Washington Mutual (Wamu), based in Seattle, has grown through acquisition to become a $229 billion emerging power in not only the mortgage market, but also in commercial and consumer banking. After expanding in its home state and then in other West Coast markets, Wamu purchased Dime Bancorp (New York), Fleet Mortgage (Columbia, S.C.), Bank United (Houston) and PNC Mortgage (Vernon Hills, Ill.), turning it into a high-profile player on the national stage.
Furthermore, Wamu's new bank branch concept, dubbed Occasio, puts the firm among the leaders in the use of technology in physical customer channels.
Jeremy V. "Jerry" Gross joined Wamu in mid-2001, bringing with him years of technology and business experience. Prior to joining Wamu, he was the group executive responsible for information technology, e-commerce and operations at Westpac (Australia).
A native Australian, Gross has spent most of his adult life in the United States. Prior to Westpac, he was chief technology officer at Countrywide Credit Industries, a mortgage company based in Calabasas, Calif.
Gross spoke with senior associate editor Ivan Schneider about his goals at Washington Mutual.
executive vice president and chief information officer,
BS&T: Wamu's been expanding through acquisition recently. Are there special technology requirements for that strategy?
GROSS: When we have acquired companies we typically move them onto our platforms as opposed to adopting their platforms. We focus on scalability; making sure our infrastructure parts, network, hardware, operating systems and software can scale and flex with business volume.
BS&T: What's your take on loan-level risk-based pricing?
GROSS: The future is mass customization. Based upon customers' specific and unique requirements, we should be able to assemble a product that best meets their needs and that can be refined as their lifecycle changes.
BS&T: Will mass customization become a competitive differentiator?
GROSS: It's all about execution. Product innovation is important, but execution is critical.
BS&T: What's the Occasio story?
GROSS: It's really a whole new branch concept. It's more of a retail concept, as opposed to your traditional teller line/bank branch environment.
When you walk into an Occasio environment, it's kind of like walking into a Starbucks or a Gap, where someone greets you. And it's not stiff, it's friendly. You can buy books, there's a latte machine, a place for kids to play-it's a whole new customer experience.
BS&T: What technology did you bring to the concept?
GROSS: When you walk into an Occasio, the first thing you notice is that there are a lot of flat panels, touch screens and kiosks. When you're interacting with a teller, they'll swivel the screen around so you can see the details. The way account information is presented is something that any customer could understand.
We developed most of that in-house. We used a design company that has also designed Disney stores, who helped us with the design and the form factor of both the hardware and the software.
BS&T: What has Wamu done to integrate mortgages into the entire home-buying process?
GROSS: Looking at our customers, they have a lifecycle. So our goal is to proactively offer them products and services when and where they need it. Now, clearly the mortgage and the checking accounts are two core products but there are a lot of other core products that extend beyond the value chain. It's all about customer empowerment and convenience for the customer.
We may be looking at other products and services, and business partners, to make them empowered. The primary step is to have an intimate knowledge of our customers and their behaviors. That's where CRM technology and data mining capabilities are critical.
BS&T: What's your background?
GROSS: My absolute love is e-commerce, and I got into e-commerce very, very early on, back in the early '90s at Countrywide. In fact, we developed the first 'extranet' here in the U.S., to secure communications. It was basically one of the first B2B experiments. We were working with Netscape, just before they took off.