Niall Cameron joined David Brear on Fintech Insider to discuss HSBC, innovation and partnering with fintechs.

We found out his views of how incumbents can best work alongside and partner with fintechs in the changing digital space:

Increasingly, we’re seeing the relationship between big incumbent organisations and small fintechs getting to be much more of a b2b, realistic model. 

The relationships are starting to get a bit more mature.

Exactly. There’s mutual respect on both sides,  and actually, the ecosystem works best if there’s a collaborative approach. So how do you see that continuing?

I think it’s going in the right direction now. I agree with you, the early stage was a bit abrasive, and probably a little bit premature. I think this next phase has been much more mature, people have realised that each party has something to give the other, and I think when you look at the existing financial players, they’ve got huge networks, they’ve got huge country presence, huge people, enormous intellectual capital inside. They have real power. And the fintechs have real focus, you know, because they’ve typically chosen one thing. Obviously, as they get bigger, they do multiple things, but they start off with one thing, and they focus, and they tend to do it very well, and they tend to do it at a very high level, and they have subject matter experts, typically around that one thing, that is incredibly useful when you’re dealing with a more generalist operation. So, we know that if we want to grow fast in this new digital world, we have to embrace fintech, and we have to truly embrace it, not just talk about it. We need to bring them in, work with them, partner with them. That doesn’t mean with everybody. We are very selective, but when we do select the players, they’re part of the team, and that’s how we think of them.

We are very selective, but when we do select the players, they’re part of the team, and that’s how we think of them.

And I think rightly so. I think being super selective when you’re, you know, the size of HSBC,  [when] you don’t have the luxury of just being able to do anything with anything. It matters a lot more when there’s, you know, tens of millions of customers involved in the process.

Yes. We’ve got to make sure that they are able to do the thing they say they’re able to do, and they can do it in a secure way, and they can be trustworthy, and they’re going to have the same standards and ethical standards, and I think this is really very important. There’s a lot of fintech players out there, and there’s a lot of good ones, and we can’t partner with all of them, so the selection process is very important, and we spend quite a lot of time working with people.

It’s a fascinating time, though. So, there are so many different organisations out there doing interesting things. Who outside of HSBC, do you guys look to, either locally or globally, that you think are doing really interesting things in your space?

This sounds like a bit of a trite answer, but I think everybody’s doing interesting things. I mean, if you look across the banks, you’ll see very interesting things coming out from different banks on a daily basis. So, I wouldn’t say there was any one institution that we’re looking up to in admiration. Very interesting [things] from fintech, as we’ve just discussed, but also, coming out of Asia. There’s some real, fast moving fintechs, not that they’re fintechs, really, though, they’re huge, huge companies. But they’re pushing very hard, and some of the products that they’re giving their customers are getting very advanced.

I wouldn’t say there was any one institution that we’re looking up to in admiration. Very interesting [things] from fintech, as we’ve just discussed, but also, coming out of Asia.

Well, that must be quite a unique thing, from HSBC’s perspective, actually. The realities of Alibaba and TenCent, and all of the people coming through there, scale is not a problem that they’ve had. In the UK, we’re excited that somebody like Monzo is getting 400,000 customers but [Alipay] have got 450 million active customers, so it must be interesting to see that difference in the different markets?

Yeah, they’re different types of partnerships. The relationship that you would have with big and small is very different. So, with a large player, you’re standing equally at the table and they’re serious negotiations. There’s also many things you can do. So, when you’re doing a partnership with a big player, there’s so many touchpoints. The art is actually trying to work out what is the best thing for us to do next? Because you can’t do 20 things. That’s one of the processes that we’re seeing in the market now. People are trying to work out how best to partner with each other. I think we’re still at quite an early stage with this. That’s going to be a big new growth area, in terms of big player partnerships on particular topics. With the fintech, it tends to be a little bit simpler, because they typically are doing one thing, and you’re trying to fit their product, their expertise, their service, into your offering. Or, let’s say they’re running a platform, a multi-participant platform, you are then trying to fit your product onto their platform. With the bigger players, there’s almost too much opportunity, and you need to hone it down and work out what works for both.

That’s one of the processes that we’re seeing in the market now. People are trying to work out how best to partner with each other. I think we’re still at quite an early stage with this.

Moving back to you a little bit here. You’ve had a really interesting background, there must be many highlights, but what would you point to as the highlight of your career so far?

Ah, yeah, that’s quite a difficult one, because at different points in your career, different things are very significant.

I think one of the things I enjoyed a lot was probably at Market Group, because I was thrown out of my depth. I’d been in banking most of my career, all my career, basically. I had been doing different things in banking, I had senior jobs in lots of different roles, but I was, effectively in the same zone, and suddenly I was in a different zone, and although I recognised all the financial instruments, and I knew all the players, both on the buy side and the sell side, the mechanism of creating, you know, a digital product, or data products, or a technology product, depending on how you want to describe it, that was something I’d never done before, and I had to work out how to build something, and how to commercialise it, and all the levers.

That period was quite rewarding for me, because it gave me the confidence that I could do something totally different than the thing that I’d been trained to do. And I think that confidence has helped me in this last phase, because I’ve had to do many different things since I joined HSBC, but I had the confidence that whatever I take on, I can do. 

There’s nothing quite like the deep end for accelerated learning, is there?

Definitely. There are periods, whenever you get dropped in the deep end, or drop yourself in the deep end, there are periods where you think, “Why didn’t I just stay in that warm, comfortable place of what I know?” But I think what it does do, is gives you that breadth of experience, of how to look at things and deal with different situations. I think, now, in this digital age, this is really useful, because things are speeding up so quick. I’ve never seen anything like this. I’ve been in the city 32 years, and I’ve never seen any period that’s so fast as this one. It’s going to be hard to keep pace, actually.

I think for individuals, it will be very difficult to try and keep pace with this change, because you’re sitting in the finance business, you’re surrounded by fintech, it’s quite financial, but all our customers are going through a digital revolution as well. Every sector is having some level of very meaningful digital revolution, in both the public and the private sector, and so our customers are changing, finance is changing, there’s competitors and collaborators around us, so it is a time to be on your toes.

Every sector is having some level of very meaningful digital revolution, in both the public and the private sector, and so our customers are changing, finance is changing, there’s competitors and collaborators around us, so it is a time to be on your toes.

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