I recently headed over to Frankfurt to take part in the 21st Handelsblatt Annual Conference. The theme this year was ‘Banken im Umbruch’ (which loosely translates as banks in upheaval or about to break). The conference is always very well attended and several high-level figures from the banking sector gave speeches during the two-day event. Among the star names, John Cryan (CEO of Deutsche Bank), Martin Zielke (CEO of Commerzbank) and François Villeroy de Galhau (Governing Council Member of the European Central Bank) all took to the stage.

I was honoured to be representing Azimo at the conference and it was a wonderful opportunity to show the banking world exactly how our business is changing the way people send money abroad for the better. Also, as one of the few FinTech representatives there, I was able to gain some fascinating insights into how major European banks are looking to stop the industry rot.

‘71% of millennials would rather go to the dentist than visit a bank branch.’

Bashing the ECB

Nearly every banking bigwig on the podium complained about the current policy of the European Central Bank (ECB) and the impact of extremely low interest rates on bank profitability. ‘ECB bashing’ was the headline speech topic — with the obvious exception of Monsieur Villeroy de Galhau. The banks have a pretty strong argument here, of course, but it’s not the only reason they’ve been under fire since the 2008 financial crisis.

John Cryan

Digital delay

Everyone at the conference was talking about the importance of digitising banking services. As someone who’s worked in FinTech for the last three years, though, this felt like a classic case of too little, too late. Are banks really only now putting this at the top of the agenda? I’ve experienced first-hand the shift from analogue to digital in capital markets almost a decade ago, and this call to action smacks of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.

Surprisingly, there was also a lot of discussion around the importance of branches, which seems very short-sighted. Yes, there’ll always be a need for flagship stores (see Apple, Louis Vuitton, etc) and bricks-and-mortar shops. But based on the financial behaviour of millennials — according to a 2016 Avoka survey, 71% of them would rather go to the dentist than visit a bank branch — surely this shouldn’t be seen as a long-term strategy.

Where are all the women?

Handelsblatt Speakers

What’s wrong with this photo? Out of a total of 53 speakers, just three were women — myself, JP Morgan’s Dorothee Blessing and Virgin Money CEO Jayne-Anne Gadhia (to make matters worse, Jayne-Anne was unable to attend and her interview ended up being a poor-quality recording on Skype). That works out to a measly female/male ratio of 0.56%. To put that in perspective, more than a third of Azimo employees are female.

I realise that we’re a long way from achieving balanced numbers between men and women in the financial sector, but surely we can do better than this at a flagship event. To add insult to injury, there was a rather sexist comment by one of the presenters up on stage, but I guess I was probably one of only a handful of people in the room who recognised it as such.

Handelsblatt Jahrestagung - Banken im Umbruch

Innovate or die

The conference was all about banks in crisis and how they can innovate more. My advice would be to start by moving away from the herd mentality where everyone looks, sounds, behaves and thinks the same way – this makes new ideas hard to come by and develop. To quote Erin Meyer, a well-known author and Professor of Organisational Behaviour at INSEAD: ‘The more diverse the team, the greater the potential for innovation.’

This is a classic example of ‘Innovator’s Dilemma’. But as former German Defence Minister Karl-Theodor zu Guttenberg intimated in his conference speech: if you don’t go for the moonshot, you’re as good as dead. I’m glad I made it to Frankfurt and got the chance to hear the banking world debating its future, but I’m also very happy to be back at Azimo and getting on with achieving that moonshot.

Dora Ziambra, Head of Business Development, Azimo