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A podcast Series With Chet Kapoor

Season 1 · Episode 10

Around the World with Barclays CEO of Consumer Banking & Payments

Ashok Vaswani shares his global experience working at the largest financial institutions, including Barclays and Citigroup. Tune-in to hear about his global journey and advice on the importance of the customer journey and how to be a successful banker in the digital age.


Published November 17th, 2020  |  20:46 Runtime

Episode Guest

Ashok Vaswani

Ashok Vaswani

CEO, Consumer Banking & Payments at Barclays

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Episode Transcript

Narrator: Inspired Execution is a podcast where tech leaders from global enterprises discuss their journey to scaling multi-billion dollar businesses. Chet Kapoor is Chairman and CEO of DataStax with more than 20 years of experience working with global enterprises. Join us to hear about the experiences and mentors that played a role in their growth. 

Ashok Vaswani is the CEO of Consumer Banking and Payments at Barclays and has held a variety of C-level roles in his career, spanning four different continents all while serving the finance and banking industry. From his time at Citigroup in Asia Pacific, and most recently at Barclays in the UK and US, Ashok's passion is building and managing businesses across the globe. Listen in as Ashok shares how living internationally has made him a better leader, how he helped transform Barclays from an analog company to a digital company, and the harmony that plays throughout an organization when everyone leverages data to be more efficient and effective.

Chet Kapoor: Ashok, thank you very much for joining us today. We really appreciate your time.

Ashok Vaswani: Delighted to be with you.

Chet Kapoor: So, Ashok, you've been at Barclays for over 10 years and spent many years at Citigroup prior to that, tell us a little bit about your evolution on your journey.

Ashok Vaswani: Oh, Chet, it's been a phenomenal journey. I'm deeply grateful. I never dreamt in my life that I'd go and live in so many places. I've lived in Bombay, Dubai, Istanbul, Brussels, New York, Singapore, London, and I've worked in every continent. It's been an incredible journey and I'm deeply grateful and enriched by it.

Chet Kapoor: What came easy?

Ashok Vaswani: I think when you're working for companies like Citibank, Citigroup, and Barclays, Citi made it really, really easy for us to move from country to country. They took care of you. They gave you the assurance that you will be moved around, that you would learn a lot. And the culture that they created made it really easy. And now at Barclays, I've spent a year in Africa. And I tell you Chet, it was the most defining one year of my life. But the ability to do that, the ability to move around, the ability to innovate, the ability to think differently, I think both those companies have really done a great job for me in that respect.

Chet Kapoor: What was hard?

Ashok Vaswani: I have to say a huge gratitude to my family. Clearly, it is not easy for them, particularly my wife, because my daughter, of course, went to the American school, wherever we were. And then, it's not hugely different, but it was my wife who had to interact with the day-to-day and not knowing the language, settling down, making new friends, creating a home. So, I'm deeply indebted to, particularly to my wife. And the best part is when there's nobody around, when you're new to a city or whatever, particularly if it's a city - London, New York is different -  but Istanbul, for example, the family gets much, much, much closer, and that was the beauty of it, but that was all thanks to my wife.

Chet Kapoor: You've lived in so many different places. I've not spent a lot of time in Africa, but I've heard that from almost everybody that goes and visits there for an extended period of time, that it is exhilarating right on the potential that is there and how that entire continent is forming and reforming and things like that, but if you look back to the Asia days, to the Middle East days, to your Europe days, how has it made you a better leader?

Ashok Vaswani: Chet, at a very basic level, people are not different, right? Whether you meet the Americans, whether you meet the Singaporeans, and whether you meet the Africans, at a basic fundamental level, people are just trying to get ahead. When I used to be at Citi, I used to think a lot about why is Citi not so much bigger in the UK? At the end of the day, it's English speaking, it's like the US, what's different? And I think what the big difference was the culture between the UK and the US. And when George Bernard Shaw said that there were two countries completely divided and the only thing they had in common was a common language, he was so spot on, right? Two countries divided by a common language is exactly correct, right? And I think that brings it out sharply into focus.

Chet Kapoor: It's interesting. Can I go back to Africa for a minute?

Ashok Vaswani: Sure.

Chet Kapoor: Can you just give us your perspective on why it was so exhilarating?

