A retail revolution was unleashed last summer in Holborn, central London. I was there to see it but unusually it wasn’t just another fancy shiny new shop, loyalty card or clothes line, it was a bank. That’s right, the traditionally staid retail banking sector had a bit of hoopla about it for a change. Metro Bank UK opened its doors to the world last summer with balloons, bands, some very tasty ice cream, and a scrum of new customers all interested in this new rival to the established retail banks in the UK, which since the crash – and the takeovers it necessitated – had further consolidated their grip on the market.

"This is the most exciting job I’ve ever had," says Aisling Kane, the chief operations officer at Metro Bank, remembering back to that launch date of 29th July last year. "Nothing I’ve done before compares to this. I’d never even worked for a start-up before until joining Metro Bank from Anglo Irish in 2009 (see boxout for career details). There are no stupid bank rules or established ways of working here; everything is up for grabs."

"It’s been a fantastic experience at Metro Bank, delivering a multichannel service over the phone [via our call centre at the back of the first Holborn HQ], in ‘stores’ and online" she continues. "We all came together as a management team last year to ensure that all our systems were ready at the same time for the launch, despite the numerous challenges we faced."

Not the least of these challenges was the eruption of the Eyjafjallajökull volcano in Iceland which threw out a massive ash cloud into the atmosphere delaying flights in Europe and around the world – and crucially holding up some important IT guys from Temenos in Chennai, India, who were due to come over to the UK to assist in the final ‘go live’ of the T24 core banking system supplied by the vendor. Not even that so-called ‘act of god’ could hinder preparations for the launch, however, and video conferencing calls and a clearing sky soon had the project back on track.

Metro Bank has a unique business model for the retail banking industry in that it runs all of its IT externally. If it can be outsourced it has been. Kane leads an internal technology team of just six people that test vendor systems that are installed on a Software-as-a-Service basis and devise strong Service Level Agreements and management protocols to ensure a smooth operation. "Frankly, we didn’t have the money for huge big infrastructure projects as a start-up. It was important that we minimised the capital outlay," explains Kane, "plus the flexibility of outsourcing is attractive to us. It enabled us to avoid a lengthy implementation that would have drained financial resources."

There is no in-house development team because Metro Bank believes that its tight-knit technology vendor partners are better equipped to look after its IT needs, freeing the bank up to focus on its core mission of providing unparalleled customer service. It refers to its branches as ‘stores’ for instance, reflecting how it wants customers to view the experience of entering one of its premises where you’ll find lots of open desks with no security screens barring access to the tellers, a coin-to-cash converter machine, access to old fashioned safe deposit boxes, Sunday opening and even free dog biscuits. "It’s refreshing to be part of a welcoming working culture that rewards the results of customer satisfaction surveys instead of using sales bonuses as an incentive," adds Kane. 

The rates on offer to retail bank customers may not necessarily top the ‘best of’ tables in the newspapers but Metro Bank is convinced that its customer-centric approach will win converts. The fact it already has eight stores, with the newest branches opening this summer in Bromley and Croydon, and ambitious plans for an IPO in the next few years to fund 200 ‘stores’ by 2020 show that it is attracting custom, although the bank refuses to release the number of account holders. It must be considered as a viable threat to the established order, however, alongside other newcomers waiting in the wings such as Tesco Bank and Virgin.

"We won’t be buying the Lloyds Banking Group’s old sites either," says Kane, referring to the 600 branches that the bank has been told it must dispose of as a quid pro quo for the state aid it received during the financial crisis and the possibility that the Independent Commission on Banking in the UK will demand yet more sales to encourage competition. "Metro Bank has no desire to take on others’ premises as we want to create afresh."

Key technology suppliers for Metro Bank include Temenos with its T24 Model Bank platform, which was installed in just nine months ready to handle the newcomer’s entire core banking needs on a managed services contract. NIU Solutions hosts the back end IT externally. VocaLink look after its Wincor-Nixdorf ATM estate, providing access to the nationwide LINK cash machine network for customers and processing debit card, domestic and international payments. The Tall Group handles the bank’s cheque origination and processing needs, while a five-year deal with MasterCard, running until 2015, delivers credit and debit cards into customers hands after screening and money laundering checks have been carried out.

