Oudea learns to code as Societe Generale fends off tech rivals

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(Bloomberg) -- Frederic Oudea is doing everything he can to keep up with the technological changes roiling the European banking industry. The chief executive officer of Societe Generale SA has collaborated with fintech startups, backed accelerator programs to nurture innovation, and invested heavily in its French mobile-banking unit as well as in hundreds of apps.

Now he’s even taken up writing software code himself.

“It was important for me also to understand exactly what coding means, so I spend a few hours coding in Python, which is one of the two languages for data,” Oudea said in an interview at Web Summit 2017, a tech-industry conference in Lisbon.

Oudea isn’t the only European finance chief pulling out the stops to adapt to a rapidly changing digital marketplace. CEOs across the European Union are girding for a wave of competition as a new data-sharing law forces banks to open themselves up to fintech startups, as well as tech giants like Apple Inc. and Amazon.com Inc., which are moving deeper into banking territory. In January, the law will begin forcing financial institutions to provide access to their customers’ accounts to help outsiders process electronic payments.

New Model

“We are taking the challenge seriously and understanding that there is a need to change the model and culturally embrace new technologies,” said Oudea, 54.

By offering alternative methods for making payments, newcomers are trying to take customers away from traditional banks for other services, such as lending. Societe Generale, the third-biggest French bank by market value, will be locked in this battle for the next few years, Oudea said.

“Payments is a pretty fragmented arena and I think we will see further competition and probably fragmentation, which will not be that easy for the clients,” he said.

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While Oudea declined to say how much Societe Generale planned to invest in technology during the next year, he said the bank would continue to strengthen its position in mobile banking. The company’s Boursorama unit, France’s biggest online bank, has 1.2 million clients and Societe Generale is also planning to launch a new app for smartphones in some African markets.

“I am very positive with our capacity because Boursorama is really by far the leader in online banking,” the CEO said. “We offer everything online: mortgages, consumer credit, savings products, current account, payments. The operational leverage is great, so I am very positive on the future prospects of profitability.”

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