Arvest Bank hires Google exec to lead digital transformation strategy

by Paul Gatling ([email protected]) 3,862 views 

Laura Merling

Changing consumer expectations, emerging technologies and new business models are forcing the banking industry to formulate strategies now to prepare for the future.

Arkansas’ largest bank has turned to a Google executive to lead its ongoing efforts to adapt to that new environment.

Arvest Bank announced Tuesday (Feb. 8) the hiring of Laura Merling as chief transformation and operations officer. She started the job in October and is based in North Carolina.

Merling joins Arvest from Google Cloud, where she was chief transformation officer and managing director. Before joining Google, she was the managing director and chief digital officer for Slalom, providing business and product strategy to multibillion-dollar companies in technology, transportation, energy, CPG, retail, healthcare and education.

She also worked as the chief digital officer for Collins Aerospace and was vice president of digital products for Ford and AT&T.

“I have spent my career helping companies deliver on transformation objectives leveraging technology across all areas of a business with an end goal of disrupting existing business models, improving customer experience and creating operational efficiency,” Merling said in a statement. “The financial services industry is at an intriguing inflection point. Arvest has embraced the change and is at a point where a programmatic approach to delivering business outcomes can make a significant impact on the journey to redefining community banking in a digital world; I’m excited to be a part of it.”

Arvest Bank operates more than 240 bank branches in Arkansas, Oklahoma, Missouri and Kansas. According to the FDIC, as of Sept. 30, it is the state’s largest bank with $26.5 billion in assets. That’s just ahead of Little Rock-based Bank OZK ($26.1 billion in assets).

In a news release, Arvest said its multiyear transformation strategy encompasses adopting a next-generation banking platform and enhancing its digital payments and services capabilities.

The company said it has 830,000 retail and business customer households.

“Our industry and its practices are evolving, and we need to adapt to meet the future needs of our customers,” Arvest president and CEO Kevin Sabin said in a news release. “Laura has built her reputation identifying and forecasting unique market positions. Her operational experience at companies as diverse as Ford and AT&T, along with her technology background at Google Cloud, provides the foundation for her pragmatic approach to delivering on growth initiatives. We’re fortunate to have her leading transformation, technology and bank operations as we embark on a significant period of evolution and growth.”

According to the news release, Merling is best known for developing and successfully implementing a replicable framework for transformation based on the five pillars that large corporations need to succeed: a multiyear business vision, customer understanding, technology alignment, metrics and measurement and governance.

“Transformation, if done correctly, requires alignment across your entire business, including investment dollars, priorities, measurement and metrics, and a path to execution,” Merling said.

Merling studied business administration at Oakland University and graduated from the Advanced Management Program at INSEAD in Fontainebleau, France. She serves as a board member and risk and audit committee member of B2B travel platform CarTrawler, an advisor to digital manufacturing platform Authentise and a mentor for women seeking leadership opportunities through Athena Alliance.

In the past six months, Arvest has made multiple announcements related to digital transformation. The company hired Melanie Fuller as president of digital banking solutions. Fuller spent the past decade working in Ohio in various leadership roles for JPMorgan Chase, including head of experience and technology for customer service and as the executive director of strategy and operations.

Arvest also chose London-based fintech firm Thought Machine to implement a next-generation core banking infrastructure.

In an interview with the Northwest Arkansas Business Journal, Merling said Arvest’s goal of transforming its business model spans people, processes and technology.

“That’s driven from the leadership down; there’s a strong commitment here,” she said. “I had not heard of Arvest before they reached out to me, and I don’t have a banking background. I have a technology background. But what I enjoy doing is helping companies transform their business or transform an industry.”

She said the best way to do that type of work is by asking many questions.

“That may sound silly, but that’s the easiest way,” she said. “Not having the banking background kind of gives me the right to play in that area.”

Merling said the increasingly competitive landscape for recruiting and retaining talented employees is as intense in Northwest Arkansas as in other U.S metros like Detroit, New York or San Francisco. She’s focused on upskilling and reskilling Arvest employees “to bring them along for the [transformation] journey.”

“Part of that process is identifying those who are excited to learn and who want to be part of the change,” she said. “Folks that want to keep learning are the folks who are going to be excited about this. They are going to take the opportunity. That’s what we’re looking for as we move ahead.”

Arvest spokesman Jason Kincy said the company has approximately 6,500 employees including non-corporate workers.