Out the other side: reflections on a bank merge and what it means for customers



Three years ago, NAB announced its plans to acquire neobank 86 400 to fast-track delivery of new and better experiences for its ubank customers.

In Australia, not only are women underrepresented as CEOs, but few leaders in the corporate development teams responsible for executing merger and acquisition (M&A) transactions are women[i]. In ubank CEO Philippa Watson’s case, not only was she a key decision-maker in the process to acquire and then merge 86 400, but she has also led the digital bank with its team of 600+ ‘ucrew’ on a path to customer-led innovation and growth.

Ms Watson said bringing together 86 400’s technology platform and NAB’s know-how has helped build a leading digital bank that can attract and retain customers at scale and pace.

“As with many acquisitions, deciding was the easy part – the harder part is executing the integration,” Ms Watson said.

Evaluating and redefining ubank

Ubank’s history began in 2008 as NAB created a separate digital-only brand.

“The bank grew well over those 15 years. It’s been at the forefront of technology at different points in time, but by 2020 when I joined the bank, it was time for a refresh,” Ms Watson added.

“We looked at ubank’s technology environment and recognised the need to modernise legacy systems to align with evolving customer preferences, particularly Gen Z. The acquisition of 86 400 emerged as the optimal solution.”

With the acquisition complete in May 2021, Ms Watson’s focus turned to retiring the 86 400 banking licence, moving customers onto the new technology, and refreshing the brand.

“For a period of about eight months we were effectively running two banks, she said. “Integration is never seamless and it’s a time of relentless change.”

Despite challenges during customer migration, Ms Watson said the team’s goal was to maximise value for customers. We learnt a lot over that period, and we know we didn’t get it all right. However, our focus was always to move quickly through this phase, to minimise distraction, disruption, and uncertainty for our customers and our people.”

The focus has paid off with ubank growing strongly across its deposits and home lending businesses. It is also the number two rated bank for customer satisfaction[ii].

Helping the digital generation with their money

Ubank is and will continue to be focused on simple, digital, and great value banking.

“Our offerings are savings accounts, payment and money management solutions, and home loans aimed at customers who want to manage their money digitally, with a particular focus on 18 to 35 year olds,” she said.

Ms Watson underscores the importance of catering to this demographic, acknowledging younger customers have unique financial needs.

“We know that the financial decisions individuals can make when they’re younger compound across their lifetimes. That’s why we’re on a mission to empower this generation to make informed financial decisions,” she said.

A lady stands at a podium wearing a black t-shirt. It is dark in the background with faint purple light.
ubank CEO Philippa Watson

Ubank likes to stay close to its customers too, with Ms Watson noting strong collaboration, creativity, and experimentation between teams to attract and engage new and existing customers.

This includes TikTok, where 82 per cent of ubank’s 145,200 followers are aged within its target segment of 18 to 35 year olds.

“We have seen the most success in attracting and engaging customers through this channel,” Ms Watson said.

Ms Watson said this customer centricity is core to ubank’s culture, with all ubank employees having real time access to app reviews, rather than waiting weeks for regular industry surveys.

“Ubank’s product and engineering teams are really focused on what customers are saying particularly via iOS and Android app store reviews. It’s this proximity that has been great for fast responses to customer feedback and ensuring continuous improvement in our service delivery.

“In the past six months, we’ve made dozens of enhancements including launching new bills and budgeting tools to help customers see their money clearly. For our home loan customers, our time to unconditional approval (TTUA) is down to two days,” she said.

Building the pipeline of female tech talent

Ubank’s evolution also extends to its workforce, which has experienced significant growth in size and capability.

“We’ve expanded our technology teams and have adopted a hiring and development approach centred around everyone at ubank having a triple capability in technology, banking, and customer focus,” she said.

However, she also notes there’s more work that needs to be done on gender diversity. “We have some incredible women who are strong on technology, banking and customer centricity, and many of our most critical functions including across commercial services, operations and human resources are led by women. One of the things we are focusing on is how we attract more female engineering talent,” Ms Watson added.

What’s next?

Ms Watson said the ubank team is on a mission to make banking a great experience for the digital generation.

“I’m incredibly proud of what the team has achieved to-date; we’ve got a fresh tech stack and talented people who are passionate about helping people achieve what they want with their money, and in a way they want to do their banking. We’re excited for the future.”


[i] https://corpgov.law.harvard.edu/2022/03/11/women-and-ma/
[ii]DBM Atlas, Net Promoter Score (NPS) Results, January 2024



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