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Consistent Strategy Leads to Success in Latin America

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Luis Carlos Sarmiento Gutiérrez, CEO, Grupo Aval

Luis Carlos Sarmiento Gutiérrez, CEO, Grupo Aval

Grupo Aval is the largest financial conglomerate in Colombia and Central America. In Colombia, it controls four commercial banks, a merchant investment bank, and a pension fund manager. Through the merchant bank, Aval invests in some of the fastest-growing non-financial sectors of Colombia’s Gross National Product. In Central America, it owns six commercial banks, one in each of the six countries that make up the region.

As of December 31, 2019, Grupo Aval had on-balance sheet assets of 85 billion USD and 79 billion USD on assets managed for third parties. Grupo Aval serves approximately 30 million clients composed of banking and pension fund customers, 16 million banking customers and 14 pension fund clients. In this interview, Luis Carlos Sarmiento Gutiérrez, the CEO of Grupo Aval since 2000, provides insight into the company’s success.

When asked what sets Grupo Aval apart from other financial institutions, Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez states that consistency of our strategy was key. “Allow me to explain,” he says. “Long ago, we adopted a multi-brand and multi-business approach and we have consistently stuck to it through several economic cycles. That consistency in our approach has also meant that our results tend to be more consistent than those of others. We strive for steady growth, steady net income, and steady value accretion. This has been true throughout all the businesses that we have defined are part of our strategy, such as commercial banking through our four banks in Colombia and our banking group in Central America, pension fund management in Colombia, and investment/merchant banking as a vehicle to invest in the non-financial sector.”

So far, he notes that their strategy has worked as evidenced by their leadership in the markets and the businesses in which they participate. Both in Colombia and Central America, Grupo Aval holds leading market shares– particularly in net income, but also in assets, deposits, and assets under management. The same can be said for the non-financial sector industries where they participate, including construction and operation of toll roads, gas transportation and distribution, hotels, and agro industry.

To support their success, Grupo Aval’s strategy is composed of five pillars: Risk Management, Innovation, Efficiency, Talent, and Sustainability. “With risk management as a core pillar of success,” says Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez, “Grupo Aval is able to deliver transparent, reliable, and timely information to our stakeholders. Over the past decade, we have substantially strengthened our operating and compliance risk management teams.”

As an example, Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez cites Aval’s discipline in loan pricing. “Once we assess the risk in a credit exposure we price the relationship accordingly. Obviously, client relationships are frequently driven by ancillary businesses (with the client) that help mitigate risk. Appropriate pricing is the result of understanding credit risk management.” According to Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez, Aval has similar approaches to other types of operating risk, including liquidity, market, reputational, strategic and concentration.

“Additionally,” says Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez, “we have zero tolerance to compliance risk. We have a very large organization and have made enormous investments to constantly assess and guarantee that compliance risk (money laundering, terrorism, etc.) is managed to zero.”

According to Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez, Aval delivers value via growth, profitability, and sustainability, noting they would rather slow growth than grow unprofitably. “That is why we are so disciplined after we price according to risk,” he says. “While we do lose credits to our competitors as the market under prices us frequently, we remain focused as we believe that growth must be accompanied by profitability. We do not take undue market risk exposure. We allow less market risk in the building of our portfolios. We grow inorganically only when we are quite sure that the return on our investments amply surpasses our hurdle rates. These all lead to consistent steady results trending in the right direction. That should make it easier for an investor to model our future results. That,” he says, “is how we deliver value.”

Corporate social responsibility has always been important to Grupo Aval, which greatly contributes to Colombia’s social-economic development. “Indeed,” says Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez, “for all our entities, CSR has always been a priority in their agendas, albeit their efforts were somewhat dispersed. That is why I decided to make CSR one of our strategic pillars. As a result, all those CSR initiatives that had been implemented in the last decade by our entities to contribute to the economic, social, and environmental development in their markets were aligned and refocused in a concerted effort supervised from the holding company. These strategies were redefined under the premise of excellence and refocused to meet the expectations of our stakeholders. Personally,” he says, “I believe that companies with better ESG strategies deliver better financial results, which leads to better generation of value and we will continue to strive towards excellence in this field.”

