Celebrating a great Fintech entrepreneur – John Reed of Citibank

By Bernard Lunn

Daily Fintech is written by entrepreneurs for entrepreneurs.

We believe that the entrepreneurs who are transforming finance through technology include not only the VC funded firms that get the media attention but also:

  • bootstrappers patiently working away in obscurity (but loved by their customers).
  • tech firms moving into financial services (combining the agility that is essential in tech with their scale to drive change).
  • bankers who understand that banks are really just “data centers with fancy lobbies”.

This post is about one of the latter. We have written a lot about what banks should do to transform for the digital age, but the reality is that the CEO has to personally drive this transformation.

The one example of a bank CEO who acted more like a Fintech entrepreneur was John Reed who built Citibank (as it then was). Here is a snapshot from his Wikipedia entry:

“Reed was heavily responsible for pushing for the adoption of the ATM around the USA, and led Citicorp through a perilous period in the early 1990s. He was approached by Sandy Weill to merge with Travelers Group a year before the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act of 1999 (repealing the Glass–Steagall Actof 1933), allowing banking, insurance and securities companies to merge. The result was Citigroup, where Reed was later ousted in a management shakeup with Weill. Reed’s departure was announced in a 28 February 2000 press release. In the aftermath of the November 2008 federal bailout of Citigroup, Reed was described as deeply skeptical of the “Wall Street financial engineering” that led to its collapse and “committed to consumer banking and sound commercial underwriting.”

The story (maybe banking legend) is that he persevered with the ATM despite market research telling him that consumers would reject machines compared to human tellers.

That is the kind of story you associate with Steve Jobs or other great tech entrepreneurs – but totally unusual in banking.

John Reed was also an early globalization pioneer, perhaps not surprising as he was partially raised in Argentina and Brazil. If he was running Citi today I suspect they would be big into something like M-Pesa

In my traditional Fintech days, I sold a fair amount of software to Citi. I learned to really respect their tech teams who were super sharp on both technical and business fronts.

What bankers call Transaction Banking is what we now call Fintech.

Citi is one of the leaders in Transaction Banking, thanks to the pioneering work decades ago of what maybe the greatest Fintech entrepreneur the world has seen.


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