When Advanzia Bank was founded in Luxembourg in 2005, the concept of an online-only bank was still alien to many. The company, specialising in no-fee credit cards and savings accounts, was among the first to allow customers to sign up without any in-person meetings or paper-based processes.
Sixteen years later, after numerous other online-only banks entered the growing market, Advanzia is in the middle of a new transformation aimed at ensuring it stays at the forefront of digital banking.
Roland Ludwig, a Swiss national who took over as CEO in 2017, has been leading the change. "When I joined, I took over from the management that was in charge since pretty much the beginning," he says. "Once I had settled into the role and established the new management team, I began to design a strategic focus for the future."
During that early planning process, Roland used his outsider’s perspective to honestly assess if the bank’s digital offerings were still keeping pace with new technologies. "One of the main questions I asked myself was, ‘Is this online bank still the bank that’s driving the future in terms of having the credit card solutions for the future? Are we really still ahead of the curve compared with our peers?’" he says.
Advanzia was no doubt cutting edge when it first started sending customers’ statements via email and allowing them access to their accounts through an online portal accessed via desktop.
But with customers increasingly expecting to be able to do everything on their phones, it was clear to Roland that the company needed to update. Advanzia’s first step was to make all of its services available on a single digital platform.
As part of this process, Roland draws a distinction between online and digital. For him, the former evokes web portals and email inboxes – from today’s perspective, an antiquated and less sophisticated version of the internet that preceded the explosion of smartphone technology.
The latter refers to the more holistic, integrated and convenient services offered to consumers by today’s more innovative companies.
"We’re transforming our customer life cycle journey from one with an online bank towards a truly digital and mobile solution-oriented bank," he explains. "We’re moving to a digital app where you have all the solutions in real time; a platform that has everything covered when it comes to customer interaction.
Whether it’s about transactions, personal data or fraud management, it’s all covered on one single platform, which is the heart of our interaction with the customer. It’s the core of what we call our omnichannel customer interaction."
Advanzia’s growth plans focus on two key areas: increasing market share in the countries and product categories where it’s already active and expanding its product offerings while also entering new markets.
For the latter, Roland sees opportunities in both organic growth and in acquiring portfolios of accounts from peers in the market – that is, buying customers from competitors and migrating their accounts onto Advanzia’s platform.
"We still see strong opportunities to increase our market share and our customer base in our existing markets, including Germany, Austria, France, Spain and Luxembourg, of course," he says. "But the second angle that’s developing more and more involves becoming visible as a company that’s also able to acquire card portfolios – that’s able to offer new solutions based on a direct need from customers. So we’re considering expanding our offering beyond what we offer today, adding new products."
As Roland leads a digital transformation while pursuing new avenues for growth, one of the main challenges he faces is making sure the company changes internally to accommodate new ways of doing things. Successfully balancing ambitious expansion plans against a sweeping, company-wide transformation requires a strong, committed team.
"We want to really become digital while also penetrating new and existing markets; bringing these two topics together requires a lot of focus," he says. "We need competent people with strong skills. We have to meet certain targets in terms of time to market. It’s a real challenge."
As with many businesses, the COVID-19 crisis has drastically sped up Advanzia’s digitalisation plans, which also involve using artificial intelligence, machine learning and robotics to automate processes and improve both the customer experience and backend models.
"We’re using machine learning to enhance our credit risk models, which are state of the art and use many different variables," Roland shares. "This way, we can have much more forward-looking assumptions in our models, rather than just ones that are based on historical data."
Advanzia’s growth during Roland’s tenure has been impressive. The company has doubled its business volumes over the past four years and now has roughly 2 million card clients. This has been made possible by the company’s relationships with external partners.
Where many other banks keep certain processes in-house, Advanzia has been able to stay more nimble and adaptable, and therefore grow faster, by relying on key partners.
"We’ve outsourced our call centre to a very strong partner," he says. "We’re working with a card processor that’s offering many solutions beyond pure card processing, and we also have external partners for fraud management, chargeback management and such. So we really have a very sound and effective business model that enables us to grow based on the scalability of our partner solutions. We wouldn’t have been able to grow at such a high speed if we had done more things in-house."
Roland chooses carefully when looking for partners. He believes it’s vital that any company with strategic importance to Advanzia is also aligned with its goals. "As we transform our business, we need partners that have a very similar ambition to transform their work streams, their processes towards a fully digital solution," he says.
If a potential supplier or partner can offer Advanzia scalable platforms and is pursuing inspiring avenues in digitalisation, then it covers the main "two pillars" that Roland is looking for. When he finds such a partner, he makes it his goal to nurture a stable, long-lasting relationship.
"One of the main questions i asked myself was, ‘is this online bank still the bank that’s driving the future in terms of having the credit card solutions for the future?’"
"We’re not a company that’s always switching partners from one day to the other, but rather one that engages in the right partnerships and does so for the long haul," he says. "I think this is really one of the key successes in our company – that we have engaged with partners long-term and come through this entire growth journey together."
Another key reason Advanzia is competitive in its field is its focus on a small number of services it can perform with consistent excellence. Advanzia’s specialty is in credit cards, and it is careful not to stray too far into alternative product offerings where it has less expertise.
"We want to do our job and have a very strong competence in credit card issuing and make sure we’re really the best in class in our product solutions," Roland explains.
Having such a strong focus on digital services gives Advanzia an advantage in another important goal it’s pursuing: sustainability. The company aims to be a corporate leader as part of the European Green Deal initiative and is working with its suppliers to reduce the carbon footprint throughout its value chain. The company is also working with an investor on plans for a new office building in Luxembourg that’ll be 100 per cent carbon neutral.
"We’re looking at constantly reducing our carbon footprint by digitalising and by automating, for example, by issuing virtual credit cards instead of plastic, by considering new ways of delivering the credit cards to the customer," Roland says.
Allowing customers to spend without a physical card may be a sustainability initiative, but it’s also a fitting next step for a company that was a pioneer in moving banking services into the virtual world.
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