With the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez notes that Grupo Aval demonstrated a quick, efficient response. “In March of this year,” he says, “we set three main goals: to protect the health of our employees and our suppliers, to prove the viability of our contingency and business continuity plans, and to design and offer opportune and sensible debt relief packages to our clients. To make this all happen,our CRO and her team have paid special consideration, on a daily basis, to liquidity, market, credit and operational risk at the consolidated group level as well as individually in each of our subsidiaries.”

To elaborate on a few actions that they have taken in the past months, 94% of Aval’s administrative employees are currently working from home and those who support the branch network are following strict social distancing and sanitary protocols, according to Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez. “Periodic digital meetings with our CEOs and key executives have allowed me to keep informed on a day to day basis of the company’ operations.We launched a relief program worth 21 billion USD (in Colombia and Central America) for companies and individuals affected by the crisis,including deferral of installments, credit lines at preferential rates for companies to affect payroll payment and protect employment. We reduced fees charged on electronic channels and money transfers.”

Over the last decade, Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez has led the Group’s local and international expansion and spearheaded the Aval’s entrance into the international capital markets through bonds and equity issuances. “We have been active on the capital markets in debt, equity, and M&A in the last decade, with the acquisition of five financial entities (BACC redomatic, Banco Reformador BBVA Panama, Multibank and Horizonte), the issuance of 2.6 billion USD in global bonds, and the NYSE IPO of our share where we raised 1.3 billion USD. We have also tapped the Colombian equity markets where we have raised,in the last decade, more than 4.5 trillion pesos (2.4 billion USD)through the issuance of common and preferred shares.”

Looking to the future, Mr. Sarmiento Gutiérrez says he aspires to continue consolidating Grupo Aval as the largest financial conglomerate in their markets and to explore new markets as they become more lucrative. “We will pursue M&A opportunities if we believe that they are attractive and adequately priced and if they are accretive in the medium term to our existing operation. We may keep going back to the capital markets when conditions are favorable and when the use of proceeds support our strategy.”

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Round Table Feature – Attracting FDI at times of crisis

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Round Table Feature – Attracting FDI at times of crisis 1

In recent years the growth of Northern Ireland’s financial services sector has been fuelled by an unbeatable combination of world-class talent, highly competitive operating costs and research excellence in a low-risk, pro-business environment.

Of course, like many economies across the globe, the COVID-19 pandemic has had an impact on Northern Ireland’s communities and many of its businesses. But, thanks to this quality combination, the sector has demonstrated remarkable resilience and continued to thrive, leading to sustained job creation and high-profile customer wins from some of its leading players, including Allstate, Citi and Aflac.

To examine the patterns behind this continued growth in the face of adversity, we recently hosted a ‘virtual roundtable’ with senior figures from established businesses across Northern Ireland’s financial services sector alongside the nation’s fintech envoy, Andrew Jenkins and Invest Northern Ireland’s Steve Harper.

Here, our panel explored the market qualities investing financial services companies look for and discussed the elements they believe a business should invest in to build resilience and as an in-market team during challenging times.

Meet the panel

John Healy – Vice President & Managing Director, Allstate Northern Ireland: John leads Allstate NI’s team of 2,200 experts. He has 25 years’ experience in technology, predominantly in the financial services domain. He has extensive experience at leading global teams, developing strategy and delivering solutions to address business and technology issues.

Keith Farley – Managing Director, Aflac Northern Ireland Ltd: Keith is responsible for setting up Aflac’s European Centre of Excellence. He has relocated to Belfast, UK and is creating a new organization that will offer both software development and cyber security solutions. With a goal of growing from 0 to 150 professionals in a few years, this team will be a critical part of Aflac’s global digital strategy.

