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Neal Cross, DBS, interview, disruptor, sumatran orangutan

Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak with Neal Cross, DBS Chief Innovation Officer

DBS’ innovation head Neal Cross is a fintech star with unconventional methods to equip the Singapore-based bank for the digital age. The «semi-wild» Cross is also helping to rescue the critically endangered Sumatran orangutan. The finews.asia interview.

Unshaven and dressed in a t-shirt and very casual clothes in a cafe near Raffles Place in Singapore, Neal Cross looks nothing like the high-powered banker that he is when finews.asia catches up with him.

But appearances are deceptive: the British-born Cross was recently named the Most Disruptive Innovation Chief, as finews.asia reported, by a jury which included Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak (pictured above) and Virgin Group chairman Richard Branson.

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Hardest Job of His Life

Cross freely admits he has no qualifications for his job, but has collected experience in a variety of industry before being hired by DBS two years ago.

His mission: equip the bank with the expertise and know-how to thrive in the digital age. «The job at DBS is the hardest one I’ve ever done in my life» says the 44-year-old Cross says.

His approach is radical: «We try to transform DBS into an innovation-hub». In his two years with DBS, his job has been less technology and projects, he says. «I invest the bulk of my working time to install a culture of innovation within DBS.»

Two Teams

Cross has built up two teams which are interdependent: the one is dubbed «reinvent the bank», and looks at solutions for bank projects – 320 this year alone.

The other is «reinvent the world» and builds bridges to universities, fintech firms and state-sponsored institutions. The primary goal is to build an ecosystem for DBS (see video).

Unusually, Cross has recruited from within DBS for the teams, and not outside, mainly among marketing and sales specialists, not pure bankers.

«We are not looking for typical bankers or technologist, but for people who are motivated to develop unconventional ideas and who aren’t afraid of doing mistakes,» Cross says.

New Lab Opening

Two years ago, the teams employed three people. They now tally 30 staff and according to Cross, are still growing.

DBS, which already has an innovation lab in Hong Kong and in Hyderabad, is building a research and development center in Fusionopolis in southwest Singapore. Sprawled over 1,500 square meters, the site opens on Nov. 14.

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Fusionopolis, Singapore (Bild: yeowatzup, flickr.com)

Cross has initiated what appears to be a first in finance: both DBS employees as well as outsiders have the opportunity to participate in an accelerator called DBS HotSpot.

The most convincing idea wins S$25,000 as well as a workspace and technical support during the project. DBS and Singapore have set aside S$10 million over five years for the project.

«Innovation Sabbatical» for Talent

DBS staff who offer promising ideas can apply for a three-month «innovation sabbatical», which features similar support as the DBS HotSpot.

The move wasn't without controversy initially: it effectively means DBS is bankrolling its biggest talents at the risk of them jumping ship. Until now however, the bank hasn't lost a single employee, according to Cross, and DBS has instead attracted new talent because of its engagement.

«One goal with the innovation sabbatical is to cut down hierarchies and to motivate DBS-people to think like a start-up,» he says.

Mobile Bank Expansion

Under Cross, DBS recently introduced «Digibank» in India, which the Singaporean bank says is the first purely mobile bank on the subcontinent.

It takes just 90 seconds to open a bank account via the app, which has already acquired 350,000 clients in four months. The digital bank has no branches and no advisors – making its operating costs a fraction of those of DBS in Singapore.

Cross said DBS plans to expand Digibank to Indonesia and, in a second step, to China.

Orangutan Mission

As unconventional as Cross’ innovation concept is at DBS, his private side is equally unusual. The native of an economically enfeebled English seaside resort town spends much of his free time campaigning to preserve Indonesia’s rainforest. His pet project: the Sumatran orangutan, which is classified as critically endangered. Only about 14,600 Sumatran orangutans still exist in the wild.

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Cross has financed a hotel in north Sumatra (pictured above), a non-profit startup which seeks to empower villagers economically and to raise awareness of the precarious situation of orangutans, which are being driven our of their natural habitat by wildfires.

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«I'm a Semi-Wild Person»

Cross, who refers to himself as «semi-wild», recently bought a coral reef to protect the hotel project. He flies there every weekend, living in a shack on the beach. «In future, I would like to leave banking and engage more in meaningful social activities.»


Neal Cross joined DBS as Chief Innovation Officer in 2014. Before then, he was vice-president of MasterCard Labs in Singapore and worked for Microsoft as a financial services industry director for Asia. He has also designed aquariums and ponds, ran a fish tank business, programmed computer games, taught kung fu and worked as a DJ.

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