After spending two decades in IT roles at HSBC, Peter Clark is just over a year into his new role revamping legacy banking architectures at Standard Chartered in Hong Kong. Wei-Shen Wong talks with Clark about these ambitious projects, and the influences that define the people who lead them. Photos by Alex Jung
Asia can be as tough a market to navigate today as it was for Marco Polo in the 13th century. There are numerous language barriers, fragmented markets, and disparate regulations imposing differing agendas. The market is dominated by retail technology that drives innovation across all sectors of finance in the region. It’s also a region where banks are largely running on infrastructures that are up to three decades old.
Peter Clark, chief information officer (CIO) for Greater China and North Asia (GCNA) at Standard Chartered, has navigated these waters for more than 20 years. From 1996 to 2016, he held senior technology roles at HSBC in Japan, India, and Hong Kong, starting as a senior developer and rising to COO for Asia-Pacific and later, COO for India. Then, at the start of 2017, he moved to Standard Chartered in Hong Kong, where he oversees technology and operations for Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan.
Clark is currently in the middle of a project to overhaul Standard Chartered’s IT platforms in GCNA, starting with its legacy core banking systems. It is a project that will require significant coordination across GCNA, and will draw heavily on one of the major lessons Clark has learned over the course of his career—the importance of people.
Clark manages a team of 14. Upon joining the firm in January 2017, he hired three new employees and promoted another internally, and now, he says, the team is stable and performing well. He counts his ability to build teams as one of his greatest strengths, and says that even after moving on to a new role, the team he leaves behind is stronger than it was before he joined. “I think I’ve managed some great teams, which weren’t necessarily great when I picked them up,” he says. “But when I left them, I always had a sense that I just left a department in great shape. I feel my success is largely measured on the basis of the strength of the team I leave behind.”
To Clark, a team that is sustainable will be able to fuel itself on the work and values instilled by a manager even after that individual has moved on. In Asia, it is traditional for employees to stay with a firm for more than a decade—sometimes even an entire career—but as the markets have become more interconnected, the movement of talent has also increased.
This creates two problems. First, the shelf-life of platforms has dropped precipitously. What’s cutting-edge today is in the trash just a couple of years later, so platforms from the 20th century look dated in this age of blockchain development and artificial intelligence (AI), and it’s difficult to connect these platforms to those in other regions of the world. The second problem is acquiring and retaining talent. The hunt for talent has always been a challenge, but it has been exacerbated in Asia because it’s difficult to attract top people to work on core-banking projects. This is where Clark’s background, and his outlook on the human factor, come into play.
The Accidental CIO
Although Clark’s talents would seem to point to leadership roles in financial technology, he landed in the world of banking by chance—his background and training is in electrical engineering and IT. For the first 10 years of his career, he worked as a software engineer at several IT companies, initially stationed in Denmark and then later in Japan. Had his career in IT not worked out, and had he wound up in banking, he says he would probably be doing something related to his main personal interests—science, history, and travel—or perhaps something relating to exploration and mining.
Career decisions made by people joining the IT ranks are different from what they were when he was in university. It is increasingly common for a top technologist to join a startup rather than a prestigious bank or manufacturer. “When I graduated, a lot of my peers were joining graduate programs in the big companies,” he explains. “But now I’m seeing more and more graduates leaving university and creating their own startups or joining one. People are now more prepared to take risks.”
But Clark says his chosen path taught him early on about the value of people and teams. While at his first job, in Copenhagen, he was assigned to work alongside Eric Hojsted, a Danish engineer who Clark says is the best technician he had ever seen because of his ability to read code, debug binary code, reverse-assemble code, and understand incredibly complex logical problems.
Hojsted opened Clark’s eyes to the possibilities and capabilities of technology—and how individuals can inspire others. This extends to other influencers in his life. “I learn much more from people like Jeff Schulze [the previous group chief of staff and CFO for technology and services at HSBC, and Clark’s former mentor], and Eric than I ever would from reading a book or taking any course. Watching these people in action can be very inspiring,” he says.
In 1996, when Clark moved back to the UK to settle down, he began looking for opportunities as a database programmer or a contractor working on Unix systems and databases. HSBC was the first firm to offer him a job. He started at the bank as a senior developer contractor, before taking a permanent IT executive role some four years later.
But rising to the highest levels of the bank didn’t come naturally. A self-described introvert, Clark had to overcome his natural shyness in order to move into larger leadership roles. He built himself up, presenting to five people, then to 10, 20, and 100, and now he can stand up in front of 1,000 individuals and connect with them. To deal with the daily challenges of running a bank’s IT, Clark says he relaxes his brain sometimes—his preferred outlet is running—rather than dwelling on the next hurdle to be conquered at the office. “The work things I worry about are probably the same things all CIOs worry about: cybercrime, systems stability, and whether or not we can keep up on the digital transformation,” he says. “Can we be fast enough? Can we be radical enough? These are all the challenges and I would guess they’d be quite common for all CIOs.”
These challenges are not overcome by being an island—it’s a team that moves the organization forward. This is a new challenge for Clark, but with the right people in place, it is one he is looking forward to conquering. “I often think about customer experience, enhancing the digital customer journey, protecting our customers’ data, protecting the bank from cyber criminals, keeping our platforms running all the time so our customers can interact with us whenever they want,” he says. “These are the kind of things as a CIO that I have to focus on. I’ve also got a great team to help me do that.”
