Ather Williams III is the Senior Executive Vice President and Head of Strategy, Digital Platforms, and Innovation at Wells Fargo, a post he has held since October of 2020. In that role, he leads corporate strategic planning, defines and manages digital platforms and capabilities, and oversees innovation priorities, opportunities and company-wide efforts to drive transformation.
Williams strategy role cuts across the five business lines at Wells Fargo, three of which are focused on consumer and two of which are focused on enterprise customers. “We work across those businesses, across all of our range of capabilities, covering our 69 million customers, and all of our functions to put together a coherent strategy to serve those clients in an innovative way,” noted Williams.
One of the key strategic pillars that that Williams and his team has defined and is helping to drive focuses on technology and innovation and having a digital-first, mobile-first, though not mobile only, mindset. “Digital platforms are a natural place to sit with me because it is a transformation of how we bring together a consistent consumer experience that starts with mobile across our deposits and payments business, our consumer lending business and our wealth management business,” said Williams. “[This intersection] will easily migrate across our other channels, be it an ATM, a branch or a financial advisor’s office.”
Williams considers the innovation part of his mandate to be the “fuel for the future.” The inspiration for that innovation often comes from interactions with customers and the needs they articulate, and the innovation is then driven by the team he has at his disposal within Wells Fargo together with a partner ecosystem he has curated. By way of example, Williams noted customers’ desire to rethink how they move their money around the world or new ways of investing their money. He also noted working with customers on how best to decarbonize. Wells Fargo makes its innovation channel accessible to customers and the broader ecosystem can help bring those ideas to life.
Williams noted that the pandemic has been a remarkable accelerant for mobile adoption. “All the metrics I look at weekly on our digital platforms, how we are performing and interacting with our clients, they are all up double digits year-over-year, and it is continual growth,” he said. “On the consumer side of the house, mobile is our number one channel. Between mobile and online, we have about just shy of two billion interactions with our clients every quarter.”
Williams is quick to add that these growth figures are not the death knell to Wells Fargo’s branches, however. He offers coin and currency transactions and mortgage initiation as two of a variety of examples of interactions that customers are often more comfortable doing in the branches. Williams describes the strategic approach the company is taking as mobile first but not mobile only. “Making that transition from being what a lot of banks traditionally have been which is a physical interaction first, technology supporting it, to being a technology led, physical supporting it,” Williams highlighted. “That flip is what we are driving from a strategy perspective.”
The company has also flipped the traditional script on how innovation happens. It used to be that companies like Wells Fargo built products and technology internally without outside partners to speak of. Counterexamples include payment networks for credit cards, or for clearing payments internationally, but these were exceptions rather than the rule. “Increasingly, banks are becoming ecosystem orchestrators where we build some stuff, but we enable you to experience it through APIs,” offered Williams by way of example. “That change, going from a very inwardly focused culture to an outwardly-focused culture, meaning engaged in the broader ecosystem for our clients, has been a big change.” Williams underscored that this trend happens both on the consumer and on the wholesale side of the business. Now enterprises bank through their ERP system in their treasury workstation. Wells Fargo has developed a means of plugging into that.
When asked how he measures innovation, Williams volunteered velocity of ideas through the company’s pipeline. “We run a funnel process and I measure ideas in and ideas we push into production, but it is also how quickly we can churn them through,” he noted. “Anything in the cryptocurrency area for example, is changing so rapidly that, I just need to make sure that we are getting enough reps or enough at-bats on things to see what might stick.” He also indicated that he is mindful of patents filed by the company. He also mentions that it is no longer useful to simply benchmark Wells Fargo against other banks, as had been the primary measuring stick used. “We look at some companies that are traditionally very innovative, mostly in the tech space but not necessarily banks,” said Williams. “I do look at how quickly they are launching new products, and how they are driving the industry.”
Each of the line of lines of business has a strategy and innovation lead. Their main job is to help each business think about how they are going to meet those changing customer needs and how the company will respond to competitive forces. Additionally, these leaders investigate problems Wells Fargo is trying to solve and then tap back into that innovation stream of what is happening in the market. There is also a team that is focused on innovation strategy. That team is “focused on thinking about what is five or ten years out that we need to keep our eyes on,” Williams said, “It can be a technology thing, or it could be an industry trend thing that we can see is going to impact us.”
The leaders of each of these teams come together with some frequency to share insights and to identify points of collaboration. The innovation team drives research and development, as well as the pilot and deliver, test and learn continuum to scaled ideas. “We get an idea such as cross border money movement over the distributed ledger,” said Williams. “Here is the client, here is the business case, here is the client scenario, how do we make that happen? You pull it into the lab, you can stand up a prototype and get it to run. Then once you get to a certain place, you can commercialize it and you flip it back into the business.”
This well thought out innovation engine is already bearing fruit, and Williams is confident that the best is yet to come.
Peter High is President of Metis Strategy, a business and IT advisory firm. He has written two bestselling books, and his third, Getting to Nimble, was recently released. He also moderates the Technovation podcast series and speaks at conferences around the world. Follow him on Twitter @PeterAHigh.