Vilve Vene: A unique tale of Estonian banking

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The year is 1991 and the tired, hoarse voices of melodic protest finally get their well-deserved rest in the small-but-feisty Baltic country of Estonia. The job is done, the land is independent again and the task of rebuilding a nation looms ahead.

Estonia’s entire infrastructure needs repair, but in a quiet corner of the capital, economics students Hannes Tamjärv, Jüri Mõis, Rain Lõhmus and Heldur Meerits have the conversation that will spawn the birth of what will become Estonia first commercial bank, Hansabank.  In fact, it will become one of the most innovative and – out of sheer ingenuity in the face of such a tight budget – technologically advanced banks of its time.

Fast-forward to 1992 and a young, enthusiastic Vilve Vene joins the fledgling Hansabank team. A team that will create ground-breaking solutions for problems often related to a limited budget and the need to compete internationally. Expensive and already becoming outdated, many of the banking platforms used by the established Western banks were off limits due to the cost. They took a new approach, built systems that fit their needs the way they knew how, and went on to provide the local market with an industry-leading service. 

By her own admission Vilve’s story is a long one, but how it unfolds to shape who she is today is fascinating. Having been in banking for 27 years, her career is intertwined with the relatively short history of the Estonian banking family. With Hansabank, she’d landed with a team that had to take a new and technological approach to banking, she explains: 

“The founders knew they wanted to do things differently, and that meant from the outset technology played a very important part. At that time Western banks were still offline and branch based, but we began to build a bank that was digital from the very beginning.”

It starts to become apparent that it’s the type of banking experience Vilve has that makes her unique. This is not just a 27-year relationship with the commercial banking world, this is a specific apprenticeship, a specialism in a uniquely Estonian approach to creating and running a multinational bank. 

An approach rooted in the struggle against lack of initial capital, against a perceived inexperience in commercial banking and against larger more powerful banking dynasties across Europe and the wider world. A challenge accepted, battled for and won through Estonian ingenuity, resourcefulness and tenacity.

“We built the system from scratch because we just didn’t have the money to use the industry standard systems. All Hansabank branches we’re online from the very beginning, before the internet we built a banking network between our branches, based on one central database. By 1993 we had PC banking for our business customers, meaning they could bank completely online – taken for granted today, but in the early nineties I believe it was years before Western banks caught up,” exclaims Vilve with pride. 

The boundaries of technology were not the only ones Hansabank we’re pushing. As a young woman within its core team, Vilve made many trips to the large established banks of Europe, and in this predominantly all-male sector she experienced her share of disparity:

“I remember so well, it was probably around 1994 and we were visiting banks around Europe talking about our pioneering online setup. We were young and probably appeared a little untrustworthy, especially as we didn’t fit the typical ‘banker’ image. There was one older guy, I’ll never forget the way he looked at me with disbelief, and clearly thinking, ‘this girl has no idea what she’s talking about.’”

As a young diverse team from a relatively unknown country, there’s no doubt that on the international stage they had many prejudices and cultural hurdles to clear. However, it wasn’t long before, thanks to Vilve and her colleagues, Hansabank became one of the first in the world to offer a fully online banking service, silencing the naysayers and establishing the bank as a credible and agile player in the industry.

“Through building Hansabank we had learned so much and were already so far ahead in terms of our systems and technology, that when we came to start Icefire we had so much to offer banking clients in terms of cutting-edge solutions. We had so much to teach others, plus a strong reputation and the biggest and most successful bank in the Baltics – along with all the successful mergers and acquisitions – as proof of concept,” Vilve explains. 

Vilve and many of her colleagues left Hansabank and started Icefire in 2002, in response to four years of process and culture changes due to a 50% share acquisition by Swedish banking giant Swedbank (which eventually led to a full takeover in 2005). 

Their new venture received the kick-start it needed by a lucrative contract with a well-known Estonian construction firm. The results spoke for themselves, and the company’s chairman championed Icefire and their innovative solutions at any opportunity. They went from strength to strength, but through it all noticed an opportunity from which Modularbank was born.

“Icefire has been a great success. We have grown, we have gained many 1st tier banks as our customers and again we’ve learned so much. Often we’d go in to sell to a client, and after finding out what issues they wanted to solve we’d always build a new solution from the ground up. Over time, however, we realised that most problems could be fixed by an off-the-peg solution, which would save the client time and money, as well as having a higher return for us,” said Vilve, as she talks about the point at which clients started asking for specific ready-made banking services. 

The concept of Modularbank was such a natural progression, so ingrained in the experiences of the team, that they soon understood such a range of modular, boxed-and-ready products were inevitable. They had a choice, either they launch this company now, or someone else would further down the line and they may be too late.

“About four years ago there were the first signs that the world of banking was changing. Companies stopped asking us to build systems for them, they began asking, ‘What do you have for loan management?’, or, ‘What do you have for core banking?’, show us if you have something!”

One of the main reasons for this shift in client attitude, according to Vilve, was the advent of cloud computing services and the range of different products available. This meant licenses were becoming an increasingly outdated way to buy IT services, companies now able to access a range of powerful solutions through an affordable monthly subscription. They saw the market was changing – ready and almost desperate – and they knew they had to respond.

Modularbank is up and running, ready to go. As CEO, Vilve is in her element, backed up by a strong and solid team with over 80 years banking solutions experience between them. Vilve goes on to describe the core elements they decided any modular service should have:

“Firstly, it should be in the cloud, it must be available as a subscription service, and most importantly it must be modular, so clients can select exactly what they need. Customers don’t want monoliths anymore, they want their systems built like Lego. They want to be able to switch out pieces that don’t work, or upgrade an older section with ease.”

Their product is relevant and timely, with those key advantages over much of what is currently available. It’s a cloud-based, modular core banking platform, with the ability to integrate via APIs, an offering that’s a great fit for the needs of the banking sector in 2020.

“The core banking system has modules for lending, collaterals, payments, current account transactions and many more. And you can choose any of them, integrating them seamlessly and very easily to your ecosystem,” enthuses Vilve. 

The future for the ambitious company sees them as an integral, central part of the banking IT landscape, at the centre of an interchangeable, modular, pre-integrated ecosystem built on partner networks. True open banking, with an open marketplace for companies providing specific services through their own module, needs a strong, stable platform that Modularbank aims to provide.

There’s a natural move away from the legacy systems, many 1st tier banks are working on new, API based open platforms with a view to migrating. There is a seismic shift on the way. 

Challenger banks are on the attack and traditional banks know they need to become faster, simpler, more agile; and modular. Vilve’s vision for Modularbank places it in pole position, right at the very heart of this pending revolution.

In association with Modular Bank/Icefire, Estonia

Photo credit: Modularbank