Financial Technology

Arvest Bank’s new transformation boss on building a tech stack for the future

In October 2021, ex-Google chief transformation officer, Laura Merling, inadvertently became part of the Great Resignation. Or, more accurately, she joined the Great Reshuffle, opting for a new challenge in a completely new sector.

In February 2022, Arvest Bank, a community bank with more than $26 billion in assets, announced Merling’s hire as its new chief transformation and operations officer.

Prior to Google, she had led the digital transformation journey for an eclectic mix of organisations across industries spanning telecommunications, automotive, and aerospace, among others.

As CTOO, Merling is responsible for setting up the transformation strategy for the bank, covering both the business and technology developments, including customer-facing solutions, and back-office processes, among others.

The role at Arvest brings her back to working in her preferred way, taking a hands-on approach to transformation, after more than a year at Google in a more advisory-driven role.

But rather than a pivot, the move to Arvest marks a natural career transition for the tech veteran, who has over two decades’ experience in senior technology leadership. Although the position marks her first foray into financial services, she notes that “transformation has some of the same challenges, regardless of industry.”

She explains, “technology is a means to an end of the actual transformation. The transformation is usually about a business transformation, which is all similar, I would say.”

Laying down the foundation

Despite the parallels, Merling is not blasé about the challenges of fintech. Since joining Arvest, she has leaned on a research and assessment-focused approach. She spent the first 90 days meeting the Arvest Bank team from the frontline to the presidents, to the loan managers and shareholders, aiming to learn from each group. She also spent time with the risk and compliance teams, with whom she will be working closely during transformation projects.

Merling sees collaboration as the key requirement for her role. Reporting to the bank’s CEO, Kevin Sabin, she has interactions with leaders across all levels through group committees. She also has frequent interactions at the executive committee and bank president levels.

Engagement is a core part of Merling’s ethos. When leading a transformation project, instead of just managing her team and the people involved, she actively participates in discussions, town halls and skip-level meetings, brainstorming solutions with her team.

A foundational technology revamp

The CTOO’s first 90 days also set the foundation for her transformation strategy in alignment with the bank’s broader strategic priorities. For the remainder of 2022, Arvest is focusing on the foundational aspects of the business and technology stack, looking into a cloud migration, revamping the data platform, back-office automation, and launching its services on the a new core banking platform, delivered in partnership with fintech Thought Machine and consultant Accenture.

To deliver the bank’s transformation goals, Merling first looked to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the business as well as the wider context in which the bank operated. A key part of the early stages of her process was a round of vulnerability studies, focusing on the market surrounding the bank, customers and competitors.

She also brought in a third party to evaluate the bank’s technology stack and data architecture. Following the technology stack evaluation, she had a framework for what the bank had done, what they might be able to reuse and what needs replacement.

Arvest bank sets up cloud for digital transformation

For Merling, a technology stack overhaul without a goal has no place in a digital transformation strategy. The bank’s technology alignment must match its business goal. Arvest intends to become a leading community digital bank. Therefore, it needed to invest in a technology stack that would be customer-centric and support the upcoming digital innovation.

“We need to think about what it means to be digital if we want to become a leading community digital bank,” she explains.

“In five years, think about where will the metaverse be. Think about video conferencing. Think about biometrics. When you think about all those things, you need a technology stack that supports a future state of a dynamic environment.”

To that end, moving core systems to the cloud became one of the initial objectives for the bank. In July, the bank announced that it had entered into a five-year partnership with Google Cloud. Under the partnership, Arvest will first migrate one of its data centres to Google Cloud, while continuing to keep the other data centres. The bank is also looking to create a new data platform as part of the migration process.

“If I want to be able to do artificial intelligence and make personalised offers or proactive protection, I need to make sure that I have the data available. The data needs to be clean and orchestrated. I need to have a single view of a customer. So, we need to build out that data platform,” says Merling.

AI is key to innovation

According to Merling, the move to the cloud enables Arvest to quickly innovate while leveraging AI and machine learning technologies. AI is one of the key focus areas for the bank. Google Cloud’s underlying platform, Vertex AI, gives Arvest Bank the necessary tool to get started quickly as it looks to automate bank operations, consider contact centre as a service and other potential capabilities.

As the bank prepares to incorporate AI into its ecosystem, it is working closely with Google to boost its own team’s expertise. The bank is launching Google days, where engineers from the search engine giant meet with the Arvest team to support them in the journey.

AI for loan processing

One of the areas where Arvest is currently looking to leverage AI is in loan processing. The bank is considering using Google’s document processing platform DocAI for its ability to automate the data from loan documents and integrate them into the system.

“The automation will take off a lot of manual work and processes. We see that as one quick big win,” explains Merling.

Going forward, APIs and third-party integrations will be major strategy for the bank in its goal for innovation. To support this transition, Arvest recently announced the hiring of Bryan Hicks as head of product over API and third-party integration.

Arvest Bank is looking to further expand its team by hiring software developers, data scientists and product managers to deliver on its transformation strategy.

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