Leigh Meyer – Head of Global FX/MM & EMEA Markets Operations Belfast Site Head Citibank: Leigh has worked for Citi for 22 years, covering a number of products from derivatives to FX.  He is also the Northern Ireland Chair for TheCityUK, a private-sector membership body and industry advocacy group promoting the financial and related professional services industry of the United Kingdom.

Darragh McCarthy –Founder and CEO, FinTrU. In 2013, after many years in the banking industry in London, New York and Frankfurt, Darragh founded FinTrU in Belfast having recognised the increased demand from global investment banks for high-quality resources to navigate the ever-increasing regulatory landscape. The company employs over 600 people in Belfast and Derry-Londonderry. 

Steve Harper, Executive Director International Invest Northern Ireland Steve’s role at Invest NI, the region’s main development organisation, is to promote trade and inward investment into the area.

Q&A

What has been your experience as a financial services business operating in Northern Ireland during COVID-19?

Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: As a global company we have been fortunate to have the technology infrastructure to move almost our entire workforce to work from home successfully with little change to our day to day operations. In Northern Ireland, this means we continue to hire, and have successfully on boarded 172 new employees to Citi Belfast virtually over the last four months. The result has been that our client support was largely uninterrupted and continued to give our fullest care and attention in very tough times.

Keith Farley, Aflac NI: As a technology company, we have been very fortunate to have 100% of staff work remotely with minimal disruption. We were also able to continue hiring during the pandemic – more than doubling the size of our team from 19 employees in March to 50 in August.

Darragh McCarthy  FinTrU: Likewise. We made the decision in early March to facilitate 100% of our employees to begin working from home. The infrastructure in Northern Ireland has allowed us to manage this transition smoothly and maintain our productivity with client delivery.

What initially attracted you to Northern Ireland as a destination for your business?

Keith Farley, Aflac NI: We were attracted to Northern Ireland for many reasons, but it really boiled down to three words we have painted on our wall: Resilient, Reinventive and Adaptable. While these words reference the long history Belfast and the nation have in agility, they were proven once again proven during this pandemic.

John Healy OBE, Allstate NI: The availability of skilled technologists was the main reason for setting up an off-shore location in Northern Ireland over 20 years ago.  The original plan was to create a workforce of 200 but the quality of the people and skills available has meant that we have grown to a multi-site operation with 2,400 employees in Belfast and the North West.

Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: Put simply, its value proposition. Northern Ireland offers skilled people, competitive costs, great infrastructure and high standard of living, all with close proximity to London, the European, Middle East and Africa region. The nation also benefits from a central time zone ideal for supporting Asia, North and South America.

Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: In Northern Ireland, there is an incredible opportunity to partner with leading academic institutions including Queen’s University Belfast, Ulster University, Belfast Metropolitan College and North West Regional College.

FinTrU has undoubtedly benefited from these mutual partnerships with our Financial Services and Legal Academies providing local graduates with the opportunity to work on the global stage with the largest Investment Banks in the world.

How can regions support businesses to be more resilient during crises like the pandemic?

Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: Regions can help ensure that the infrastructure is robust, scalable and fit for purpose – this applies to both physical and technical infrastructure. It is also essential that policy makers give clear guidance on what health and safety measures they require, to boost the confidence of people travelling to and from work and in their everyday lives.

Keith Farley, Aflac NI: We believe that investments in infrastructure continue to be critical, especially urban and rural internet connectivity as we shift to more flexible work environments.

Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: In terms of the Financial Services industry, I feel crisis management and leadership is crucial. Having a clear strategy in place from the top can help alleviate the anxieties that others will face during a period of crisis. Regions can help businesses to be further resilient through investment in appropriate infrastructure to allow for the transition from office to homeworking in all areas across Northern Ireland.

What have external organisations (like Invest NI) been able to offer in terms of support?

Keith Farley, Aflac NI: Invest NI has been a great partner in introducing us to the region and the opportunities that exist here to hire world-class technology talent in a business-friendly environment.

Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: We have been in touch with our Client Manager throughout the pandemic. Invest NI has supported Citi from 2005, starting with the initial inward investment feasibility study and financial assistance to help expand the workforce in Belfast and training and development costs. We are also engaged with the NI Chamber of Commerce, CBI NI, Belfast City Council and universities and schools for exchange of ideas, support, driving the business agenda for the country.