This is where Clark’s Standard Chartered journey begins. With the building blocks now in place, he says he hopes 2018 and beyond will see the group revolutionize the bank’s capabilities.
The GCNA Challenge
As part of his role, Clark is in charge of operations in five countries: Hong Kong, China, Taiwan, South Korea and Japan. Though each country has its own set of challenges, he says they are similar in terms of being tech-savvy countries with well-educated workforces. The key is to tap into those talent pools.
Hong Kong and Korea are Standard Chartered’s biggest markets of the five, followed by China, Taiwan, and Japan. The bank has different ongoing projects in each country. For example, in China—which he views as “unique” in the region because of the nature of the domestic competition between banking technology platforms—he hopes to see better digital customer onboarding using biometrics, whereas in Japan, the bank is looking closely at robotic process automation (RPA). In Korea, Standard Chartered is developing peer-to-peer (P2P) payments, biometrics and improving its AI capabilities, while in Hong Kong, it is working on distributed-ledger technology (DLT) and AI.
The bank is not working in isolation. Last year, for example, Standard Chartered completed a proof-of-concept (PoC) to demonstrate the applicability of DLTs for reducing risk in trade finance, together with the Bank of China, Bank of East Asia, Hang Seng Bank, HSBC, and Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu. The PoC platform for banks, buyers and sellers, and logistics companies demonstrated the application of DLT in digitizing manual processes through prototype smart contracts for open trade financing. The PoC was started to test if different banks were able to link their trade systems with each other to prevent fraud. This year, the collective will work on commercializing the initiative.
The bank is working on more projects, but the one that sticks out for Clark involves open-banking application programming interfaces (APIs), an area he hopes to see accelerate across the region, starting with Hong Kong and Taiwan. Clark says the bank is working with global technology teams and also observing what happens with the Open Banking initiative and PSD2—the revised Payment Services Directive—in Europe. “Some banking groups are trying to define standards, particularly around payloads and APIs. I think when that happens, it’s going to be a big deal,” he says. “In Hong Kong, at least, the Hong Kong Monetary Authority has signaled interest in it, as part of its smart banking initiative. We just need to make sure we’re ahead of the game on that.”
One of the biggest challenges currently facing banks is competition—not just from other banks, but also from fintech companies, which are proving increasingly disruptive and agile when it comes to innovating and quickly developing new digital solutions. And it’s not just the fintech startups encroaching; banks are now competing against big tech companies like Google, Facebook, Amazon, Alibaba, and Tencent, which has started reselling wealth-management products, something that has traditionally been a core business line for banks.
Clark says this is particularly challenging in Asia-Pacific. “The strength of some of the tech companies here is impressive, particularly in China, Korea and Japan. For example, [we’re seeing it] with peer-to-peer lending with the likes of Lufax, and then we have Alipay and WeChatPay,” he says. “These are the biggest challenges for the traditional banks—to compete with these guys that don’t have the legacy infrastructural systems or products or distributions to worry about and can build out a new banking platform for the future.”
One of the biggest IT projects Clark has been tasked with as CIO for GCNA is to review, upgrade and potentially replace some of the bank’s legacy core banking systems across the region and bring some of Standard Chartered’s older platforms up to date to ensure they can operate in the coming years.
Many of these systems used by banks across the region—not just Standard Chartered—are comparatively prehistoric. As users now expect all services to be available anytime across all channels, these infrastructures must become more agile, requiring a complete review of the firm’s platforms across GCNA.
The silver lining, perhaps, is that Standard Chartered is not alone in this scenario. Many other banks in the region are in a similar situation, as are exchanges, which have been rolling out upgrades to their trading, clearing and settlement platforms, and even undertaking complete overhauls of their existing infrastructure—in some cases, exploring tools like distributed ledgers to achieve this.
Clark says replacing legacy core banking platforms is one of the most difficult IT projects a bank will ever undertake. “It’s like changing the engine of an aircraft while it’s still flying, and it’s probably one of the most complicated IT projects the bank has because it’s always quite easy to add things, but it’s difficult to replace things. These tend to be multi-year projects,” he says.
Refreshing these platforms will benefit both retail and institutional clients at the bank by providing more efficient and effective services, he adds.
As the CIO of a capital markets firm in a fragmented region, Clark has to juggle several responsibilities. “On one side, you’ve got cost. You want to do things as cost-effectively as you can, which doesn’t always mean as cheaply as you can. You have people to look after, and you need to attract the best talent. You’re trying to manage risks as best as you possibly can. You’re trying to deliver great things for your customers, and you’re trying to do it very quickly, as well. Sometimes not all of these are naturally aligned,” he says.
And sometimes that balancing act involves trade-offs. For example, new and innovative projects can carry higher levels of risk. And CIOs who want to hire more talented people must be prepared to pay more to attract and retain them.
Clark’s daily balancing act includes looking at service quality key performance indicators (KPIs), risk management KPIs, and digital project plans, as well as spending time building, mentoring and training the team. Juggling these, ultimately, informs his philosophy of what it means to be an effective CIO.
“I think the challenge is to get the balance right, and the better CIOs will be able to do more in those areas than perhaps the less-able CIOs,” he says. “But that balance may well change over time. In a recession, cost matters more than it does if you’re in a boom. In a labor market that’s very static without many opportunities, people retention is less of a worry. You need to know where the balance is and how it changes over time and then maximize everything you can, but at the same time, not go to one extreme to the detriment of everything else.”
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