Eye on Finance

“Tech is always on the board’s agenda”

An interview with United’s CFO Kees ten Hoven by Lisette Ens of EY-Parthenon, published in Eye on Finance 

“IT is not a tool, but a strategic asset,” says CFO Kees ten Hoven of United, which built its own IT ecosystem.

In short

United has been making quite a name for itself as a provider of financial and legal services. Recently the company acquired the bank Banco di Caribe in the Antilles. CFO Kees ten Hoven explains in an interview with Lisette Ens of EY-Parthenon how that acquisition fits seamlessly into United’s strategy, which is dominated by digital.

United was founded in 2007 and has grown since then into a one stop shop for financial and legal services, with nine offices around the globe and some 150 experts in various fields. “We make finance personal” is what the company promises on its website. United caters for a broad client base – from corporates, investment industry players to family offices.

Ten Hoven leaves no room for doubt: client centricity is the secret of the company’s success. “I know that practically every company claims to do the same. But we apply this philosophy consistently across the organisation, from top to bottom. We think along with our clients to understand what they really need. Our flat organisation structure makes this possible. As CFO, I also work with clients and coach junior staff, which I thoroughly enjoy.”

“The increasing focus of banks on de-risking is a great opportunity for us”

Because of its client focus, United is unique in the way it develops its digital tooling, says Ten Hoven: “In the past few years, we’ve built a high-end ecosystem that enables us to offer excellent service. We are not afraid to involve our clients in this process, as we did when we developed a payment platform for our bank in Curaçao. We want to hear what clients need and together we devise on how we can provide the proper functionality.

Behind the ecosystem
In technical terms, United possesses a cloud-based ecosystem of integrated Microsoft Dynamics 365-modules running on the Azure platform. This ecosystem handles the entire process of client on- and offboarding and embeds an interactive Client Information Portal (CIP) that meets the full range of Know Your Customer (KYC) and Customer Due Diligence (CDD) requirements.

Compliance and risk themes like this have been top of mind in the entire financial sector over the past ten years. Is that what sets your ecosystem apart?
“KYC and CDD regulations are certainly demanding. Our ecosystem can handle this seamlessly. Which is largely thanks to Pascal, the compliance and risk decision support platform that we have built together with our own FinTech company Vartion. This platform uses a very powerful search engine and artificial intelligence to discover hits and/or patterns in a range of data sources, including sanctions and PEP lists, company registers and news data. For our clients, Pascal is a valuable and indispensable tool that helps them comply with increasing regulations.”

So you no longer see the ecosystem as an ‘must have’ but as an opportunity?
“Yes, absolutely as an opportunity. For us it really is a business driver. Our ecosystem allows us to offer additional services like CaaS (Compliance as a Service), but also all kinds of legal or administrative business support services. Clients in the maritime and logistics sector have a distinct need for such services, especially post-Brexit. Our strength is that we understand our clients’ needs and wishes and can offer high-end IT solutions to comply.”

Does that make you more of a software house than a financial services provider?
“You could put it that way. The software we develop in-house can also be marketed to other parties, creating a new business model. For us, IT is so much more than a tool. It’s a strategic asset and is always on the board’s agenda.” 

“As with any integration, communication is  the key to success”

How does the acquisition of Banco di Caribe fit into this focus on digital?
“We want to grow, and in addition to organic growth we see opportunities to grow through acquisitions. The potential of this acquisition is especially strong because we have already invested in our ecosystem. All around us, we see that practically the entire banking sector is de-risking, in it response to increasing regulations. This has made it almost impossible for some companies to open a bank account or use other banking services. We are convinced that we can help these companies, motivated by our client centricity philosophy that I spoke about earlier on. In addition to standard procedures and checks, we are able to use our expertise and our ecosystem to address the client’s risk profiling and compliance aspects in offering them a tailored solution. We already had the know-how and tooling to do so. And with the acquisition of Banco di Caribe – a bank with a balance sheet total of $1 billion.”

With the acquisition of this bank, you are also faced with the task of integrating. What is the biggest challenge: technology or people?
“People are always the most important factor in such processes, and as part of any integration, communication is essential to succeed. Our job is to involve people in what we are doing, to make them part of ‘the why’ of the deal and what our ambitious plans are all about. I have every confidence we will be able to do so.”

In addition to organic growth, United also sees opportunities to grow through acquisitions, like its recent acquisition of Banco di Caribe. This acquisition is aimed at creating value through the market’s increasing de-risking trend. The potential of this acquisition is tremendous, says CFO Kees ten Hoven, especially given the self-developed company’s ecosystem, which is a pure business driver. According to Ten Hoven, the system allows United to provide excellent business support services.

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