September 29, 2008

Compared to the hubbub of a trading floor, the confines of a commercial bank might seem like a quiet respite from the madness. Yet sitting back and relaxing was not on James Yee's mind when he took the CIO job at San Francisco-based Union Bank of California ($57.9 billion in assets) in 2005. After having honed his financial services IT skills with the likes of Paine Webber and Montgomery Securities, Yee was a bit surprised by the technology environment after his recent career shift into commercial banking.

"When I went to commercial banking, I asked why everything was so slow," Yee relates, recalling what he describes as a traditional technology shop — "what you typically think of as an older-style data processing organization." Compounding the problems, Yee says, the business and IT were disconnected from each other, and Union Bank relied heavily on a single-vendor, mainframe technology model.

It wasn't so much a matter of the technology being bad, per se, according to Yee. Rather, the bank's IT wasn't current in what had become a Web-based, open source world. So Yee embarked on a mission to transform Union Bank's IT shop to give it more modern, flexible technologies and improve efficiency.

He even brought in some help, tapping Fremont, Calif.-based global services firm iGate about a year and a half ago. As a result the bank went from working with four outsourcers — a somewhat bloated figure given the bank's size, says Yee — to just iGate. The reworking resulted in better rates for the bank and a more productive partnership with iGate, Yee relates. "IGate did ODC [offshore development center] work for us where it was managed by iGate but they were doing the work according to our strategy," he explains. "This allowed for more-flexible staffing for us. Instead of having our own captive development center with Union Bank staff, we have a strategic private-label partnership with iGate."

James Yee, Union Bank of CaliforniaInstilling a Sense of Urgency

Before Yee could overhaul Union Bank's IT, however, he spent his first six months on the job implementing the cultural changes, including a sense of urgency, that he felt would make the bank more competitive. "The cultural change was absolutely the hardest," he admits. "Humans, by nature, resist change. And Union Bank was — and is — very successful. So people asked why they needed to change."

To Yee, this cultural change was a competitive necessity. Change is a constant for a bank in today's world, he explains, and Union Bank's employees must keep this in mind every day. "How do we continue to get that sense of urgency to change to compete and help the growth of the bank?" he asks.

"Our new CEO [Masaaki Tanaka] has high aspirations to take the bank to a whole different level," Yee continues. "The hard part is keeping people motivated and displaying the same sense of urgency you would find on a trading floor in a commercial bank. Change can be tiring."

But, Yee adds, he makes it a point to keep his people motivated. "I like to lead a group of people, discuss what we want to do and then just let the team go at it," he says. "I may be a taskmaster sometimes," Yee admits, "but I have a good sense of how fast something can be done. And I hold people accountable."