Tech hub advances M&T Bank’s digital ambitions – American Banker

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M&T Bank this week opened a technology hub in the Seneca One Tower in downtown Buffalo, N.Y., just blocks from the company’s headquarters. The new facility is the latest step in Chairman and CEO René Jones’s plan to hire 1,000 tech workers in the next three to five years.

The regional bank invested $58 million to develop the 330,000-square foot space, which occupies 13 floors of the 38-story office tower. In addition to being a workspace for M&T employees, the hub will host Tech Academy, a collaboration with the WNY Tech Skills Initiative and the for-profit education company General Assembly that will provide continuous learning for 3,000 local technologists and residents.

HSBC and Marine Midland Bank used to occupy the building. Now M&T is the main tenant, but the tower will also house a startup accelerator called 43North, several tech startups, about 150 apartment units as well as common areas and restaurants.

Seneca One Tower in Buffalo

“When we interview management development trainees or tech development individuals coming out of college, we ask, what’s the one word that you would use to describe downtown [Buffalo]? They say, ‘gray.’ So we repainted the entire tower to be red,” Chairman and CEO René Jones says of M&T Bank’s overhaul of the Seneca One Tower that houses its tech hub.

A look at how the $143 billion-asset M&T is establishing a workforce to handle major technology upgrades could be useful to the many banks struggling with a common problem: the need to attract top tech talents who are also being recruited by big technology companies and startups. Jones explained in a recent interview how the bank plans to attract techies, and he detailed the kinds of projects he expects them to work on.

A year ago, you talked about making the design of your tech-hub collaboration friendly. Has the pandemic forced you to rethink that and keep people further apart?

RENE JONES: We’re always focused on keeping everybody safe. I think that we got lucky, in a sense. In order to create a space that was really collaborative, we took the average square footage that you would need for an employee and doubled it. The reason for that was we wanted a place where our customers and our customer-facing employees could come and describe problems and potential solutions with the technologists. So we’ve created a space that’s crazily flexible.

You’ve stated an intention to create a thousand tech jobs. Can you share anything about what some of those jobs will be, what kinds of people you’re hiring? Are there enough people in the Buffalo area, or do you think you’ll be reaching out to people in nearby communities?

Think about where we are already. We’ve hired about 400 experienced technologists. We’ve also brought on 170 undergrads into our tech development program. Then we’ve got people who were trained in college, but not necessarily trained at M&T in our way of doing things. We’re also launching programs that reach out into our existing community and either retrain or train for the first time individuals who have the aptitude but just didn’t have access. And so when you think about that, you have a big spectrum of degrees of experience. We’ve had great success bringing in very senior people from outside of the area.

It does seem like New Yorkers are moving farther and farther north, as people from Manhattan have been flowing into the suburbs, which are undergoing city-like construction, and suburbanites are looking to go deeper into the country.

During the pandemic, a number of people kept their jobs in Manhattan or Silicon Valley but were able to come home to Buffalo and work from Buffalo. I think there’s going to be a percentage of individuals who are going to be choosing the environment that they want to work from. That means you’ve got to create places in cities that are very attractive to be in, in order to give the quality-of-life experiences that modern talent desires.

We’re sitting in a building that has 1.2 million square feet. It’s the old HSBC U.S. headquarters, and it was completely abandoned until we came along. The developer created this space for us, but he made it bigger by creating housing. There are 130 apartments in the space. There are common areas. There are bars and restaurants and other places where people want to gather. The ecosystem is such that they work, live and play in the same environment. I think that’s unique.

Do you still have green spaces in Buffalo? In the lower part of the state, development has run rampant and there’s very little nature preservation.

We’re really lucky. In Buffalo, the park system was created by [Frederick Law] Olmsted. Over the years, that hasn’t been nurtured as much as it should have. And there’s a pretty big movement going on to redo parks, to look at schools that exist and some that were abandoned and to turn their areas back into community playgrounds so they become places where the kids can go during school. After hours, the community can use them.

There’s a big push right now to make a larger investment in that space. When we interview management development trainees or tech development individuals coming out of college, we ask, what’s the one word that you would use to describe downtown? They say, “gray.” So we repainted the entire tower to be red. We asked them, what’s most important to you, parking or green space? They said green space. It’s not that they want to use the green space, they just want to see it.

What are some specific projects these new tech workers will work on?

There are about 26 journeys or end-to-end, fundamental processes in banking and in our bank that we operate, and we’re picking a set of them. We decided last year to start on the first 10, then we focused on five of them. And they are things like, how do we redesign the end-to-end experience when somebody wants to buy a house? So everything you can think of from the first time that they start to search to the time that they put in their application, to how things are funded all the way through — shrinking that time, improving that quality of that experience.

And then underneath that, there’s how we deal with fraud. We’re still in a place with a lot of regional banks where if you lose your card, you call up and are told it will take five to 10 days to get a new card. That new card should be on your phone. Those things should just be simply redesigned around that. So that experience of fraud service, and those are big processes, they cut across the bank, they cut across lines of business.

We are redesigning every customer experience within the bank, end to end. One other example is, we have seen a surge in new customers during COVID, particularly small-business customers. I think our awareness has gone up because of our participation in the Paycheck Protection Program. We moved the account-opening experience to a fully online opening experience for businesses. When you combine the awareness with that seamless process, that makes it really easy for people to join you. That combination has resulted in a lot of new customer growth.