Ashok Vaswani: So Chet, there's something about the water on the continent. I'm convinced, anybody who drinks water on that continent, absolutely falls in love with that continent, right? At one level, just the nature, just the vast tracks of land, the whole virgin nature of those various countries is amazing. On the other hand, the way these countries are dealing with different kinds of issues and are leapfrogging in a completely different way, right?

Ashok Vaswani: So I'll give you, I'll never forget this, driving through Nairobi, my first visit there, and a little boy comes up to the car selling a sachet. What he was selling was a sachet of shampoo. Now, I grew up in India, shampoo, for a lot of people, was, I'm talking way back 60, 70s, was still quite a big deal, but when India moved to shampoo, they went and bought bottles of shampoo, plastic bottles of shampoo and stuff like that, even in the villages, but in Africa, in Kenya, in Nairobi, that particular day, this young man was selling sachets of shampoo, which you used one time use, amending the business model to take care of the particular needs of the community there. The ability to top up your mobile phone for 10 cents so that you could just get incoming calls. The way M-Pesa has created, nowhere else in the world -  I don't know if you know about M-Pesa. In Kenya Chet, the currency is M-Pesa, right?

Chet Kapoor: Yeah.

Ashok Vaswani: Honestly, it's easier to use M-Pesa than it is to use a credit card. And you say, isn't it fantastic what they've done? It's incredible. And I've got some great stories when we have some time. I must tell you those stories.

Chet Kapoor: That's awesome. I'm definitely, I've been committed to going there for a while. I don't want to do a fly-by, right? I don't want to go and just spend 48 hours. I want to go and spend like a couple of weeks to really get into it and try to get a sense of it. And hopefully, more time there as well. At Barclays, you went from analog company to a digital company, tell us a little bit about the digital transformation that you drove.

Ashok Vaswani: So Chet, this is a phenomenal thing, right? I showed up in the UK in 2012, we didn't have mobile banking. That was, we just didn't have it. Even the internet, we had nothing. You couldn't even see your mortgage on the internet. It was like so kind of backward, move the movie forward. And the regulators do regular kinds of reviews. And when I finished about a year and a half ago, we were rated as the number one mobile and the internet online bank in the country. So, it's an incredible transformation and obviously done by incredibly smart bunch of people and stuff like that. I think for me, Chet, if there was one learning out of all of this, it was culture. A lot of companies spend a lot of money on technology. I believe, and maybe you know this better than me, that financial services companies spend more money on technology and software than software companies themselves.

Ashok Vaswani: The amount of money we spend is incredible, but what makes the difference is shifting the mindset of the organization. How do you get the culture of the organization to change? Really getting our colleagues digitally savvy, giving them accreditation that they are digitally savvy, allowing them to use that as a badge on their LinkedIn profiles. Two, Eagle Labs, where we said that the banker, in the good old days, was the center in a town, everybody went to him or her, reference point, you checked everything, trusted soul. What is a banker in a digital age? And we said that that has to be a place. The branch has to become a place where you allow a community to rejuvenate itself, to think about the future, to actually transform into what tomorrow holds. And this cultural transformation along with, of course, the hard work of automation, digitization, cyber resilience, app building, data, and all of that kind of good stuff, but this cultural transformation, I think is the most fundamental and the toughest thing to get done in a large company.

Chet Kapoor: The last time we spoke, and we were talking a little bit about my new journey at DataStax and you were usually enthusiastic, right? And your take was, if I can get this quote right, digital transformation has something that you can visualize, the app, like you said, social media, whatever else might be, data and being data-driven or what we call the data-driven enterprise is probably just as important or more important than just having a digital footprint for the bank, but it is harder, because it's hard to visualize the end result. How do you think about communicating that to the bank as the next thing after digital transformation? Not to say that the digital transformation is done because that journey continues, but how do you do more on the data side, because you're collecting data, you have to be responsible with it, but you can make it easier for your consumers, right?

Ashok Vaswani: Yeah. So Chet, you know I'm a huge fan of yours. I've seen you in your Apigee days and everything that you've done, I've learned a lot from you. It's great to be with you and great to build on our friendship, right? I meant every word of what I said that day, because when people talk about digital, they usually think about the front end app, and that's the sexy part. That's what the real world sees, but if you just take a different kind of analogy. Let's just take medicine for example, and you think about, maybe 75, 80, a 100 years ago, in India, if you fell ill, the grandmother or the mother would take specific spices to create a specific concoction to take care of that particular issue that the kid was facing.

