Gulru Atak, the new head of Citi’s global treasury and trade solutions Dublin lab and innovation, talks to Joy Macknight about her innovation programme for growing the bank’s global transaction banking business.

Gulru Atak

When the job of treasury and trade solutions (TTS) Dublin lab and innovation head at Citi came up, Gulru Atak knew it was for her. “The role excited me because I believe that it can truly shape the future of transaction banking,” she says.

While not from a tech background, Ms Atak’s more than 15 years’ experience in diverse areas of the company’s business in Turkey – including internal audit and finance before joining the global transaction services in strategy risk and control – gave her an edge over other applicants.

“[My experience] helps bring the bigger picture to innovation, as well as the connectivity needed in a large organisation,” she says. “By acting as a catalyst between clients, products, legal and compliance, I can energise the key stakeholders.”

Open to ideas

Previously, Ms Atak was head of TTS for Turkey and five non-presence countries in central Asia and the Caucasus, an experience that influences her outlook. “I can compare working in a country like Turkey, where technology is well developed in the banking industry, with a country like Turkmenistan, which is just starting up its cards proposition,” she says.

Ms Atak was appointed on February 1 and moved from Turkey to Ireland in early April. As well as leading Citi’s Dublin lab, she also has the Singapore innovation lab and staff covering digital strategy and digital security in North America reporting to her.

Her new role differs in many ways from managing the TTS business, which has qualitative and quantitative key performance indicators that are easy to measure. The innovation role, in contrast, is about “managing the uncertainty and being open to different ideas”, she says.

Broad engagement

Ms Atak’s strategy is to “bring the outside in” by asking Citi employees to challenge the business with disruptive ideas, which the lab can help to deliver together with them. “The innovation lab’s mandate is twofold: to enable and to execute on TTS’s growth programme,” she says.

Importantly, the lab does not want innovation to be the domain of a restricted few, but engages with business-as-usual product people to help them progress. The Dublin lab also facilitates co-creation with TTS clients.

“We bring together industry players, whether clients or regulatory bodies, to identify the real pain points when an industry touches financial services, such as working capital management, and we then brainstorm solutions together,” she says.

In addition, the lab is working with external parties and partners. Ms Atak says: “For example, AI [artificial intelligence] was a hot topic at Mobile World Congress, so we have teamed up our data scientists with AI companies, to uncover the real-use case for transaction banking and develop solutions for our clients.”

New technology

With the current buzz around blockchain, it is unsurprising that Citi TTS has a centre of excellence on blockchain in the Dublin lab, established in 2015 together with its venture capital arm, Citi Ventures. As a result of this experimentation, Citi TTS and Nasdaq went live in May with tech start-up Chain’s distributed ledger technology to record and transmit payment instructions.

Application programming interfaces (APIs) are another area of technology that will make an impact on transaction banking, according to Ms Atak. “The industry is moving from batch processing to real time, and API technology will be a game changer for that,” she says.

Early in 2017, Citi TTS launched its own platform, CitiConnect API, for payment initiation, payment status and account balance inquiries. “APIs will change how clients interact with their bank, not only from a communication perspective but also how they transact,” says Ms Atak.

She also singles out data science and AI. Citi TTS is currently working on a predictive risk analysis tool, which will help clients to detect fraudulent payment transactions and set additional controls.

“It is a self-learning tool, based on the client’s payment data history. The system can identify outliers with a certain level of confidence and reroute them to a final approver. That will help our clients avoid future frauds, if not zero them,” she says. The new tool will be rolled out to corporate clients first, with plans to make it available to financial institution clients in the future.

A brave new world

Transaction banking is not facing the same level of disruption as retail in the short term, mainly because of the time its takes to build trust in the eyes of corporate clients, and the fact that the stakes are much higher when a corporate treasurer or chief financial officer (CFO) is making company decisions, according to Ms Atak.

“We haven’t seen disruption yet, but we will. However, it will take a cultural shift in corporate organisations. When millennials become treasurers and CFOs, the expectation and behaviour will be totally different,” she says.

“But this shouldn’t make us complacent. We should envision the future of treasury and cash management in five years’ time and start working towards that today – that is what we are doing in the lab.” 


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