When Wells Fargo announced last March its intention to grow by acquisitions, the fourth-largest bank in the U.S. suggested targets could include brokerages, retirement-services firms and insurance companies. What wasn't mentioned were the contributions from previously acquired Wachovia. Indeed, during the early planning for consolidating various enterprise platforms following the 2008 acquisition, Wachovia's institutional retirement plan administration platform -- along with its human steward, Jack Zaney -- rose to the top.
"After evaluating various options, our retirement business chose Wachovia's proprietary WySTAR system," explains Zaney, now SVP and director of institutional retirement technology at Wells Fargo. "That's unusual because typically the acquirer's software applications survive."
And Zaney speaks from experience. He began his 28-year banking career at the former North Carolina institution First Union, which merged with Wachovia in 2001. At Wachovia, Zaney helped grow WySTAR into an enterprise platform.
"The platform now provides Wells Fargo with significant technology advantages," Zaney says. "It scales at multiple levels, provides flexibility in setting up new products and contains private-label capabilities, allowing us to offer it to other firms."
In addition, he continues, "It includes state-of-the-art middleware applications that invoke SOA [service-oriented architecture] technologies. This creates significant efficiencies because all data is accessed the same way, regardless of the front-end application or device used to request that data."
Under the hood, WySTAR is built on a Sybase database, and IBM's WebSphere plays a significant role at the web layer, Zaney relates. "For development, we use Java and XML as well as SOA-based technologies," he notes.
Although the platform runs on Oracle Solaris and Linux-enabled industry-standard hardware, Zaney's 250-person team is responsible for the WySTAR platform. Only when needed does his staff draw on the resources of the larger, 25,000-member Wells Fargo technology and operations group. "We receive infrastructure support from other enterprise teams," Zaney explains. "For example, if we're adding access from a new mobile device, we don't have to do it ourselves. Instead, we leverage assistance from the appropriate technology group."
Controlling Your Destiny
Selecting WySTAR, Zaney says, gave Wells Fargo, which currently is the sixth-largest retirement plan administrator in the U.S., a unique advantage among its peers. "Many of our competitors use a packaged product," he observes. "Continuing to evolve our own system gives us a distinct advantage because we control our own destiny -- we're able to set our own development strategy and make adjustments as necessary."
To roll out WySTAR across the Wells Fargo landscape, Zaney and his team worked closely with other technology teams and line-of-business leaders. The migration, he reports, was completed in February 2011. "We completed one of the largest migrations in the industry non-disruptively," Zaney says. "We not only converted about 1,000 plans and a million participants, but also provided additional features and functionality."
After several subsequent conversion waves, WySTAR now enables all account administration functions -- from performing payroll deductions to permitting individual plan members to place buy/sell orders -- for 401(k), pension and other retirement plans covering about 3.7 million individuals, totaling approximately $247 billion in assets, according to Zaney. "Today, we can administer very small plans up to our largest single plan, which currently has 340,000 participants," he says.
Importantly, the platform remains highly flexible. "We're organized to take full advantage of agile methodology," Zaney relates. "In partnership with our business units -- not as a vendor to them -- projects get prioritized based on business value. Then we release a set of projects every 90 days. The remaining projects are reprioritized or discarded."
In addition to completing some post-migration tasks, Zaney's team currently is developing enhancements to participant web capabilities and improvements to participant advice functionality. Both initiatives, he says, support Wells Fargo's corporate goals for administering plans, which include maximizing participation rates, assisting with investment diversification and guiding individuals toward an 80 percent pre-retirement income.
The participant web enhancements, which Zaney expects to deliver in the fourth quarter this year, center around smart personalization and targeted messaging. "People are clamoring for advice," says Zaney. "We're redesigning the website to walk them through retirement saving activities based on where they are now, both in terms of age and investment expertise."
He adds, "The most experienced investors will be presented with an advanced dashboard. Novices will be presented with a simpler view. From there, the least-experienced will be coached toward our advice products that manage accounts for them."
With the participant advice project, the goal is improving visibility for call center representatives, says Zaney, who adds that, currently, call center reps lack the ability to access the same web pages as participants. "Soon, our representatives will have access to the same exact advice screens as participants," he explains. "It will allow our representatives to walk participants through retirement actions as well as assist individuals with navigating the site."
Like all projects for his group, the success of these efforts will be judged according to customer satisfaction surveys, business unit surveys and an internal technology scorecard, according to Zaney. "It's important to meet our customers where they want to be met, whether it's over the phone, online or via a mobile device," he says. "This improves retention and enables business growth."
Looking to the future, Zaney believes mobility and social media still top the chart of key capital markets technology trends. "We're in the middle of the next big thing," he asserts. "As an industry, our strategies are still insufficient for mobile devices. And as more Millennials continue reaching adulthood, mobility in combination with social media will be increasingly demanded both from our workforce and our customers.
"For the first time in history," Zaney continues, "young adults are using more-advanced technologies and collaborative tools than are typically available in the workplace. Firms need outstanding strategies around both of these things if they want to take full advantage of the new workforce and the customers who will be most active in our marketplace."
Anne Rawland Gabriel is a technology writer and marketing communications consultant based in the Minneapolis/St. Paul metro area. Among other projects, she's a regular contributor to UBM Tech's Bank Systems & Technology, Insurance & Technology and Wall Street & Technology ... View Full Bio