Steve Harper, Invest Northern Ireland: We have worked hard to ensure that all businesses benefit from being part of Northern Ireland’s diverse economy, embedded resilience and agility. Even during the height of the pandemic, we were able to work closely with the Department of Finance and the Business Services Organisation to help match NI companies with government calls for much needed medical equipment and PPE. We received over 300 offers from businesses who expressed interest in supporting the fight against COVID-19 by developing prototypes and products for testing to ensure they comply with regulations. Many then went on to receive orders for PPE, ventilators, testing and sanitiser.

Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: We made the decision to not avail of any COVID-19 Governmental sponsored support initiatives or furlough any employees due to our ongoing growth. However, the resources provided by Invest NI such as the ‘Recover’ support which include ‘HR advice to build skills’, ‘Build resilience through leadership capability’, ‘Invest in ICT solutions and technologies’ and ‘Operation excellence to adapt to COVID-19’ demonstrates its commitment to the companies that have invested in Northern Ireland.

Coming out of the COVID-19 pandemic, what do you think are the challenges and opportunities facing the financial services sector?

Keith Farley, Aflac NI: We are going to need to work together with employees to ensure they feel safe traveling to work, knowing that their safety is a priority, but also that people want to return to a city that is open for business. We also need to learn from the pandemic to make our work environment safer, more inclusive and flexible. As a community, we recognised the impact we have on each other, as well as the importance of human interaction. We should not take that for granted again.

Steve Harper, Invest Northern Ireland: The resilience and agility demonstrated by businesses in the local financial services sector – and beyond – throughout the crisis really sets our region apart as a positive force and a lucrative location for business. This couldn’t have been achieved without its diverse business landscape, supportive environment, and of course, its excellent calibre of people. As we move forward, I strongly believe that this experience has unleashed a renewed sense of purpose and a collaborative and enterprising spirit that will serve us well as we recover and look forward – and these are qualities that this new world absolutely needs.

Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: Social distancing and remote working from home can leave people feeling isolated, especially those who are away from their families. At FinTrU, we invest heavily in our company culture and pay careful attention to ensure that it is not lost whilst we are working away from the office. It is important for businesses to consider the challenges faced by their people and to have empathy towards situations that may be experienced by others.

What do you think financial services organisations will look for going forward, when it comes to investing in new markets?

John Healy, Allstate NI: The financial services industry has seen dramatic technology-led changes over the past few years. Many have looked to improve efficiency and implement game-changing innovation, while seeking ways to lower costs. Meanwhile, Fintech start-ups are disrupting established markets, leading with customer-centric solutions developed from the ground up. To best serve our industry, markets will need highly skilled technologists in a range of areas: Blockchain, Robotics, AI, Cloud and Cyber Security, to name but a few. There must be collaboration between government, education and industry to prepare and sustain the skills that are required now and in the future.

Steve Harper, Invest Northern Ireland: Quality digital connectivity has proven essential during the crisis, and, as our lives move increasingly online, for these organisations it will become as critical to economic sustainability and growth as water and electricity are to our everyday lives today. Wherever you go around the world, those places that have invested in solid digital foundations have, in most cases, proven to be the most resilient. This is because digital services and solutions underpin innovation and productivity, as well as businesses’ ability to scale.

Leigh Meyer, Citi NI: Finance businesses value the ability to relocate staff effectively, source new talent and offer rewarding careers. We look closely at the broader legal, regulatory and tax regime. The UK’s operating environment needs to remain competitive, not least as the Brexit transition phase comes to an end. A robust infrastructure is also important, particularity digital/tech infrastructure in this current climate as we evolve our methods of training our employees to virtual. 

Darragh McCarthy, FinTrU: Without the correct infrastructure, it would not have been possible for businesses such as FinTrU to adapt to a situation like COVID-19. This robust connectivity and investment in technology will be a very important consideration for any company when investing in a new market. However, risk and cybersecurity represent an important area for Financial Services organisations to consider. This industry is more reliant than ever on technology, and a lack of risk management or compliance can cost an organisation greatly.

