DBS is looking to learn from tech and e-commerce giants to build a ‘blended model’: Innovation chief Neal Cross

Neal Cross is driving innovation forward for DBS by benchmarking it against tech and e-commerce giants.
Business Insider/Sujin Thomas

He’s taught tai chi and kung fu, developed computer games, poured his heart and soul into running social enterprises and even once worked as a deejay.

So you imagine what sort of quirks to expect when you meet DBS’ chief innovation officer Neal Cross.

For starters, he’s got a reputation when it comes to his dress sense, breaking all stereotypes of high-powered banking executives, by well, showing up in shorts.

He even dresses like that for important events where he’s due to deliver speeches in front of a VIP crowd, but today is slightly different – Cross is dressed in cargo pants and a khaki shirt.

“I actually dressed up. She (a colleague in corporate communications) said I’m not allowed to wear shorts today. I think I must be the only bank director outside of Bermuda who wears shorts to work,” he said during an interview with Business Insider at the recent Money20/20 Asia event.

He said: “It’s important for me to be me. If I’m talking a good game of innovation and the future of finance, it’s important that it’s backed up with a realistic picture of me and what I’m about.”

His professional life is as unconventional as his private one.

The British-born Cross spends his weekends in the Sumatran jungle helping to save the rainforest and the critically-endangered orangutan, as well as run his aptly named social enterprise, Hotel Orangutan.

Cross was also named the “most disruptive chief innovation officer/chief technology officer  globally” in 2016 by a panel which included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak and Virgin boss Richard Branson in the Talent Unleashed competition.

And that wasn’t for his outfits which is a disruption in itself.

He’s played a huge part in the way DBS has led the way in innovation with its digitisation efforts, earning it the title of the “World’s Best Digital Bank”. It was also one of the first banks in the region to adopt customer-centric design thinking.

It also conducts numerous accelerator programmes and hackathons which fuel innovation – leveraging on aspects of big data, artificial intelligence and even culture – which are mostly carried out at its innovation hub, DBS Asia X.

Cross stressed that it’s important to note that an innovation centre is by no means a “magical pass into the world of innovation”.

In fact, his teams made sure they built their innovation capability first, using alternative spaces in the interim such as meeting rooms or corporate spaces to run workshops, before deciding on a purpose-built facility.

Cross, who has been with DBS since 2014, said: “Space is important especially if it’s some place that doesn’t feel like a bank.”

The 16,000 sq ft DBS Asia X opened at Fusionopolis’ Sandcrawler Building in 2016 for employees to come together, design and develop iconic customer journeys and work closely in collaboration with start-ups and the broader fintech community.

“The whole area is full of startups. It’s got more PhDs per square metre than anywhere else in the world…At the moment we’ve got 15 projects running it feels like work is being done,” he said.

Last August, DBS also announced it was investing S$20 million ($15.2 million) over the next five years in a broad-based programme to equip its 10,000 Singapore-based employees with skills in digital banking and emerging technologies.

DBS has even started to benchmark itself not against other banks, but against big tech and e-commerce companies such as Alibaba, Tencent, Google and Facebook, in order to learn from them.

He said: “They build stuff customers love. We try to learn from them. Is it the culture? Is it the processes they use, the tooling, the technology or the marketing? We can never be like them but we can get close. We can have a blended model.”

“We’re starting to learn from fintechs and startups but the most important thing for us, is not about the new products and services and how much blockchain you’ve got. It’s how we’re solving the problem for the customer.”