Ashok Vaswani: We got developed and went into mass production of medicine, and okay, give me a little bit of leeway. Now, anything that happens you first take a paracetamol, but we are soon realizing that that's not the way it goes, even cancer, that there's so many different ways of cancer that the treatment of cancers, even though it's called a lung cancer, or prostate cancer, or whatever cancer, the number of variations and how they have to be treated has to be fundamentally different. We all hear about this notion of molecular medicine, right? So whether it's medicine, whether it's war, whether it's anything else, whether it is marketing, this whole notion of having flyers to going and doing brand advertising on TV, to doing specific laser-guided messaging, is what's working. So whether, I just went through so many industries, whether it's working, right? The underlying reason why you can get that much more effective and that much more efficient is data.

Ashok Vaswani: The more you understand the way you're able to actually capture the data, the way you are able to make that data useful, make that data relevant, make that data time-sensitive, when you need it, that is what an organization will win. That's the only way. Data and the collection of data, getting it to the right place in the right time and the right format, and using it in the right way is fundamentally important. That will make the difference between winning organizations and those who don't win.  And therefore, the work that you're doing, obviously, is hugely, hugely important. Now, this means that the role of traditional product manager, the traditional marketing guy, those roles have to change dramatically. No longer can we have people who are not into numbers and analytics, and we got to get people to whom numbers sing a song. And we have to have the capabilities that allow them to pull numbers and data in such a way that they can listen to that music, because when it all comes together, it is very beautiful music.

Chet Kapoor: By the way, one of my favorite quotes to folks that I work with is, the numbers are not singing yet.

Ashok Vaswani: Why am I not surprised?

Chet Kapoor: But when you look at something coming together, right? I mean, you can see it culturally, but it manifests in a P&L. And there's something about when it all comes together and it does sing.

Ashok Vaswani: It's beautiful.

Chet Kapoor: It truly does, right?

Ashok Vaswani: Exactly. It's beautiful, right? It really is beautiful. And I, look, as a financial institution, the amount of data that we have is incredible. Chet, I'll give you one example, right? It started from a risk question. The question I posed to my risk team was, "Hey guys, you have all of this data and stuff like that, now tell me what happens if oil prices suddenly plummet to 10?" I mean, anybody will tell you that a large oil company will find it very, very difficult. However, why can't you see, because we've got the payment flows, why can't you see what happens downstream to the economy? So what happens to the vendors and the suppliers of that oil company? To the vendors and suppliers of the vendors and the suppliers? What happens to the employees? Where do they stay? And therefore what happens to the geography? What happens to their credit cards? What happens to their mortgage loans? What happens to housing prices?

Ashok Vaswani: And suddenly you take one use case, which is, hey, what happened to oil prices when they went from 40, 50 bucks to 10 bucks? What is the impact on the whole ecosystem of the country? What happens if gold soars? So suddenly having studied that from a risk perspective, and by the way, we built it beautifully to actually create, within like 24 hours or 36 hours to be able to run these kinds of stress scenarios through the piping of the bank. And then you say, hey, why am I stopped at risk? Why don't I take it and flip it on to how can I do things relevant?

Ashok Vaswani: So let me take a very simple example, right? How do you tell a small business owner, hey, by the way, do you realize you're so dependent on three companies to give you 85% of your revenues? And by the way, you know what? Those three companies, they always pay you on the last date, which is 60 days out. You as a product, which allows you to get that money much quicker, changes the cash flow of your company. Or an even more powerful use case, right? There's Chet, the family man. There's Chet, who is on the board of governors of the kids' school. There's Chet, who's the CEO. There's Chet, who's a governor or trustee of some charity.

Ashok Vaswani: Ultimately, it's one person. If I get that one person and get a 360 view of that person, why shouldn't I be able to tell Chet, hey, by the way, you bank with me on the personal side. If the school needs any help with their treasury stuff, I can help them. If the charity needs donations, I can help them. And by the way, your company, of course, my investment bankers, would love to help you, right? And so you look at the person and not isolated and put into compartments, the CEO versus the trustee versus the family man, all because of the data.

