Firing Up The Innovation Stakes

DBS’s push for a culture that breeds fresh ideas has a formidable proponent.


Every so often, the title fits the character.

Neal Cross, chief innovation officer at Singapore’s DBS Bank, grew up poor in the UK.

His dad abandoned the family. He threw himself into writing computer code, designing games, and by 16 had enough money to ‘retire’—that is, the way any 16-year-old might see retirement. He blew off school.

Instead, he traveled and by the time he ran out of cash 10 years later, the gaming world had changed. “You were stuck in a box in an office tower,” he said. The kind of innovation that attracted him in the first place had been corporatized and dumbed down.

He then became attracted to another line of work— designing search engines for Dun & Bradstreet.

The visibility he gained rising through the ranks at D&B eventually helped earn him a job at Microsoft in Australia, where he looked after its bank and insurance business in Asia-Pacific.

That was followed by a stint at Mastercard Labs in Singapore managing its Middle East and Africa business. Then a job opened at DBS Bank in Singapore.

Cross has a bracing view of the challenges facing the world’s banks. He sees the years 2015 to 2020 as a time of major disruption for the banks.

“We’ve had disruption in transportation, disruption in bookselling and videos, and now it’s financial services turn,” he told Global Finance during an interview at Sibos in Singapore this week.

“We must remember,” he added, “that’s it’s about banking moving into digital. It’s about digital moving into banks.”

In other words, the advantage and interest in the financial services revolution isn’t emanating from traditional financial services firms, but the marauding outsiders—the Alibaba’s and Google’s of the world.

Cross scoffs at the oft repeated charge that Asian businesses are primarily copiers—that innovation is beyond them.

He points to apps like Alibaba’s Alipay and Tencent’s WeChat, mobile text and voice messaging communication service, and suggests that established banking better catch up quick.

He notes that Alibaba is one of the biggest companies in the world by market cap. It has more firepower than the banks to acquire a fintech company and institute the next phase in disruption.

Finessing disruption is what Cross aims to do at DBS. He’s been in the job for 18 months and his innovation team—and internal, cross-departmental group—is to new company ideas what a carburetor is to an engine, combining fuel and airs for combustion and regulating speed.

Cross says he has about 1,000 new projects underway within the bank, many of which are aimed at reducing friction in the customer’s experience of financial services.

But they can be as techy as adapting blockchain technologies to cross-border transaction processing, for example, trade finance.

This initiative was recently supported by a DBS Blockchain Hackathon in May this year in which 15 teams, including start-ups and DBS ‘intrapreneurs,’ had 48 hours to develop innovative blockchain applications.

Cross sees DBS as creating a culture where change and innovation is embraced. “You can either give people fish, or teach them how to go fishing. We’re teaching them how to go fishing.”

How does a chief innovation officer relax? “I spend my weekends in Sumatra,” he says.

With the help of villagers and a local mosque, he’s building a resort for the observation of local orangutans, a pro-bono project that is developing skills for young men and women and creating jobs.

You wouldn’t expect Cross to simply go to the beach.