Inside ‘The Ark,’ we’re riding into the future of banking

Krista Garcia

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Inside ‘The Ark,’ we’re riding into the future of banking
It’s the country’s first fully digital bank branch, and it aims to transform banking from a boring chore to an empowering experience

MANILA, Philippines – Inside the country’s first fully digital bank branch, there are no queues, no slips of papers with numbers on them, and most important of all, no bank tellers.

Instead, at Unionbank’s The Ark, there are padded, bright-colored benches, VR goggles, and even free flowing coffee. All your bank transactions – from transferring funds to applying for a loan – are accomplished through standalone terminals, tablets, or touchscreen TVs. 

The people you’ll talk to at this branch are not just present to clear your check or update your passbook. They’re ambassadors, ready to offer you helpful advice on everything money-related.

It’s a sneak peek of what banking will be like in the future – and Unionbank wants Filipinos to experience it right now.

“Instead of a transactional space, we thought that we needed to make an interactive space, where our customers can interact with us, where they can interact with each other, or even just come here to have a cup of coffee or do Internet,” said Justo Ortiz, Unionbank’s chairman and CEO. 

From conceptualization, The Ark took less than a year to build, thanks to a team of internal finance experts and powerhouse designers from around the world. The main goal was to address existing pain points in banking – most clients don’t feel like their needs are being fully met, and they see carrying out transactions as a chore.

It was fitting to launch the idea in the middle of Makati’s business district, where many people squeeze in banking during lunch breaks or before heading home. Other fully digital branches will roll out across the Philippines starting next year.

“At all times, we believe it is a trinity – between digital, physical, and the brand. If there’s something that sticks with consumers, we take it and we enhance it. It’s an ever-iterating experience,” said Myla Villanueva, Managing Director of MDI Group Holdings. Unionbank collaborated with MDI for The Ark’s full concept. 

Over time, expect The Ark (and other succeeding branches) to keep evolving depending on future locations, actual customer behavior, and feedback.

The digital transformation 

The Ark isn’t just an experiential gimmick – it’s a symbol of what’s to come, especially as the world starts entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution. Technology is evolving at breakneck speed, and it’s disrupting systems and industries. The vast amount of innovation happening right now is changing the way we live and work faster than any other point in history. 

In banks, the digital transformation will lead to three major developments.

First, it will overhaul customer service. Banks have always been perceived to be cold and intimidating. Even just opening an account takes a lot of paperwork and waiting time. Now, anyone can “purchase” a Unionbank EON debit card through convenience stores or Lazada, and start banking right away. 

Banks are learning to adapt to their clients’ lifestyles. Records from the Bangko Sentral show that 25% of current bank clients use mobile banking technologies in their transactions and this number is predicted to grow exponentially over the years. With apps, clients can transfer funds, change their PINs, or update their withdrawal limits anywhere. Chatbots powered by artificial intelligence can address client queries beyond banking hours.

The Ark signals the era of a customer-first mindset for Unionbank. “Our mantra is that ‘no one gets left behind,’” said Ana Aboitiz, Unionbank’s Chief User Experience Officer. That’s why, even with top-tier technology on hand at the branch, trained ambassadors are still present to assist those who would prefer a more human touch for their errands. “It’s all about giving customers options, but making sure the experiences all across those interactions are consistent,” Aboitiz added.

Second, digitization will make jobs in the banking industry better. Aside from analysts and risk assessors, banks are now tapping developers and programmers to build platforms for consumers. Tellers will not be removed from their respective branches – instead, they can be trained to become financial coaches and wealth managers.

“Technology creates new roles. It does not diminish the need for people in banking. It takes the role to something more enjoyable, more fulfilling,” said Paolo Baltao, Senior Vice President of the EON Banking Group.

And finally, with technology, banks can drastically reduce costs, so they can become more inclusive with their services. This benefits those who have no access to physical branches or traditional means of gaining credit.

Take the process of taking out a loan for example. It’s an important vehicle for small-scale entrepreneurs, or even individuals who just want to achieve a major life milestone. But traditionally, it’s difficult to get approved for a loan through a bank, because of multiple identification requirements and a rigorous risk assessment process.

For many, the alternative is to borrow through an informal lender in their community – and be subject to ridiculously high interest rates.

“So imagine being able to offer somebody a short term loan, even if he has no actual bank records, but purely based on his telco behavior. Technology makes this possible,” said Arvie De Veyra, Head of Unionbank’s Fintech Business Group. He leads strategic partnerships with community-based payment and money transfer centers to cater to the larger segment of unbanked Filipinos.

Back at The Ark, there’s one corner where clients can “preview” a new car or condominium unit through virtual reality. The rationale, according to Aboitiz, is that most people don’t go into a bank to inquire about a loan. Instead, they want to figure out how to achieve their life goals. The VR goggles can make the vision feel more tangible.

It’s exciting to imagine how technology, and banking, can eventually empower more Filipinos to fulfill their dreams. –

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