Chet Kapoor: So you're obviously very passionate about the customer journey. We all have our favorite customer story that gives us goosebumps, right? Where you see it coming together for the individual or for a group of individuals. Do you have a favorite story that really, that you remember that you'd like to share?

Ashok Vaswani: When I was talking to you about the Digital Eagle kind of program, where anybody in the country can come into our branches and ask one of our employees, who's a Digital Eagle, about anything to do with technology, and they will help, whether you're a customer or you're not a customer. And I think the most hard, there were many such stories. The most heart-rending one was when a 103 year old man, 103 year old man walked into the branch and told one of our Digital Eagles, "Hey, on Christmas, I got this as a gift from my grandkids. It's an iPad. I haven't got a clue as to what to do with it. I don't know how to use it, but my grandchildren want to talk to me using the iPad, can you please just set that up for me? Just teach me how I can talk to my grandchildren using the iPad, okay?" Needless to say, the Digital Eagle did it. The joy of that 103 year old grandfather.

Chet Kapoor: That's awesome.

Ashok Vaswani: The flexibility to be able to talk to the grandchildren, look at the grandchildren, wherever they were. I mean, that's a life changing moment of life changing experience. And I thought I was doing banking. It's incredible.

Chet Kapoor: That's great. I can almost feel it. There's got to be so much gratitude and it's in your voice, because of that, it's a responsibility and you're trying, and the organization is trying and the feedback loop is good. We're obviously going through an unusual time, what would be the one advice you would give to leaders about leading their teams and organizations through this crisis?

Ashok Vaswani: This is a hard time. There's no way, there's no question. This is a hard time and stuff like that, but I sincerely believe that this is the time when leaders have to stand up. You know that old saying about when the going gets tough, the tough get going. This is the time, right? And what we've got to constantly think about is, okay, these are the circumstances, under these circumstances, how do I make my company, my products, my services relevant for my customer? What should I be doing more of? What should I be doing less of? How can I step that up and really deliver for the customers?

Ashok Vaswani: Acknowledging that, I personally am going through a hard time, acknowledging that everybody is going, in their own way, a hard time, what can I do to take a little bit of that pain, a little bit of that anguish, a little bit of that suffering and make that person's life much, much, much easier. It is incumbent upon us as leaders to be able to create an environment, adapt the organization in real-time, to be able to get this done. That I believe is a standard that we should be holding ourselves against.

Chet Kapoor: What advice would you give to a younger version of yourself?

Ashok Vaswani: Never be afraid of taking an opportunity. I went from country to country, to country, right? Who knew where that would land me. And I stayed in some countries for a long period of time, some for a short period of time, but it was fabulous. And I look back, and it wasn't Singapore or it wasn't New York, that was my favorite, favorite thing. My favorite time was Istanbul. Having lived in that country, my God, it changed my life in many different ways. So take the opportunity. Think big. Think big, right? And follow your dream.

Ashok Vaswani: Follow, look, a lot of people talk to me, and maybe this is not the right thing to say, a lot of people talk to me about work-life balance, and they say, what does work-life balance really mean? If I really, really love what I'm doing, it melds. It doesn't mean I don't have responsibilities outside of my work and I must, of course, take care of my responsibilities, but I can't be sitting and complaining about work-life balance. That is just too much of a waste of time. If you are complaining about work-life balance, you're clearly not doing anything which is getting you really, really excited and getting you out of bed. Life is too short, change it.

Chet Kapoor: That's great. Ashok, I'm truly grateful for your time. This has been a great discussion. I'm sure our listeners are going to feel exactly the same way. Thank you very much.

Ashok Vaswani: That is great, Chet. Yeah, thank you. Great to be chatting with you again.

Narrator: Ashok shared his global perspective on leadership, digital transformation, the customer journey, and how to be a successful banker in the digital age. He also talks about how leveraging data is key to any organization's success. Getting data in the right place at the right time and using it the right way is fundamentally important. He closes with three pieces of advice. Take the opportunity, think big, and follow your dreams. 

Thank you so much for tuning into today's episode of the Inspired Execution podcast, hosted by Chairman and CEO of DataStax, Chet Kapoor. We have many more guests and phenomenal stories to come, so stay tuned. If you haven't already done so, subscribe to the series to be notified when a new conversation is released and feel free to drop us any questions or feedback at