no digital infrastructure financing and originate-to-manage, and last year there was no Lendex or yesqar. It’s great that we manage to come up with new things each year.”

FUTURE

Paulus: “Sarah, how do you see the future of NIBC?”

Sarah: “I hope to be here for a very long time to come. I feel very much at home at NIBC and my colleagues feel like my second family. I really hope it stays that way. I’m from Iran, so I have a different background from most. My Dutch wasn’t so good when I came to work for the bank, but I felt supported right from the start when it came to speaking Dutch. That really helped. I now speak Dutch in meetings. That isn’t a requirement because English is the working language, but it just goes to show how at home I feel here. I can really be myself and I am challenged to learn new things, including the language. Compared to two years ago, I see more and more people with different backgrounds: young, old, people from other sectors and other countries. It’s nice to see that. I think it’s a condition of being an entrepreneurial company. We’re all unique people with different opinions, which creates added value. It enables you to grow as an organisation. Anyone can be an entrepreneur at NIBC.

That’s ultimately more or less how I pitched my own team and position. I saw an opportunity, presented it and was allowed to start working on it. That’s a great example of the opportunities you get at NIBC. I hope it stays this way in the future.”

Sarah: “And Paulus, how do you see NIBC’s future?”

Paulus: “Our anniversary slogan is: Think Ahead, Think Yes. That says it all. I’m looking forward to a very positive future. In my opinion, consolidation will be the key theme in banking over the next ten years. There are too many banks in Europe, and the situation is unsustainable. An essential question is, which side you are on? Are you the hunter or the hunted? Given our size, you would expect that NIBC would no longer exist in five years’ time. After all, it’s often the smaller parties that disappear. But if we manage to get Blackstone behind us as a new investor, we could find ourselves in the other role. That would mean we could then go on the acquisition trail instead of being the prey. So I hope NIBC can play a role in consolidation over the next two to five years. With this solid shareholder, we will be able to get off the stock exchange, go our own way, and have the freedom to look to the future. My ambition is to make acquisitions in various areas so we can create a modern platform of various partners and thus continue to grow.”

SARAH BASHIRIEH

Sarah joined NIBC in February 2019 and is responsible for the Enterprise Architecture team. She was previously a consultant at Deloitte Consulting and she has also worked for IBM. Sarah studied at Delft University of Technology. This year, she was a nominee for the Young Talent award, an incentive award for young female talent established by Top Woman of the Year Foundation in the Netherlands.

PAULUS DE WILT

Paulus has been Chief Executive Officer and chairman of the NIBC Board of Directors since 2014. He studied business economics at Erasmus University Rotterdam. Before joining NIBC, he worked for ABN AMRO Bank for 25 years.