BNY Mellon’s Cheryl Gurz: Competition Makes You Stronger

BNY Mellon

The industry is working hard to figure out distributed payment technologes. Photo: BNYM building in London

BNY Mellon managing director Cheryl Gurz welcomes innovation she believes will jumpstart an industry long “paralyzed in terms of moving forward.”

At BNY Mellon, her job is to investigate emerging payment technologies and figure out how the bank “may leverage them for continued growth.” The growing voice of thought leaders like Cheryl illuminate a shifting conversation. Where industry incumbents were once skeptical of innovation, global banks are now identifying critical opportunities to embrace it.

With 25 years of payments experience under her belt at banks like Citi, Chase, and HSBC, Cheryl intimately understands just how difficult changing payments is, having started career just as ACH was gaining prominence. In an insightful interview, she emphasized the need to separate the hype from what she believes could be a transformative chapter in the world of payments.

Ripple Labs: Can you describe what your role entails?

Cheryl Gurz: The role is actually brand new; it was conceived at the beginning of the year. Our leadership team was well aware of the rapid and ongoing developments in the fintech space and how these developments might affect or even disrupt our business. They basically wanted to make sure we had someone in place who had an intimate understanding of what’s dynamically happening in the market, what the impacts could be, and figuring out what potential disruptions or opportunities might be ahead.

So when I was put into this role, my approach was really simple —let’s start looking forward. As an organization we should be looking at not only how we can deliver in today’s environment but also how we can effectively provide products and services to our customers tomorrow in a rapidly evolving marketplace. Change is happening and we need to be prepared for it.

What was the catalyst? Was there a specific wake up call or “aha” moment?

Initially we definitely focused on bitcoin.  But we quickly expanded our attention to include any kind of blockchain technology that cascaded from the conversation that bitcoin originally sparked—which, of course, includes Ripple and other protocols for settling payments. Going forward, we are now working to determine how these emerging technologies may help us deliver better products and services to our clients. This conversation is still in its infancy. It’s going to be a journey.

What was your original reaction, coming from the traditional banking world?

I’ll be honest, I started out as very skeptical. But I kept an open mind and as I became more familiar with these innovations, I started to see the potential, how these technologies can help us re-think certain age-old assumptions we’ve had around delivering payments.

Taking a closer look at what’s happening is opening our eyes to different business models, where new technologies show promise to help us re-engineer how we deliver products and services to our clients so that we can strive to meet their evolving expectations in the marketplace. It’s an exciting time in the space because we have an opportunity to change the legacy thinking and infrastructure in a way that we couldn’t have imagined five years ago.

A lot of people have highlighted shifting expectations recently. Jeremy Light from Accenture talked about how the UK has had real-time payments for years, but the banks there never actively marketed it as a feature because their customers were fine with same day or even next day payments. But according to Jeremy, in the last 18 months, there’s been this dramatic shift. Consumers aren’t OK with slow payments anymore. They’re demanding better options. What do you think is driving this shift?

I think these shifting expectations have a lot to do with our personal experiences as everyday consumers, and we’re bringing those expectations to our jobs. A lot of people will say it’s the Millennials starting this conversation, but I tend to disagree. It’s the behaviors and habits developing all around us.  Consumerism is driving the conversation, as it has for all generations.

Remember when Facebook first came out? It was first adopted by younger people  Now seniors are  among  the biggest users. Commerce and payments are intersecting in our personal lives, and that’s bringing into our business life new expectations. As service providers, we also bring these expectations to our jobs and we want to deliver these things for our clients. We should have tools that make this possible, to make things quicker, more transparent.

You get the sense that this is a big moment for the industry. Part of that is because we really haven’t seen too much drastic change at the core of how the system works in a decades. Is there any particular reason for that?

Here’s the thing with legacy infrastructure. I remember When I started in payments on the banking side, probably around 1981, I remember going through a management training program, similar to the ones we have today. During the training, I end up meeting an individual on the ACH side, and he told me, “You need to come work for me because ACH is the only place to be, because checks will be ancient history by the time I retire”.

So here’s an executive in 1981 telling me to come over to the ACH side of things because by the time I retire, there won’t be any need for check processing because he believes technology and behavioral changes are going to make checks obsolete.

