#Podcast

FinTrends | Eric Bierry – CEO of Sopra Banking Software

May 15, 2024
Also Available in : Français
Caroline Béguin, Copywriter at Sopra Banking Software

Gaining client trust to support executives in the industry was a critical milestone in my career journey.

Eric Bierry – CEO of Sopra Banking Software (answering a question about an important milestone in his career journey that led him to his CEO role)

Dive into the professional day-to-day of Eric Bierry, CEO of Sopra Banking Software, to discover the person, the leader, and the expert.

Throughout this conversation, Eric sheds light on key topics in the financial sector, such as geopolitics, AI, cybersecurity, and the rise of open finance.

Sprinkled with anecdotes of his multicultural professional experiences, his 30-year journey is characterized by a common thread: the importance of trust-based relationships he has woven with clients.

Transcript of the podcast

Introduction+

Caroline: Today, we’ll be speaking with Eric Bierry, the CEO of SBS, who has a 30-year career in the banking sector. We’ll learn more about his background and benefit from his banking expertise. Hi, Eric.

Eric Bierry: Hi, Caroline.

Caroline: Welcome. Thanks for joining us and sharing your time.

Eric Bierry: With pleasure.

Caroline: I’ve given a brief introduction, but can you tell us more about your career path in your own words?

Eric Bierry: Of course. I started in IT in 1995. There are two major milestones in my career. The first was joining an Indian company called Polaris Software in 2006. It was a spin-off of Citibank India focused on corporate investment banking, marking my first experience in the software industry after traditional IT consultancy. The second milestone was joining Sopra Group in 2011, where I began as the CEO of the Benelux division. Back then, it was primarily consultancy and integration. I joined Sopra Banking Software at the end of 2016 as the Chief Client Officer, later becoming Deputy CEO, and eventually, CEO.

Taking Charge: the CEO’s Journey+

Caroline: From your perspective, what is the most impactful lesson you’ve learned over the years?

Eric Bierry: Reflecting on nearly 30 years across various countries and client relationships, I’d say the most important lesson is the value of building and maintaining trust with clients. This trust is crucial and has been a key element throughout my career.

Caroline: So, you’re now leading a company with 4,500 employees. Do you have a secret or an important milestone you can share?

Eric Bierry: Becoming CEO of this company wasn’t something I had fully anticipated. While it was a desired outcome, my own trust and confidence in my ability to handle such a role changed significantly around 2005. At the time, I was working for Logica, a UK-based company, stationed in France. While Logica was a major player in the UK, it was comparatively smaller in France, perhaps ranking around the top 25 or 30. Logica made a significant move by acquiring a French-based company called Unilog, which was 30 times larger in France than Logica. I wasn’t directly involved in the key decision-making process of this acquisition. Feeling somewhat detached, I made the bold decision to resign swiftly. Despite being young, I reflected on my situation and realized I needed to take charge. I decided to leverage my strengths, particularly in client relations, by reaching out to both existing and past clients, offering my services in outsourcing, business process outsourcing, and transformation. To my pleasant surprise, within just one to two months, I had secured not just one, but four clients. I found myself fully occupied as a consultant, supporting them in their transformations, often exceeding 125% capacity. This experience was pivotal for me, as it solidified my ability to gain trust and support executives within the financial services sector.

Childhood Dreams and Leadership+

Caroline:As a child, did you envision yourself as a future leader?

Eric Bierry: Absolutely not. I had no such grand visions, mainly because I wasn’t entirely sure what a CEO even did. However, I was always brimming with energy and a desire to make an impact. I knew whatever I ended up doing would involve meeting people, making connections, and likely entail travel, but the specifics were unclear to me at the time.

Breaking Conventions: The Power of Diversity+

Caroline:If you could choose what your teams will remember about you, what would you like it to be?

Eric Bierry: I believe this is incredibly important. When I first became CEO, my direct team, the executive committee, consisted solely of French individuals. However, considering that our business operated in 60 countries, having a committee composed entirely of French members didn’t align well with our global reach. Therefore, one of my initial decisions was to make a significant change by transitioning our working language from French to English. While this decision may have seemed unconventional, especially given the diverse cultural backgrounds of our team, it was essential for our global operations. This decision reflects a broader pattern in my career. I tend not to adhere strictly to conventional business practices outlined in manuals or books when building teams or addressing situations. Instead, I strive to think outside the box and build diverse teams with varied experiences, genders, and approaches, not solely confined to the specific domain in which we operate. I believe this inclusive approach to team-building has been a consistent and significant aspect of my career journey.

Beyond Pride Month: Goals for Inclusive Leadership+

Caroline: Speaking of inclusion, I recall your involvement in the diversity initiatives, particularly around Pride Month last year.

Eric Bierry: Yes.

Caroline: Could you elaborate on the significant role you chose to play in promoting LGBT+ inclusion within the group?

