Read in magazine

Leadership Editor Prof JJ Tabane sat down with the CEO of Discovery Bank and Discovery SA, Hylton Kallner to talk about his time leading Discovery Bank… and at the end of their chat the editor became the latest client of the Bank that has grown in leaps and bounds and that is fast approaching a million customers

The CEO of Discovery Bank and Discovery SA, Hylton Kallner, is a livewire individual who would move heaven and earth to be at a rugby match or a school concert… but don’t bank on finding him at home by 5pm every afternoon. Although coy about it, his staff describe him as a hard worker who is not the type to shout instructions that he cannot implement himself. He is the kind of executive who does not shy away from doing the hard yards in the trenches. It is not unusual that he will be on a call with a client resolving issues – from recruiting staff to serving clients, there are no tasks that he considers to be below his pay grade.

Hylton lives by a simple motto that may be considered trite: “Don’t waste a good crisis.”

Many of the innovations being rolled out by Discovery Bank were born out of not wasting a crisis. He gives an example you may not always consider to be related to banking—the crisis of loadshedding—through building partnerships and using the shared-value financial products, clients have access to exclusive solar solutions, installed within days, to keep their homes powered. The Bank turned this crisis into an opportunity to solve a client need, and in a similar way they have innovated several other products and solutions that were born out of a quest to resolve day-to-day challenges for their clients. The Bank even tackles the crisis of making healthy lifestyle choices easier to prevent the onset of chronic illnesses by offering its clients, who use the HealthyFood benefit through Discovery Vitality, additional discounts on foods that are good for health. Discovery Bank has crafted itself as a top-notch, innovative, retail bank that is concerned about aiding its clients to manage their wellbeing, wealth, save for retirement and navigate the rough seas of the hard-economic climate we are facing.

At the time of conducting this interview, fuel prices were about to go up once again, interest rates remained high, and the electricity tariff had just kicked in on April Fool’s Day… except it was no joke. Savings on fuel, lower interest on credit repayments and solar power solutions are just some of the ways the Bank comes through for clients.

As a leader of Discovery Bank for the past three years, Hylton is particularly proud of the travel eco-system that Discovery has created. With the eco-system in the Bank, you can book flights through the Discovery Bank app and be rewarded for your travels. You can access their 5-star airport lounges in collaboration with SAA and you can create travel vouchers for family and friends.

I’ll jump in on this one and refer to the “Priority Fast Track” at the airport, as he promises me that it would take me around five minutes to open an account and create a virtual card that will see me “fast-tracked” during my next slog through the airport—I couldn’t wait to test this seemingly outlandish claim. I was not disappointed. Although it did not take as little as five minutes, the process of opening an account was seamless and made for a high level of customer service. During my recent trip home from Botswana, I used my virtual card to access the Discovery Bank Priority Fast Track and I cleared customs in minutes.

And so, the promise of efficiency was fulfilled. My card was delivered in days, and I will be using it to book my tickets for the upcoming Cape Town Jazz Festival.

The second key notable achievement is the before-target—or ahead-of-business plan—break-even and profitable position the Bank currently finds itself in. For a market this tough, this is a great feat. While innovation is good, financial return on investment is often the only language that shareholders understand.

Finally, the Bank is globally recognised as a bank of impact. Fortune Magazine selected Discovery Bank as one of 54 companies worldwide that are changing the world for good. Hylton respects boundaries and what he terms “Chinese Walls”— but he kept his promise to make sure that I am one of the many accounts he will have brought to the Bank himself. As CEO of the South African composite of the Group, Hylton is passionate about the value the business creates for clients and the more products they have with Discovery, the more value they receive in rewards that are boosted, linked to managing health, money, and wellbeing. The business will guide clients to the next-best-action to make a difference in their lives – it’s not just about the sale. For many, being part of the Discovery Group is a badge of motivation and the brand is an aspirational one. The business gives us a sense of belief in startups and self-determination.

