In October 2021, former Google Chief Transformation Officer Laura Merling unwittingly became part of the Great Exodus. Or, more accurately, she joined the great revolution, choosing a new challenge in an entirely new field.
In the year In February 2022, Arvest Bank, a community bank with more than $26 billion in assets, announced the hiring of Merling as its new Chief Transformation and Operations Officer.
Prior to Google, she led the digital transformation journey of multinational organizations in telecommunications, automotive and aerospace and other industries.
As CTOO, Merling is responsible for developing a transformation strategy for the bank, including both business and technology developments, customer-facing solutions and back-office processes, among others.
The role at Arvest will allow her to work in the way she prefers, taking a strategic approach to transformation after more than a year in a more consulting role at Google.
But instead of East, the move to Arvest marks a natural career transition for the tech veteran with more than two decades of experience in high-tech leadership. While the position marks her first time in financial services, she says, “Transformation has its challenges, regardless of industry.”
She explains, “Technology is the enabler of real change. Change is often about business change, it’s all the same, I say.
By laying the foundation
Despite the parallels, Merling is not about blasé fintech challenges. Since joining Arvest, she has relied on a research and evaluation-oriented approach. She spent the first 90 days meeting with the Arvest Bank team, from the front line to presidents, loan officers and shareholders, aiming to learn from each team. She also spends time with the risk and compliance teams that she works closely with during transformation projects.
Merling sees collaboration as a key requirement. Reporting to the bank’s CEO, Kevin Sabin, she interacts with leaders at all levels through team committees. She has frequent connections at the executive committee and bank president levels.
Engagement is an integral part of Merling’s ethos. When leading a transformation project, instead of just managing her team and the people involved, she actively participates in discussions, town halls and pitch meetings, generating solutions with her team.
Basic technological improvement
The CTO’s first 90 days laid the foundation for her transformation strategy, aligning with the bank’s broader strategic priorities. For the rest of 2022, Arvest is focusing on the core aspects of its business and technology stack, looking at cloud migration, improving its data platform, back-office automation and launching its services on its new core banking platform. Collaboration with fintech think tank and consultancy Accenture
To achieve the bank’s transformation goals, Merling first sought to understand the strengths and weaknesses of the business as well as the broader context in which the bank operates. A key part of the initial stages of the process was a vulnerability study focused on the market around the bank, customers and competitors.
She brought in a third party to review the bank’s technology stack and data architecture. Following a technology stack review, the bank had a framework of what it did, what it could reuse and what it needed to replace.
Arvest Bank deploys the cloud for digital transformation.
For Merling, technology stack upgrades without a goal have no place in a digital transformation strategy. The bank’s technology alignment should match its business objectives. Arvest aims to be a leading community digital bank. Therefore, it had to invest in a technology stack that was customer-centric and supported the upcoming digital innovation.
“If we want to be the leading community digital bank, we need to think about what it means to be digital,” she said.
“In five years, think about where the metaverse will be. Think about video conferencing. Think about biometrics. When you think about all of these things, you need a technology stack that supports the future of a dynamic environment.
To that end, moving core systems to the cloud became one of the bank’s first objectives. In July, the bank announced a five-year partnership with Google Cloud. Under the partnership, Arvest will first migrate one of its data centers to Google Cloud, and will continue to maintain other data centers. The bank also wants to create a new data platform as part of the migration process.
“If I want to be able to do artificial intelligence and do personalized offers or proactive protection, I have to make sure I have the data. The data has to be clean and organized. I have to have a single view of the customer. So we have to build that data platform,” says Merling.
AI is the key to innovation.
According to Merling, moving to the cloud will allow Arvest to innovate faster using AI and machine learning technologies. AI is one of the key areas of focus for the bank. Google’s cloud-based platform, Vertex AI, gives Arvest Bank the tools it needs to quickly start automating banking operations, including contact center as a service and other capabilities.
As the bank prepares to incorporate AI into its ecosystem, it is working closely with Google to enhance its own team’s expertise. The bank is launching Google Days, and the search engine giant’s engineers will be meeting with Arvest’s team to help them on their journey.
AI for loan processing
One of the areas where Arvest is currently looking to use AI is in the loan process. The bank is considering using Google’s document processing platform DocAI to have the ability to automatically process and integrate data from loan documents into its system.
“Automation eliminates a lot of manual work and processes. We see that as an immediate big win,” explains Merling.
Going forward, APIs and third-party integration will be a key strategy for the bank’s innovation goal. To support this transition, Arvest recently announced the hiring of Brian Hicks as Head of Product on API and Third Party Integration.
Arvest Bank is looking to further expand its team by hiring software developers, data scientists and product managers to deliver its transformation strategy.