Eric Bierry: Certainly. There are a couple of aspects to this, perhaps one rooted in my childhood experiences. When I was six or seven, attending a Catholic school in the eastern part of France, all activities were overseen by church nuns. In that context, my best friend was Fernando, and he may even be listening to us now. He was a young boy in the early ’80s, but in his mind, he didn’t identify as a boy. This was already a challenging situation, especially given the Catholic environment. The dilemma was simple: at that age, you want to have many friends, but Fernando was considered an outsider. He was my best friend, yet it was difficult to discuss with my parents or anyone else due to the societal perceptions at the time. It was my first encounter with such an issue, and it left a lasting impact on me. Returning to your question about last year, it was crucial to me, much like my experience with Fernando, that those in leadership positions set an example and demonstrate an inclusive approach. While there’s often talk about racism and gender equality, the issues faced by the LGBT+ community, especially those without a clear gender identity, are sometimes overlooked. This is perhaps one of the most challenging situations in society today. For me, taking on the role of sponsor was just a small step, but one with significant implications. It’s about starting to drive change and setting an example for others. However, this is only the beginning. If we truly want to effect change, it must be embraced by many. As a leader, people look to you for guidance, and by taking action, you hope to inspire others to follow suit. That’s the underlying idea, and it’s even more relevant today.

Caroline: So, what are your goals in this area?

Eric Bierry: In addition to setting an example, I have four key areas in mind. Firstly, implementing policies specifically addressing the needs of this community within our company. Just as we have policies on gender equality without surprise, having policies supporting this community should be equally standard. Secondly, to attract the best talent, it’s essential to ensure our recruitment processes and candidate experiences are adapted to be inclusive. It doesn’t require monumental effort to make a meaningful change. Thirdly, providing support for individuals within this community is crucial for their well-being and career progression. Without appropriate support structures in place, individuals may feel neglected. Lastly, raising awareness is paramount. Reflecting on my experience with Fernando, the lack of awareness was a significant barrier. Training sessions can help our management teams understand and address biases they may not even be aware of. It’s not about extensive training but rather creating a mirror to reflect on our biases and behaviors. These are just the initial steps, but I hope they’ll pave the way for many more to follow suit.

Creating Value: Opportunities in the SBS-Axway Merger+

Caroline: There’s been a major news event that everyone’s talking about: the merger between SBS and Axway. As the CEO of SBS and an expert in the financial market, can you shed more light on the vision behind this merger?

Eric Bierry: Certainly. Initially, this was viewed as a purely financial transaction, considering both Axway and Sopra Steria are listed companies in France. However, it’s important to clarify that despite some misconceptions, Axway is not an American company but is headquartered in Annecy, just like Sopra Steria. As both companies are listed, we had to adhere to stringent financial and stock exchange regulations throughout the process. This decision didn’t suddenly materialize in January or February; personally, I began working on it in the summer of 23. The rationale behind this merger stems from two perspectives: shareholder and industrial. From a shareholder viewpoint, both Sopra Steria and Axway are primarily controlled by the same holding company, Sopra GMT, owned by the Pasquier family. Analysts believed that Sopra Steria’s strategy of combining software and services activities could be detrimental to its growth. Conversely, Axway, while performing well, wasn’t experiencing significant growth. Thus, merging the software and services businesses into separate entities was seen as a strategic move to enhance growth prospects. The support of the Pasquier family, known for their long-term track record, provides reassurance for the sustainability of this initiative. From an industrial standpoint, SBS specializes in providing processing platforms for banks, handling tasks like money transfers. Meanwhile, Axway offers technical tools for data manipulation and security, such as data transfer and API orchestration. Combining these capabilities presents a significant opportunity to deliver added value to our clients, particularly in the financial services sector. While there’s still work to be done, we’re optimistic about the potential of this combined approach.

Geopolitical Uncertainty: Challenges for Banks+

Caroline: Eric, we’ve delved into your role as an individual and as a CEO. Now, let’s switch gears and tap into your expertise. Looking back at 2023, it seemed to be a stable year for banks in general. However, as we transition into 2024, there’s a sense of uncertainty looming, especially with geopolitical tensions. What are your thoughts on what might unfold?

Eric Bierry: Predicting the future is always a challenge. Reflecting on 2023, while it was a positive year overall for banks, there were varied outcomes. Banks offering variable-rate loans fared better in the short term compared to those offering fixed-rate loans, such as many French banks. Additionally, the geopolitical instability, like what we’ve seen with Russia, has impacted the profitability of banks operating in certain regions. Looking ahead to 2024, uncertainty is indeed high, making it difficult to foresee what’s to come. However, let’s return to the fundamentals. The role of a bank in society was underscored during the COVID-19 pandemic. Banks became central in providing financial support, facilitating loans backed by governments, and aiding in economic recovery efforts. This highlighted the core role of banks in supporting individuals and the economy. Traditionally, banks are relied upon for significant life events, like buying a home or preparing for a child’s future. They’re expected to provide stability and financial security during uncertain times. However, heightened uncertainty, such as the possibility of geopolitical conflicts, prompts banks to exercise caution. Regulations dictate that banks maintain a certain level of liquidity to safeguard against risks. As uncertainty increases, banks become more conservative in their lending practices, which can impact investment and economic growth. Therefore, in 2024, we anticipate a challenging global environment, with banks likely being more cautious in extending credit and supporting new ventures. While some banks may fare better due to their robust financial positions, overall, we expect a subdued investment landscape. Of course, unforeseen events may alter this trajectory, but we remain cautiously optimistic about maintaining stability in the face of uncertainty.

