Harvard grad raids Silicon Valley to grow AI at Thai bank

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(Bloomberg) -- Siam Commercial Bank Pcl, Thailand’s oldest homegrown lender, plans to roll out a robo-adviser service developed by its artificial intelligence unit as the country’s lenders belatedly embrace disruptive technology.

The unit, SCB Abacus, has wooed about 30 Thai technology experts from companies abroad to work on projects like the robo-adviser, which will recommend financial products to retail customers, its Chief Executive Sutapa Amornvivat said.

"We’re doing a reverse brain drain," Sutapa, a 43 year-old graduate of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, said in an interview Tuesday in Bangkok.

Thai banks are trying to devise more sophisticated digital strategies to fend off competition from upstart financial technology providers. The reorientation is a challenge for a sector that tipped toward conservatism in the past two decades following the Asian financial crisis.

Talent War

Spinning off the AI unit into SCB Abacus provides space to explore ideas and work at a rapid pace, Sutapa said. That’s partly why it’s been able to convince Thai technologists to leave jobs in places such as Silicon Valley and CERN, the European nuclear research organization, to return to Thailand, she added.

"Our ability to select projects and recruit is much more flexible as a separate company," Sutapa said.

Thai firms are switching on to AI comparatively late and face the task of keeping up with the nation’s rapidly changing consumer lifestyles and preferences, such as an explosion of internet shopping, according to Tanut Sirivarangkul, a Bangkok-based venture capitalist for startups.

Siam Commercial Bank is investing more in technology to avoid falling behind both domestic and regional competitors, earmarking about 40 billion baht ($1.3 billion) to develop and upgrade technology infrastructure in the three years starting 2017.

In contrast, Singapore’s DBS Group Holdings Ltd. spent S$5 billion ($3.8 billion) on technology initiatives in the five years through 2016, while United Overseas Bank Ltd.’s outlay was S$1.2 billion in the last four years.

Siam Commercial Bank’s cost-to-income ratio may converge with other large Thai lenders as investment climbs, Diksha Gera, an analyst at Bloomberg Intelligence, said last week.

The lender was founded in 1904 by a prince, and the Crown Property Bureau holds an 18 percent stake in the company, according to data compiled by Bloomberg.

--With assistance from Chanyaporn Chanjaroen

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