In the U.S., when we think about innovation, financial firms don’t generally grace a top 10 list of innovative firms. Not so in China. There, the financial technology firms are regarded as some of the most creative and aggressive firms around, stealing talent from all the top Internet players like Google and Facebook.
Our guest for this week’s Tearsheet Podcast is Jon-Tzen Ng, chief strategy & innovation officer at Ping An Technology, the technology and incubation arm of Ping An. Ping An is a 30 year old, Fortune 100 financial services holding company for the group’s insurance and banking properties, which include online lender, Lufax.
We hear about Ng’s path to running innovation and we move quickly into understanding the Chinese model for innovation — most importantly, we delve into how a company that does over $100 billion in revenue can measure its progress in days and weeks. Ping An has systematized innovation through R&D, incubation, and a new experience design center.
Below are highlights, edited for clarity, from the episode.
Jon-Tzen Ng began his career at Standard Charter Bank. He was always passionate about technology and in 2007, many banks were looking hard at mobile. A mentor encouraged him to explore fintech more deeply and he was eventually offered a role to create a digital banking team from scratch in China. The country’s economy itself was undergoing a lot of changes at the time — in 2010, companies like Alibaba, Tencent, and Weibo were really starting to take off.
“The challenge for me was that being at an international bank in China limited some of the things I could try,” he explained. Ng jumped at the opportunity to join Ping An in 2016.
Innovation seems to be in the DNA of Chinese financial firms. Ping An sounds more like a Silicon Valley startup than a 30 year old company doing $100 billion in revenue. In his annual letter to shareholders, Amazon’s founder and CEO, Jeff Bezos described a framework of Day 1 and Day 2 companies. Day 1 organizations function with high-intensity, make decisions quickly, and focus on results and not process. Day 2 firms stagnate. “Every day is a Day 1 at Ping An,” said Ng. Ping An doesn’t compare itself to other banks. Instead, it looks to other innovators — firms like Ant Financial, Alibaba and Tencent — to set a baseline of innovation.
Ng lists three things that differentiate Chinese financial services from its competitors in the West. First, speed is crucial in China, where a lot of plans and execution get compressed into short time frames. Rarely do Chinese teams plan for years out — instead, most plans are set on daily, weekly, and monthly timelines. Second, Chinese scale is unique. “If you launch an app and it has five or six million users in China, we would tend to shut it down,” he said. This breeds a lot of competition and copycats out there, looking to do what you do faster and cheaper. “If you want to compete and stay relevant, you have to move at warp speed,” Ng admitted. Lastly, work ethic is a driver of Chinese innovation. It’s not just at the company level, either. With 1.5 billion people in China, everyone is competing with everyone when it comes to competing at scale.
Ping An employs an incubation model to innovate. Incubation generally starts with the chairman, whose vision steers the thinking around a new product or service. A handful of teams from across Ping An’s companies will compete to undertake the development of the new project. This process is then carried forward as the project grows into its own fledgling company. Lufax, a marketplace lender with a multi-billion dollar valuation, began as an internal project at Ping An in 2011.
Ping An doesn’t have a specific group responsible for innovation. It has a cohort of teams and people that sit across the organization that look to drive the company forward. The innovation mindset begins at the top of the company with its chairman and founder, Peter Ma. Ng describes Ma as a visionary in identifying Chinese trends and driving direction for the firm. Ma encourages internal competition, driving urgency within the organization. For Ma, financial services are just underlying needs to primary needs. For example, people want to buy homes — that’s a primary need. The underlying need is that they’ll need a mortgage to finance their purchase.
In the four categories Ping An competes in — finance, health, auto and property — Ping An wants to engage with its customers’ primary needs, before they require financial services, which happens later on in the customer journey. This strategy has succeeded in building an ecosystem of 376 million users of which 137 million customers have purchased one or more financial products from Ping An.
“We are always on the lookout for opportunities inside and outside China,” Ng said. “It’s all about serving our customers’ primary needs. As long as we can help an individual understand themselves better, it will be quite natural that they will have a financial need we can serve. That’s where the opportunities are.”