Duncan de Vries (NIBC): “We can’t predict where we’ll be three years from now”

Interview: Christel Don, Photography: Frank Poppelaars.
Production: Hike One.
This article is also available in Dutch.

This is the third in a series of interviews with innovation managers in Dutch corporates. Next interview is with Marjolein Boer of Port Rotterdam. Follow us and stay up to date.

In 2015, when Duncan de Vries (38) wrote an internal research report about fascinating innovations and trends within and beyond the financial industry, he drew the attention of his colleagues and the board of the NIBC Bank. “It was my first attempt to make people aware of how quickly the world around us is changing,” says De Vries, who has been working for the bank since his traineeship in 2004. His report had the intended effect and his mailbox quickly filled up with reactions from colleagues who recognized his observations. In that same year, the bank set up an innovation lab and put De Vries in charge.

NIBC, which has offices in The Hague, Amsterdam, Brussels, London, and Frankfurt, employs over 700 people. The establishment was founded in 1945 to fund enterprising companies that participated in rebuilding the Netherlands after WWII. Today, the NIBC Bank helps its customers with mortgages, saving products, and tailor-made loans to mid-sized companies. The bank excels at these tailor-made solutions and wishes to stay ahead of the game in this field, explains De Vries. “We live in a rapidly changing world, and our customers’ wishes change with it. So it is all the more important for everyone here to be alert to new developments that will help our customer relationships improve even further.” And De Vries is responsible for making his colleagues aware of such new developments. How does he do it?

Inspiring and connecting

In fact, he is the innovation lab. De Vries has deliberately chosen not to create a separate team. “The point is that we want everyone to be innovative and enterprising, so our innovation lab is not an island with people who are working on innovation isolated somewhere in a closed-off room.” De Vries’ workplace is symbolically located on an open work floor where countless departments are mixed. “That’s where I am, near the sandwiches,” he points at his desk that looks out on the Peace Palace.

So what does he do from here as an innovation lab? Well, he makes sure that something is done with the ideas that are conceived within the bank. “I can only do that if employees are inspired internally and know what is happening outside the bank,” explains De Vries. So he organizes workshops, brainstorm sessions, and monthly inspiration meetings on a range of themes relating to issues the bank and its customers encounter. For instance, what can 3D printing and robotization mean to our customers? Themes such as marketplace lending, cybersecurity and Lead Generation are also discussed. With an average audience of 80 to 180, the inspiration sessions are popular. In addition, the lab’s focus has been shifting towards action, or lots of experimentation, since it was established. “Trying out things on a small scale together with external parties, such as startups and scale-ups,” explains De Vries. The lab is currently running eight innovation projects in different stages, including an experiment with cybersecurity and text mining.

Employees who are involved in the innovation projects do this in addition to their daily work. It keeps them intrinsically motivated, says De Vries, because someone is always the owner of the challenges that they seek to solve. At the same time, people tend to look to him when the gears start grinding.

“So I have to make sure not to become the one who drives every project, which is a real pitfall.”

Chockablock

De Vries’ agenda is “stuffed” with meetings every day, he says. He keeps a close eye on every innovation project: how are they doing, is there something he can add, do they have sufficient information to continue? At the same time, he also monitors developments outside the bank on a daily basis, talking with a huge number of experts to keep abreast of new market developments.

“You can read reports, but I prefer to talk to entrepreneurs and researchers in the field because they give me information that is much more concrete.”

He doesn’t have 9 to 5 days but rather works from early in the morning until the moment he goes to sleep. Wouldn’t he like someone to assist him? He laughs. “Someones, absolutely, because we can achieve so much more!” At the same time, that goes against the idea of preventing an ‘innovation lab in a corner’, so De Vries mainly works with trainees and external parties. The innovation lab is a part of the ‘strategy & development’ department, which is led directly by the bank’s CFO, Herman Dijkhuizen. And CEO Paulus de Wilt acts as De Vries’ direct supporter and sparring partner. He explains that this support is vital because a culture change cannot be realized in a day. “People in banks have this time-honored tradition of thinking in terms of risks.” Which is why, in his first year as an innovation manager, he focused primarily on inciting enthusiasm in his colleagues — “to show how innovation can make their work more fun.”

We can always do better

De Vries does not mean to say that this part of his task is completed. “We can always do better,” but he does find that innovation has become top of mind for many of his colleagues. A good sign, which causes him to shift to specific themes now, such as data and artificial intelligence. “This means I am more focused, so we can start to specialize and gain knowledge within this context.” It also makes it easier to implement projects, which is a challenge generally speaking. In the end, the implementation process is not the innovation lab’s task, according to De Vries. “This is because implementation is often associated with a range of adjustments within the organization, such as the IT infrastructure. So that’s not an area in which I can add value.” The point is that the innovation lab should keep searching for new opportunities. So how does he keep up with what is happening within the bank? For the time being, it all fits into a single spreadsheet, says De Vries. And it will probably stay that way because he thinks it unlikely that they will be running hundreds of innovation projects purely from the lab in the future.

Innovating with startups

Banks and startups are not competitors, believes De Vries. “We prefer to innovate with startups.” This is why NIBC has invested in companies like Ebury, FinLeap, and Beequip, “so we can really collaborate”. Startups can help us with knowledge and technology that we don’t have, and we can help them with things like accommodation, capital, our network, and research data.”

The word ‘disruption’ is barely used during the interview even though banks tend to like talking about that trending topic in recent years. De Vries, however, takes a down-to-earth stance. “As a smaller bank, it is difficult to focus on disruptive innovations.” Take blockchain, for instance. “I hear and see that most blockchain initiatives are still in the pilot stage.” And he prefers to invest his energy in innovation projects that add value for the bank right now: projects that reduce costs internally and above all, allow them to serve customers better. In De Vries’ eyes, innovation means “taking new propositions to market that are in line with what the customer needs.” In terms of disruptive developments, De Vries prefers the ‘fast follower strategy’: read about it, talk to lots of experts and make sure that you board the train in time. Moreover, an increasing number of fintechs are moving towards banks and vice versa, he says. “And that fits in well with the Think Yes maxim of the NIBC Bank: we have to move forward together!”


Duncan de Vries

Current position: Head of Innovation Lab for NIBC since December 2015
Education: Bachelor’s in Business Administration, Master’s in Finance & Investment at Erasmus University in Rotterdam (1999–2005)
Previous positions (selection): Analyst at NIBC (2005–2007), Macroeconomist at NIBC (2007–2015), Portfolio Manager at NIBC (2015–2016).
Favorite innovation book: Hooked: How to Build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal
Essential gadget: Robot hoover
Impressive innovation: SpaceX by Elon Musk


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