Finally, I feel the most important consideration for a company when it comes to investing in a new market is the people. The talented workforce will make up your organisation in terms of the client delivery as well as shaping the company culture.

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Is the upskilling of compliance teams in financial services the key to delivering fast and effective identity verification?

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Is the upskilling of compliance teams in financial services the key to delivering fast and effective identity verification? 2

By Charlie Roberts, Head of Business Development, UK, Ireland & EU at IDnow

With the global pandemic driving the world’s population online, identity fraud is becoming increasingly attractive to criminals. In 2019, even before COVID-19 struck, the UK fraud prevention service – Cifas – recorded in excess of 223,000 cases on its National Fraud Database, an increase of 18 percent on the previous year and a 32 percent rise over the previous five years. And looking ahead, experts predict that by 2021, the damage caused by internet fraud will reach $6 trillion, making cyber fraud one of the world’s fastest growing and most dangerous economic crimes.

Of particular concern for the financial services sector, is IBM’s recent report which revealed that in 2019, it was the most targeted industry for cyber criminals.

As a result, perhaps unsurprisingly, financial institutions are increasingly being thrust into the spotlight when it comes to digital security and protecting the identities of their customers.

These worrying figures are certainly one driving factor in the UK government’s new Digital Identity Strategy Board, which has developed six principles to strengthen digital identity delivery and policy in the country.

So how can financial institutions tackle the growing problem of cyber crime? We caught up with Charlie Roberts, Head of Business Development UK&I at IDnow, to talk about the importance of upskilling inhouse teams in a bid to deliver fast and effective identity verification.

What is the benefit of taking a hybrid approach to identity verification?

Charlie Roberts

Charlie Roberts

We already know the important role technology is playing in the fight against cyber criminality – from biometrics and machine learning to artificial intelligence (AI) – and we recently discussed the significance of supplementing this verification technology with human identification experts. These professionals are able to use their intuition and understanding of human interactions and behaviours to identify when a person is being coerced or dishonest.

However, while these highly skilled and trained identification specialists are playing a vital role in the fight against cyber and identity crime, for some financial institutions, particularly larger banks, they present a barrier.

How will owning the entire verification process benefit financial institutions?

Working on a SaaS basis, typically, identity software vendors provide financial institutions with the software and technology required for identity verification however, the final decision on verification rests with the vendor’s algorithms or ident specialists.

However, many banks want to own the entire verification process, from utilising the technology and software to making the ultimate decision on the identity of a person. By handing this level of control over to the bank, institutions can integrate the verification systems within their own infrastructure, enabling the people that know their brand the best to set their own levels of security and determine what is authenticated and what is declined.

Why should banks consider upskilling inhouse compliance teams?

While working with a third-party verification specialist is the preferred option for some, for others, the idea of upskilling and training existing compliance teams in identity verification is the priority, empowering the bank to own the process and the risk. Long term, it will also provide significant cost savings while showcasing a major investment in talent and people, which will undoubtedly help attract and retain customers too.

Is the time right to invest in inhouse identity verification systems?

With the UK seeking to develop a legal framework for digital identity, it is clearly becoming an increasingly important feature on the governmental agenda, not least to ensure that not only can people feel safe online, but also to deliver faster transactions and ultimately add billions to the economy. As such, all eyes will soon be turning to the safeguards the financial sector is putting in place to help protect the online identities of customers.

Arguably then, now is the time to invest in a robust identity verification system that will not only provide the advanced technology needed to automate the process, but that can help train and upskill inhouse teams to truly deliver an embedded and hybrid approach to identity verification at a time when it is of paramount importance.

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ZeroBounce COO Brian Minick Talks Email Marketing and Deliverability

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ZeroBounce COO Brian Minick Talks Email Marketing and Deliverability 3

For a channel that’s been deemed “dead” by some, email marketing is doing more than well. You can expect an average return of $42 for every dollar you invest. But what does it take to achieve such a high performance?

