PROFILE: Yatin Narsai, CEO of Bank Zero
Which lucrative banking activities could fintech applications reinvent?
This was the question pondered by former FNB head of retail Yatin Narsai, together with former FNB CEO Michael Jordaan. They discussed it in several debates and short papers, and over wine.
"There were many opportunities, and as we unpacked each in more detail we ‘synchronised’ on this idea," says Narsai. "It was very special, as we knew this meeting of the minds had tremendous gravitas."
The result was the latest banking venture to be granted a provisional licence: Bank Zero, an app-driven bank that will launch later this year.
Narsai has in the past arguably tackled the hard stuff, steering FNB’s retail banking unit and home loans business through the slowdown following the 2008 financial crisis and overhauling FNB’s outdated information technology systems. He says obtaining the banking licence was the hardest thing he has ever done.
"It was the equivalent of doing two PhDs at once," he says. "The top three challenges were the following: using the mutual bank’s framework to achieve capital efficiency to benefit all customers; delivering a business plan demonstrating that we, as a team, knew the complex realities of running a bank; [and] doing everything ourselves.
"We literally started with a blank page. Several hundred pages later we were granted a provisional licence."
Having a mutual bank licence means that Bank Zero, which has 45% black ownership, will eventually be owned by depositors. The bank has created products specifically targeting this market.
"We hope to attract many black customers with shareholder deposit products," says Narsai.
"We want to win customers through powerful innovation, financial control and transparency. Cost savings to customers will be significant, but in time, as word spreads, the other features will become far more important."
Narsai’s can-do attitude is perhaps informed by his family background. He says he was always interested in business, having come from a family of entrepreneurs.
But instead of following this path first, he worked in the IT field for 10 years after completing an honours degree in computer science. It led him to FNB’s IT department.
"IT reflects how business thinks," he says. "I often saw bigger business opportunities, which led me to taking on business roles.
"It was glorious fun seeing how clear business vision and direction led to [the] fast-tracking of IT projects and alignment across many units."
In 2001, Narsai began his second career as a banker, heading such units as smart solutions, public sector banking, consumer banking and retail banking (during the property crash of 2008/2009), before embarking on the path well-trodden by his family — and his third career — in 2014. He calls "being freed" to pursue his third career his defining moment.
"It certainly didn’t come easily, and start-ups are by nature very difficult," he says.
"When I look back, it started over 20 years ago [when I began] building the necessary capital to reach ‘escape velocity’ from the corporate world.
"My best is yet to come."