Bank of America Is Vying for a Leg Up in the Tech World

Catherine Bessant is competing with startups in Silicon Valley for tech talent. Her pitch? While the bank doesn’t have ping pong tables or bean bag chairs, its platform allows innovators to make an impact on 50 million households.

When Catherine Bessant got a 5:00 p.m. call from Bank of America CEO Brian Moynihan almost seven years ago offering her the job of Chief Operations and Technology Officer, she knew big challenges were ahead. The company had climbed its way to the top of the U.S. banking system through an aggressive acquisition strategy and, like other banks, now had to contend with tough new banking regulations as well. In her new role, Bessant — who had previously served as president of global corporate banking and has been with the bank for 34 years — first had to simplify and consolidate multiple systems, applications and even data centers. Her skill at navigating those challenges earned her the nickname Ms. Fix-It.

Six years later, Bessant’s job at the Charlotte, North Carolina bank hasn’t gotten any easier: she’s tasked with the job of modernizing the $2.2 trillion-in-assets bank in a fiercely competitive landscape. In a keynote interview at Institutional Investor’s iiFintech Symposium in New York City on Thursday, Bessant, who ranks No. 1 on Institutional Investor’s 2016 Tech 50 list, discussed her approach to keeping up with a marketplace that moves at the speed of the consumer.

“Technology is our business and our business is technology,” she said. “Are we order takers in technology or are we drivers?”

The Bank of America currently is tackling a vast array of projects, ranging from robotics, cardless ATMs, web-based loan origination systems, and electronic signature solutions like DocuSign. It’s all in an attempt to use machines to not only handle repetitive functions and document management, but reach consumers in new and even more personal ways, she explained.

Her first move involved a 100 percent talent overhaul, ultimately bringing in nearly 4,000 technologists — what the bank calls “inventors.” Like many financial services firms, Bank of America is hoping to attract the kind of tech talent that might traditionally have gravitated toward the likes of Google or Facebook.

“We’re trying to build a brand to be forward thinking, to be known as a place that is magnetic to that kind of talent,” Bessant said. “Great code does not write itself; great operating systems don’t just appear. It takes talent that we nurture.”


As for the threat of collections of mobile apps like Venmo — that some developers even hope will ultimately replace banks, Bessant says she’s not worried about competition. There is always room for banks, she says, but also she views tech providers as potential (and much-needed) collaborators. To that end, Bessant says she is constantly on the lookout for innovative startups: “If you have a better way to do it, I’m going to buy it from you or work with you.”