Not to mention cash…

Right, now fast forward to 2015, and now I’m at an age where retirement is not nearly so far away.  I could retire. But guess what, it hasn’t happened. We’re still using paper checks. What I’m trying to get at historically is that there have always been these expectations for new technologies and how they’re going to immediately shake things up, replacing the old with the new. But you know what? Reality rarely lives up to that initial hype.

In fact what happens is that we’ll add new payments instruments and systems, but we don’t necessarily retire all legacy systems or completely let go of the old way of doing things. As a result, the system becomes more and more complex. There’s more infrastructure than ever, and everything is more fragmented because we just keep adding on without dismantling anything.

What we end up seeing is more evolution than revolution.

There’s a reason for that. Legacy systems work pretty well. Consider the U.S. payments system—it’s relatively secure, cost effective and pretty reliable – think about how comfortable consumers have become with components like ACH and the credit card system. Maybe the technologies we currently rely on are not particularly sexy, but they work. It’s always been this dichotomy to me, the new and the old. I look at bitcoin and the blockchain, and I wonder—are these technologies the future? And if we rush in, are we saying bye to all the legacy systems? Are we starting over with this great new technology?

Probably not.

From our perspective, moving forward is about meeting the demands of our customers Everything that’s happening right now is from the perspective of our customers. I think this time around, because of the technology, there will be some formidable competitors. And you know what? It’s about time. Competition makes you stronger. There’s a market perception that banks have sort of lost their bearing since the financial crisis, that the industry has become almost paralyzed in terms of moving forward, especially in payments, the area I’m most familiar with.  All of a sudden, innovation has us all talking, forcing us to find new ways to move ahead.

But it’s not just about innovation right? I always say that finance isn’t just a technology problem, it’s a social problem, a cooperation problem. It’s a regulatory problem.

When you’re in the business of delivering payments, you’re not just delivering payments. Today, it’s my view that the government views payment providers as conscripts in their effort to monitor payment flows, where we also have an obligation to understand all the parties of a payment in an effort to potentially identity multiple types of criminal activity..  This is an expanded obligation; we can’t just delegate it away. It’s not just in the U.S. Global banks have differing governmental requirements around the world across countless jurisdictions that we didn’t have ten years ago.

What that means is that banks have increased costs and responsibilities. As a result, banks are, in a way, operating at a disadvantage versus alternative payment providers at the edge of the value chain that aren’t necessarily dealing with the same kinds of obligations in the same way that traditional financial institutions do.

In other words, the rules of the game have changed.

This has fundamentally changed the conversation as to what the role of payments really entails. It’s more than just settling, it’s increased monitoring, which adds to our obligations.

It’s a particularly relevant topic for emerging technologies, many of which serve to help us settle a transaction more quickly. But the next step is to start thinking about how this impacts the compliance and monitoring aspects of payments, how regulators might be able to take these concepts for new technologies and apply them to monitoring the banks in order to make sure that everyone is following the rules. That would be a win-win for everyone in the ecosystem.

Given all of this potential, where do you think we go from here?

There’s always a lot of talk and chatter, people making predictions about where we’re going to be in global payments in 2020 and 2030. It’s hard to be too specific but ultimately, my view is that commerce is driving the conversations and payments will be fully  integrated into the future system that emerges to support commerce. I think one big concern for the industry’s current players is that down the line, people won’t even be aware that payments are taking place because they’ll truly become part of the background. Is that good or is that bad? Will banks still be relevant?

A better understanding of what our future holds will require open collaboration within the space. We really need to think as an industry, together with legacy banks and fintech startups. This will require a fundamental shift in our industry, because the degree of openness and collaboration characteristic of emerging technologies is much different from the product development approach banks have traditionally taken. Until now, it’s pretty much been closed networks and private relationships with clients.

But these new technologies are opening things up. They’re taking us to places where we haven’t been.  Hopefully, the end result will be getting to a productive future.  It’s going to take a lot of critical thinking and a lot of debate as to where this might be taking us—more than just saying that we’ll have a lot more payments in twenty years.

We really need to look at history. It’s much easier to change technology than it is to change behavior. We have bankers among us who know – and in some instances participated in – the history surrounding the legacy payment systems we deal with today.   At the very least, that perspective can alert us to some of the pitfalls and challenges that we might expect in terms of how this is all going to change. And I think if history is any indication, changing the payments world in practice may not be as straightforward as it looks theoretically on paper.

All views expresses are those of the interview subject and not necessarily the views of BNYM.

Follow Ripple on Twitter