Trust in Banking: A Cornerstone of Client Relationships+

Caroline: The issue of trust between clients and banks is crucial, as you’ve often emphasized in your speeches and as highlighted in the DBX survey. Do you believe banks truly understand the importance of trust?

Eric Bierry: Absolutely. Let me elaborate. The DBX survey, conducted in collaboration with Ipsos, is a valuable tool for understanding the needs of both banks and their clients. In 2013, for the first time, we expanded the survey to include over 10,000 clients, providing deeper insights into their relationships with banks. What surprised me was that over 80% of these clients identified trust as the primary factor in their banking relationship, surpassing even cost and pricing considerations. Trust, however, is multifaceted and challenging to quantify.

There are two dimensions of trust that I find particularly significant. Firstly, there’s the trust associated with privacy and data security. Clients entrust banks with a wealth of personal information, from spending habits to lifestyle choices. They expect banks to safeguard this information and utilize it responsibly for their benefit. Secondly, there’s the trust related to life events and financial decisions. For instance, if a client seeks a mortgage for a new home, they rely on their bank to support them through this process. Any refusal or failure to meet expectations can erode this trust significantly.

I want to emphasize the importance of the first dimension, as it underpins long-term relationships in an increasingly digital world. With growing expectations for instant solutions and seamless experiences, banks face the challenge of maintaining trust while adapting to rapid changes. This trust is fundamental to banks fulfilling their core role of supporting the economy and individuals alike.

Caroline: Do you believe banks are taking every necessary step to cultivate trust?

Eric Bierry: Indeed, I believe they are. Let’s rewind fifty years. Back then, trust in banks primarily revolved around the security of one’s deposits. Fast forward to today, and trust encompasses a myriad of services and features. You expect your bank not only to safeguard your funds but also to seamlessly manage your transactions and financial activities. This evolving notion of trust has spurred banks to innovate and compete with fintech companies, which offer compelling alternatives.

Banks understand that maintaining trust is crucial in this competitive landscape. They’re investing heavily in enhancing their digital capabilities to provide a seamless and trustworthy experience. By streamlining processes and improving engagement, they aim to solidify their position as your trusted financial partner. This strategic focus on trust permeates all aspects of their operations, regardless of their size or specialization.

AI in Banking: Transforming Operations and Enhancing Experiences+

Caroline: Regarding investment, banks are delving into AI, which many consider a transformative force. As a leader, how do you incorporate AI into your daily operations and does it impact your strategy?

Eric Bierry: AI’s omnipresence is undeniable. While it’s not entirely new to banking—consider credit scoring systems—it’s undergone significant evolution. Today, AI is revolutionizing how we perceive and approach tasks, necessitating a learning-centric approach. Our strategy centers on discerning AI’s tangible benefits. Rather than reducing workforce, we focus on speed, quality, and enhancing client support.

Initially, we explored AI’s potential in accelerating development cycles. By augmenting testing automation, we aimed to expedite product delivery without compromising quality. Our developers, equipped with tools like Copilot, have seen notable improvements in efficiency and quality. Feedback indicates a preference for AI-enabled workflows, empowering them to focus on value-added tasks.

Another application is smart support, leveraging AI-powered chatbots to enhance client interactions. Clients can now access automated assistance for routine queries, backed by real-time insights and documentation. While human expertise remains accessible when needed, AI-driven smart agents have significantly improved customer service efficiency.

These implementations are just the beginning, demonstrating AI’s potential to drive operational excellence and elevate customer experiences.

Caroline: How do you foresee AI changing the future of financial services?

Eric Bierry: There are two key aspects to consider. Firstly, AI’s capacity to deliver real-time capabilities will revolutionize banking services, driving competition in this domain. Secondly, AI’s role in fraud detection and pattern recognition is paramount. It can swiftly identify anomalous behaviors that may elude human observation, enhancing security measures. However, it’s crucial to address biases inherent in AI algorithms. For instance, if the AI is trained on a limited demographic, it may inadvertently perpetuate biases, leading to discriminatory outcomes. This phenomenon, known as algorithmic bias, has been a concern. Fortunately, advancements in AI are expanding access to broader datasets, mitigating these biases and ultimately reducing disparities in financial services. This aspect holds immense significance for the future of banking.

Understanding Open Banking and Open Finance+

Caroline: People often hear about open banking and open finance but may not fully understand what it entails. Can you explain it in simple terms and share SBS’s role in this ecosystem?

Eric Bierry: Open banking and open finance essentially facilitate the exchange of financial information between accounts. For instance, if you’re seeking a loan for a new scooter, instead of waiting weeks for approval, with open finance, you grant consent for various banks to access your financial data. This enables quicker decisions based on your financial profile, streamlining processes. SBS is involved in providing consent management services for banks across multiple countries, ensuring compliance with regulations and enabling seamless data sharing.

Caroline: Thank you, Eric, for shedding light on this topic and sharing your insights.

Eric Bierry: My pleasure, Caroline.