"The unique SaaS contracts we have in the UK make us different," explains Kane. "It gives us a flexible, low cost and low risk model that means my team have the time and space to be innovative and to focus on the customer without worrying about everyday operations. We can work quickly and be agile in this fast moving environment, designing new products with the assistance of our partners, because we’re not tied down to servicing old legacy systems. Our systems are all based on giving the user a single customer view."

Metro Bank has launched lots of new products over the last year, says Kane, including new savings and ISAs, and a recent improvement of its internet banking offering to enhance the look and feel of the website after obtaining customer feedback.

"Equally, we’ve got tight contractual SLAs to ensure consistent delivery of a quality banking experience but I think you’ve already lost the plot if you rely on that too much. We’ve got excellent relations with all our partners, in part thanks to the strong selection procedures we implemented right at the very beginning, so I can just pick up the phone and change things or discuss any issues we have straight away. A good working relationship is key to way we do business."

This is illustrated by the ongoing product development at Metro Bank, which unveiled a new mobile banking service with its partner Temenos at the vendor’s TCF user conference in Lisbon, Portugal earlier this year. The Arc Mobile solution from Temenos will give customers the ability to check their account, get mini-statements and overdraft warnings, and make secure payments to other members of the bank while they’re on the move. Arc Mobile will be installed by the end of the year, supporting all the major smartphone operating systems, covering the iPhone, Google’s Android OS, WindowsPhone7 and Java platforms like BlackBerry. "It gives us a flexible, secure mobile solution so we can extend our services and put Metro Bank securely and conveniently in the pocket of each and every customer," says Kane. "It will allow us to build on our market differentiation through simple self-service and exciting new areas including payments. Additionally, it prepares us for the mobile wallet and other groundbreaking new handset developments."

"The biggest thing I’ve learned as we celebrate our anniversary is that it’s vital to let the customer drive the IT, and not the other way around. So if they want mobile banking it’s naive not to give it to them. It’s no use foisting IT on customers that they don’t want – the opposite must be our aim." The consumerisation trend in IT is obviously something that Kane has already taken on board and it bodes well for the future of Metro Bank that it is aware – and accommodating – of the latest customer demands. In just a few short years, if its rapid expansion continues and 200 stores are indeed opened by 2020, Metro Bank could truly be a challenger to reckon with and a real force in UK High Street banking. BT

Curricululum Vitae

Aisling Kane, Chief operations officer of Metro Bank UK. 

2009-Present: Becomes COO of Metro Bank, the year before it opens its first store in Holborn, central London, on 29 July 2010. Building on the success of Vernon Hill’s Metro Bank operation in the US the newcomer focuses on customer service, calling its branches stores for instance and opening on Sundays and with longer hours. The technological challenge is to get all its IT in place using suppliers instead of expensive in-house development teams and to rollout the various SaaS platforms in time for the launch, with strong SLAs, testing programmes and an easily replicable design – eight ‘stores’ have now been opened. Key suppliers overseen by the six person IT team that Aisling leads, which manage the everyday apps at the bank, include Temenos, with its T24 core banking system; VocaLink which looks after payments; and NIU Solutions which hosts Metro Bank’s IT. "It has been my most rewarding job ever," she says. 

1995-2009: Holds various positions in her hometown of Dublin at Anglo Irish Bank, before rising to become director of operations UK in London for over a decade. Aisling spends 14 years learning about the banking and tech operations sector at Anglo Irish, before the crash hits the bank and indeed the country as a whole particularly hard.  

1991-1995: Trains as a chartered accountant at KPMG, working on audits but quickly decides it’s not for her and that banking will be her chosen field.

1990-1991: Obtains a professional diploma in accounting from Dublin City University.

1986-1990: Obtains a BSc from University College, Dublin. In the fourth and final year of her course Aisling specialises in Botany. "It’s not classical Darwin-type botany," she explains, "but rather genetics that lead me into the field and the exciting discoveries it was then opening up about plant life and the wider world around us. Daniel, her husband, is a scientist too but it’s not clear yet if their two boys, aged 10 and 12, will follow down the scientific or banking path.