In this exclusive interview, ZeroBounce Chief Operating Officer Brian Minick breaks down the main ingredients of successful email campaigns. With more than 10 years of experience in Operations, Minick and his team are currently helping thousands of email senders across the world land in the inbox. Let’s see what he has to say about improving inbox placement, engagement, and email marketing ROI.

What are the biggest changes you’ve seen in email marketing this year?  

So many facets of the economy and the world have slowed down drastically or even stalled completely, but one thing showing no sign of stopping is email marketing. Email marketing is doing better than ever, but there are also new challenges that go along with this year.

Email engagement has gone up 200 percent since the pandemic hit. With everything being pushed online, it makes sense that businesses and people are heavily relying on email.

However, that’s not to say email marketing hasn’t suffered in other ways. There has been a massive increase in what we refer to in the industry as “churn.” Many were laid off or placed on leave. With their email addresses removed or abandoned, this has resulted in a rapid decline in email list quality.

Those bouncing emails lead to lost opportunities if companies don’t validate their lists regularly. Especially for the B2B sector, taking measures to restore email hygiene is paramount during these months.

How has ZeroBounce adapted to these changes to stay relevant in the market? 

For starters, we can easily help senders identify the bad email addresses once they get turned off. It’s important for many reasons, and one is to make sure you’re reaching real people.

Apart from that, we recognized our customers needed more tools to make their email marketing successful. So, this year, we launched three deliverability tools: a mail server tester, blacklist monitoring and an inbox placement tester. They all help marketers detect potential issues before they send, so they can increase their chances of landing in the inbox.

It’s a crazy time for all businesses and as the needs change, ZeroBounce likes to stay one step ahead.

From your experience talking to customers, what are the main challenges they have? How do they overcome them? 

Brian Minick

Brian Minick

Most of them have old databases that need cleaning. They may have an email list that has been dormant or neglected, and it causes bounces and spam complaints.

Sending newsletters or promotions to an outdated list is not a good idea. It jeopardizes the deliverability of emails to every person on the list, even the valid contacts. We help them get rid of the bad, ineffective and fake email addresses. Thus they can communicate more efficiently, boost their brand awareness, and increase ROI.

So many things go into creating a successful email campaign. What would you say are the most important ones? 

It’s so important to have a list made up of people who double opted in because you know they want to be there. Just as important is making sure all of your email addresses have been verified. These things ensure the greatest chance of arriving in the inbox.

But showing up, and doing so consistently, is only one part of it. You also need great subject lines. Your subject line is the first thing people see and it has a dramatic impact on your open rates.

Finally, well-written, relatable copy and a great call-to-action can push you across the finish line.

What type of content do you think brands should send out during these difficult months? 

It’s a tough time for so many. Brands have had to adapt their messaging and tone of voice, and those that didn’t have seen a decrease in engagement. People are less likely to respond to hard sell pitches right now. So, they key is to create content that shows genuine empathy – whether that content is for email, social media or other channels you use.

Keep in mind that everyone has felt these months, and some more than others. Show you’re there for people in a meaningful way.

Please give us one “trick” anyone can use in their email marketing today and see immediate results. 

Come up with two great options and then use A/B testing. Go with the one that works better!

What can you imagine in the future of email? 

With email growing in every way, and all indications showing no sign of slowing down, I see it getting even harder to land in the inbox. And if and when you do, every one of your emails will be competing with so many others.

Marketers are constantly refining their tactics and fine-tuning personalization to deliver the most relevant content, to the right person, at the right time. The competition will be even more intense, and that’s a good thing: it forces us all to get better.

What would you say to those struggling to keep their businesses afloat right now? 

Email marketing costs you very little, but has a great ROI. Keep on pushing and sooner or later you will find success. It is one of the most affordable ways to get in front of millions of people. If you aren’t using email to its fullest potential, don’t think about the time that has passed. Think of all the opportunities ahead of you.

It’s not too late. In fact, in many ways, it’s just starting.

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