The bigger the challenge, the bigger the thrill for Tjandra Gunawan. “I’m a guy that gets easily bored,” he smiles. And the messier the problem, the better. “I like to fix things. When something is constant, it makes me sleepy,” the President Director and CEO of Bank Neo Commerce (BNC) tells The CEO Magazine.
So when William Li, the Co-Founder and CEO of Indonesian financial company Akulaku approached him with what appeared like a unicorn of a task, Tjandra was all ears. “We met in 2019 and I assumed he was hiring for an executive role for Akulaku,” he says. “But instead, he told me that he had just bought an established bank that he wanted to transform into a digital bank.”
At the time, the concept was unheard of in the country, akin to building a spaceship, as Tjandra explains by way of comparison. “He told me that, within three years, the bank was going to be number one in Asia,” he says. Tjandra didn’t miss a beat. “I signed up for the challenge right away,” he says.
“When you build a digital bank, it’s often assumed that technology should be your first priority. But, in fact, the emphasis needs to be placed on the people using it.”
The bank in question was Bank Yudha Bhakti, a publicly listed military pensions bank founded in 1990. For Tjandra, it was the logical progression in a banking career that has spanned 25 years and global companies such as KPMG, Citi, Allianz, Commonwealth Bank, RBS and, most recently, CFO for the Indonesian arm of BNP Paribas.
His first priority as CEO was an unexpected one. “When you build a digital bank, it’s often assumed that technology should be your first priority,” he explains. But, in fact, the emphasis needs to be placed on the people using it. “You can buy the best technology on Earth, but if the people don’t want to use it, or are not trained in it, what’s the point?” For Tjandra, people come first, and a company culture follows them. “There needs to be something that binds them together,” he says. Once these both fall into place, then (but only then) does “the weapon” – as he describes technology – come into play.
But old habits die hard and Tjandra acknowledges that the first disruptive move he made was to shake up the way things were done. “On my first day in the office, I was handed a stack of memos to be signed,” he says, adding his response was to ask where were the technologies to streamline such processes. “We were also having up to six meetings discussing problems without finding answers. I explained that people needed to be equipped with solutions, even silly ones, because when polished, they can become diamonds.” One of the most important changes, however, came from above. “The management had to walk the talk, to be creative and offer solutions that were out of the box,” he says.
Just two years later, Tjandra and his team are already starting to reap the rewards of their hard work. “We are considered by many the foremost digital bank in Indonesia, with close to 16 million users,” he says. He’s particularly proud of the growing reputation BNC has for innovation and creativity: the BNC app invites users into the Neo World, the first gamified product from an Indonesian bank. “We’re looking at what fintechs, ecommerce companies and startups are doing and injecting that into the banking industry to make banking fun.”
Under his leadership, BNC is setting trends, rather than following them. “We’re acclaimed as the bank that gives high interest rates, but when we first announced we’d be offering eight per cent, everybody was mocking us,” he says. “But, at the end of the day, several banks have followed us.” The business also understands the value of investing in social media and using it as a platform to engage with its followers (over 200,000 users follow its Instagram account alone). “We have been able to attract new customers and new deposits this way.”
Strong in the belief that “the digital bank that can fulfill the needs of customers is going to be chosen by many of them”, Tjandra says much of his ongoing focus is on UX, or user experience. “We are the only digital bank that is diligently updating our app,” he says, adding that BNC can release up to five updates in a month. “And that’s not because our performance isn’t good. It’s because we are introducing new features.” One of the latest to be rolled out is an application called Neo Send, which allows the bank to act as an intermediary for interbank transactions at no cost to the customer.
“The digital bank that can fulfill the needs of customers is going to be chosen by many of them.”
The bank is also partnering with fintechs who share their vision of reaching the small and medium-size enterprises in the country that are underbanked – a figure he puts at more than 70 per cent. “We cannot build Indonesia as a digital country alone,” Tjandra says. “We need partners and they need us.”
The dream of being the number one digital bank in Asia is still firmly on the horizon and Tjandra knows that this won’t be achieved with only an Indonesian presence – he hopes to introduce the BNC app to other countries in the region in the next three to five years. But he does know that BNC is on the right path to long-term success. “We are a digital bank that dares to make a difference,” he says.