Corporate Innovation/Interview/

How Société Générale is fighting back against the fintechs

Claire Calmejane, who joined as chief innovation officer in 2018, on how she created a focused innovation strategy from 116 scattered projects at the French bank.

By Thomas Brown

Claire Calmejane, Société Générale

It’s not as if Société Générale wasn’t innovating at all three years ago, says Claire Calmejane. On the contrary, there was almost too much going on — but none of it was properly coordinated.

“We have 25 business and service units within the bank. A lot of innovation ‘stuff’ was happening, but it was diluted, so we decided to focus and to develop a strong strategy,” she says.

One of the first jobs for Calmejane, when she took on the newly created role of group chief innovation officer in 2018, was to take stock of the 116 live innovation projects underway across the French bank.

Collaborating with digital, transformation and startup experts, both internally and externally, she whittled these down to five core areas. 

“A lot of innovation ‘stuff’ was happening, but it was diluted, so we decided to focus and to develop a strong strategy”

“We came to five strategic growth priorities for SocGen,” she explains. “For us to grow beyond our core retail and investment business, it was these five areas we would need to be present in.”

These include:

  1. Banking-as-a-service;
  2. Digital payments and digital currency;
  3. Digital assets;
  4. Data-driven lending;
  5. Personalised financial advisory services, particularly for SMEs and professionals.

This ruthless focus has helped break down silos across those 25 business and service units — teams are sharing and collaborating across internal divisions because the bank’s five priority domains are forcing conversations to happen.  

“That’s the power of it,” says Calmejane. “Rather than investing in 116 projects, you’re pursuing five very strategic, very large projects — and you then align and focus your entire organisation around them.”

A little over three years later, and SocGen has made decent innovation progress. It has made five acquisitions, such as Fiducéo, the online personal finance management specialist and Reezocar, the Europe-wide platform specialising in the online sale of used cars. It has created eight fintechs through its intrapreneurship programme, including global security token platform FORGE (now a subsidiary) and Kwiper, a SaaS wealth management advisory solution for professionals. It has invested in more than 30 startups and fintechs through its dedicated SG Ventures innovation fund, with total investment in excess of €250m to date. This includes stakes in Belgian mobility startup Skipr and banking-as-a-service platform Treezor. And it has more than 200 partnerships with startups to bolster the bank’s commercial propositions.

Have banks been slow to respond?

Big banks often get criticised for being slow to respond to the threat from fintechs. Data from the 2020 edition of the long-running EFMA Innovation in Retail Banking report also suggests that only 7% of the more than 750 banks surveyed felt they were getting “commensurate benefits” from their digital transformation initiatives. 

Calmejane, however, thinks this is unfair. Two thirds of the bank’s 23m retail clients are now digitally active, with a minimum of one transaction a month in the app. Some 39% of new clients come to the bank via digital channels and 28% of sales happen via fully-digital journeys. 

We’re ahead of other pureplay banks like N26 or other online banks in France by far”

“You have to remember scale and the very significant numbers of customers we’re talking about when you compare us to banks with a couple of hundred thousand clients,” she says, citing SocGen’s online bank Boursorama’s 3.3m clients in France, and its acquisition of more than 1m new clients during 2021 alone.

“We’re ahead of other pureplay banks like N26 or other online banks in France by far. The acquisition number and satisfaction rate of our online bank is quite ahead.”

How Calmejane did it

Calmejane had backing from the highest level. It was CEO Frédéric Oudéa who convinced her to return to Paris after seven years with British lender Lloyds Banking Group.

“Frédéric made a clear decision,” says Calmejane. “Our transformation was about far more than technology, it needed to permeate all of our business. Whereas we previously had a small innovation team sitting under the IT department, he created a role reporting to the CEO and directly attached to the general management (the firm’s top management committee), in order to have the full power to execute the new innovation strategy.”

But as many innovation leaders know, even a focused strategy and a mandate from the CEO are not enough.

In complex, decentralised organisational structures, the innovation strategy may be coordinated at the centre, but it needs to be owned by the business units in order to make a real difference. And that’s genuine ownership, not passive endorsement or lip-service.

“It’s owned by the top management committee… it means I’m not central to the innovation strategy anymore”

For Calmejane, this took three key steps.