All of these anecdotes and examples read like a good story. A leader in the trenches with his staff, a Bank that continues to innovate and maximise the digital era. It is no wonder the Bank is approaching one million clients and has clocked over two million accounts. A statistic that startled me was that some 40 percent of clients have already switched from other banks to make Discovery Bank their main bank of choice. Hylton attributes this to their flexibility and around-the-clock availability to resolve client queries. This is made even more appealing by the use of complex AI to engage with clients. The award-winning call centre is, among other things, able to mirror the client’s screen for consultants to offer clients live guidance in the app. As a Bank that looks toward bettering the future of banking, Hylton believes in using the power of data to also create and share knowledge in the industry. With Boston Consulting Group, they set out to understand the future of retail banking. And their SpendTrend24 report, now in its third year, in collaboration with Visa, was just released with insights into consumer behaviour that spans five years and 13 billion credit card transactions.

Hylton’s leadership lessons

Being surrounded by witty and competent people is priceless. Brilliant people in one team is what propels excellence. This, in his view, is what has given birth to outstanding innovative products. This is what has advanced “product breakthrough” and has the unique power to inspire.

In his own words…

How did you end up in banking?

I’ve been with the Group for nearly 30 years. In almost every part of the business. I have a passion for innovation and for growing new businesses that can change industries. To lead a fully digital Bank was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity for me and I have been enjoying every moment. Having full sight of the South African composite of businesses, I can also ensure that strategies for our Group model, growth, innovation and client experience enhancements align.

In terms of retail banks, what would make Discovery stand out?

Our model is unique.

We are able to reward our clients when they’re saving well.

We also give you the tools to manage your money well. Our accounts for foreign currency trading, saving, and payments, for example, are leading in terms of ease of access, functionality and competitive rates. It gives seamless connection to pay for services in more than 60 currencies and to save and transact in euro, British pound, and US dollar directly from their Discovery Bank app in real-time.

Our Bank is branchless and fully digital, with the best digital tools and a full suite of banking services that will soon include our Home Loan ecosystem.

With over two million accounts, were the majority of clients switchovers from other banks?

Around 40% of people use us as their primary bank. Our service, suite of products and rewards are substantial and that must be the reason.

Do you have any special customer relations interventions?

We’ve had to innovate on a digital level. For example, if a client is having an issue with the Bank app and is struggling to navigate it, there is a technology whereby our bankers in our contact centres can navigate through a digital pointer on the clients’ phone. They can see the client’s screen and they can— through a pointer—show the client where to go on their Bank app. So, it’s as if they are sitting in the same room, showing them directly in the app and helping them navigate services in real-time.”

“Ultimately, what’s interesting about this, is that for the client to get that kind of service, historically they would have had to go into a branch, spend money on transport, wait in a queue and then stand in front of somebody for that level of assistance. With us, it’s literally in their home, at any time of day or night, that they can get that kind of support.

Don’t you think that cybercrime limits how innovative you can be in terms of what services you can give to your clients without compromising security signoffs, given those kinds of crimes?

The way that we’ve tried to do it is to apply high levels of verification when we onboard a client, and then to continuously use the data and verification to ensure that we provide maximum safety but without compromising on security.

Is there any Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) that you can share?

It could take less than five minutes to create an account and then you can also create a digital card you could use to access the fast track.

It could generally take within 48 hours to get the card.

What are your top three biggest achievements?

The build-out of our travel eco-system. We built an entire travel eco-system that is accessible via the Bank app. You can book your flights and get full discounts, access all your rewards and pay for it directly via our app.

The growth of the Bank to achieve operating break-even, ahead of time expectation and our business plan.

The model itself and being recognised on a global level for what we’re doing for our clients and banking. To be recognised at this stage of banking and where we are.

Any big leadership lessons you can share with upcoming leaders?

The power of brilliant people. When you’ve got really smart people around the table, there’s generally no problem that cannot be solved.

The power of innovation.

On a personal level, the value of never letting a crisis go to waste.

How do your staff describe you as a leader?

They’d probably describe me as hardworking, in a sense that I’m pretty intense in terms of the pace that I tend to work at.

I’m not a professional manager but I’m in the trenches, with the team. So, I think hopefully, they would say that.

I will answer every single email that comes into my inbox, on the day. It’s very seldom that I’ll go to sleep without having responded to any of my clients or any of my colleagues.

What about work-life balance?

I’m either at work or with my family. And I don’t miss anything important. I have an understanding and supportive wife.

JJ Tabane is a broadcaster and the Leadership magazine editor

By Editor