  1. Clear definition of each pillar — grand terms like banking-as-a-service look great on paper, but they’re open to an awful lot of interpretation. Calmejane’s team went to great lengths to clearly define the focus for each of the five pillars, analysing the economics and the business models they would entail, and securing sign-off from the group’s board before communicating more widely within the business.
  2. An ally in every business unit Calmejane identified one person in each of the bank’s 25 business and service units who was an adviser to their respective unit’s CEO, with whom she could work directly to translate and embed the strategy — leveraging a network of “boots on the ground”, rather than relying on top-down, centralised communication characteristic of a command-and-control mentality.
  3. Sponsorship by the firm’s top management each of the five growth pillars is “owned” by a member of the general management, direct reports of CEO Oudéa. Importantly, this is token sponsorship, but hands-on ownership, where each executive will directly and regularly interact with startups and more junior members of the organisation — creating a conduit for innovation from the top to the bottom of the organisation.

For Calmejane, these three steps — the last one in particular — are about getting innovation beyond the innovation function, really permeating the organisation, and her “getting out of the way” — staying true to the coordination role she was drawn to, rather than trying to “own” innovation centrally across a diverse and sprawling business.

“Each one of Frédéric’s direct reports directly sponsors one of the five strategic pillars,” she says. “It’s owned by the top management committee of the organisation, and it means I’m not central to the innovation strategy anymore.”

What are you trying to innovate?

The other big task was getting clarity around why the bank was innovating.

Calmejane initially found confusion surrounding terms such as innovation, digital and transformation. Not uncommon in large, complex organisations with catalogues of change initiatives underway at any one time.

Language and clarity can become incredibly important tools (or barriers if overlooked).

“The question you have to ask is, what are we aiming to do?” says Calmejane. “Are we aiming to accelerate the transformation of our current businesses, or are we aiming to create new business lines, like Boursorama (SocGen’s standalone digital bank), where we want, in 5-10 years’ time, to have diversified our portfolio of activities with new digital business models?”

“It’s not the same skills, it’s not the same people, it’s not the same strategic choice”

If you don’t answer (or at least ask) that foundational question, the lines can become blurred. You might find yourself attempting to leverage new business models to accelerate the transformation of existing ones — something Calmejane argues simply “won’t work — the economics are fundamentally different”.

She points to payments as an example, where the likes of Stripe and Adyen have become sizeable forces in helping ecommerce merchants improve conversion. Traditional financial services firms, Calmejane argues, have long offered payments services, but these new entrants are offering upwards of 50-60 services to merchants — some of which are purely payments related, but a lot of which are data-driven services, based on complex analysis of large volumes of transaction data.

If financial services players want to compete with the likes of Adyen and Stripe, they might find it’s an issue of business model that’s holding them back, not just proposition, as they struggle to define a role for themselves in a bigger picture than traditional payments services.

“So what are we trying to do?” she says. “Are we doing the same thing in payments as we always have, but incrementally adding new services, or is the value chain changing, and we’re talking about an entirely new business model?

“You cannot execute the two the same way. It’s not the same skills, it’s not the same people, it’s not the same strategic choice.”

We’ve become a training ground, but…

One of Calmejane’s biggest headaches is keeping hold of staff. 

“This morning I was on a call with one of our ventures,” says Calmejane. “About 30 minutes of the call was about talent retention in the market.”

Calmejane cites the likes of Stripe and Facebook as “directly hunting our talent”, something she sees as good news in one respect, as firms are “clearly interested in people we’ve grown at SocGen, which means we’ve become a training ground”.

“This morning I was on a call with one of our ventures, and about 30 minutes of the call was about talent retention”

But her biggest concern, beyond the obvious cost, resource and intellectual drain of staff turnover and high competition for digital and startup skills, is diversity.

“A lot of the talent we’ve brought in and developed has come from non-traditional backgrounds,” she says. “They bring a lot of different experience to the traditional financial, risk and business school backgrounds which are commonplace in our sector.”

Keeping momentum

Beyond talent, Calmejane’s biggest late-night worry is momentum. She’s beyond the stage where she has to keep convincing people about the need to innovate. 

“I don’t feel like I have to keep selling-in why we are doing this,” she says. “Now we’re in execution mode. I’m three years in, and there’s still a way to go in our journey.

“What I spend most of my time thinking about, is how you can maintain momentum in corporate and startup partnerships, against a very ambitious roadmap.”

Making innovation mainstream in the organisation, getting people “out of the sandbox and the playground” and into the real world is a never-ending challenge. Moving away from perfecting a test-and-learn environment and endless prototyping to really making an impact at scale with some 23m clients.

That’s the real challenge of execution.

Thomas Brown is Sifted’s corporate innovation reporter. He tweets @ThinkStuff

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