Global Trade Finance Network Gets New Innovation Head

Published  5 MIN READ

Elaine Ng, Contour’s new Head of Innovation, is looking forward to working with “a great mix of blue-sky innovation and commercialisation” as she draws up the company’s roadmap for 2022. TMI discovers more about her ambitious plans.

Contour, the TMI award-winning digital trade finance network provider, appointed Elaine Ng to the newly created role last month. Based in Singapore, Ng specialises in technology transformation and organisational change management using data-driven and UX/human-centred design techniques.

She comes to Contour from Standard Chartered Bank where she was Head of Workplace and Ways of Working Transformation. Previous senior roles included stints with J.P. Morgan, HSBC and Capco. She will now work alongside Contour’s senior management and product and engineering teams with a remit to “conceptualise, formulate, and strategise” new product development and partnership opportunities in the trade and trade finance industries.

New drivers

Ng is in no doubt as to what needs to happen under her watch. “My job is to ensure that Contour is driving the innovation of trade finance,” she states. To achieve this, she explains that the business needs to actively collaborate with members of the Contour network, and key industry partners, to continue making sure new solutions serve current and future client needs.

Ng is in no doubt as to what needs to happen under her watch. “My job is to ensure that Contour is driving the innovation of trade finance,” she states. To achieve this, she explains that the business needs to actively collaborate with members of the Contour network, and key industry partners, to continue making sure new solutions serve current and future client needs.

“What’s exciting for me about the role is that within Contour, our Future of Finance Lab enables us not only to envision what’s on our – one-to-three-year-plus roadmap with some of the more exploratory work, but it also allows us to research and develop some of the near-term commercialisation projects that are going on our roadmap this year,” she explains. “This is a great mix of blue-sky innovation and practical innovation and commercialisation.”

Next challenges

However, in an industry that is still struggling to move beyond paper-based processing, Ng believes that the main challenges with transforming trade finance are less about innovating new technologies and more about addressing non-technical issues.

“As Contour looks into digitisation of trade finance products, we are facing concerns from the marketplace about the validity of digitised products, such as guarantees,” she notes. Acknowledging that there remains a lingering bias towards paper in some jurisdictions, she accepts that, for now, platforms such as Contour can only digitise the process “up to a certain point”.

“Our approach is to start by working in those jurisdictions that are more amenable to digitised products, and then expand our reach as the other jurisdictions catch up. Luckily, we are based in Singapore where there is a healthy respect for digitised products, so we have a great starting point.”

Design brief

As part of the Contour Lab’s mission, it will try to “reimagine the future of trade finance” through user-centred and data-driven techniques. This requires it to place users at the heart of platform innovation, notes Ng. “Engaging with Contour users is a priority in all stages of our innovation funnel, from ideation to launch. It starts from us identifying and understanding the pain points that our customers face, addressing them through new solutions, with user experience as a priority, and lastly, incorporating user feedback on our solution iteratively during pre and post go-live.”

Contour’s first offering is around LCs, but it will need to bring open account trading to the platform for it to take off. This is its next big step but is not such a challenge as it may first seem. The core of what Contour offers is its network of banks and corporates, and the bulk of its technology investment is in that core network and its scalability. While adding new applications – covering open account financing structures and other traditional products such as guarantees and standby LCs – means building new workflows and data structures, these new solutions will still leverage much of the existing technology stack as well, explains Ng.

Expansion plans

At an industry level, system interoperability will be key to the growth of Contour. This suggests that every stakeholder in the trade process will need to make major changes and investments to benefit. Digitisation of trade will certainly require banks and corporates to use more than one technology solution, and user expectations are high when it comes to seamless access to their data across these various solutions, comments Ng.

“The foundation of interoperability is a common identity across platforms, and then that makes the work of allowing data access through authenticated APIs a much simpler and lower-risk proposition,” she notes. “Contour has already been a leader in this regard with adopting the LEI [legal entity identifier] global standard, as well as a wide group of partners with whom they support interoperability.”

In practice, a corporate can now agree to a commercial purchase contract in one platform such as Chinsay, and then that data can be automatically populated into Contour as a draft LC application. “This is just the beginning,” states Ng. “We’re look forward to deepening our integrations and driving even smoother user experiences in the future.”

Part of the global expansion plan for Contour has always rested on forming various industry partnerships. To date it has arrangements with a number of sympathetic platform providers such Bolero, essDOCS, and Global Shipping Business Network (GSBN) that enable it to expand into new markets and provide offerings more efficiently. In collaboration with its member network, Ng says Contour is actively researching “innovation commercialisation concepts” that may ultimately be developed as part of its roadmap. “The size of the market opportunity is huge, so the more industry players we can partner with, the more likely we are to be successful as a whole.”

High-tech future

The world is rarely short of significant events to enforce change, and yet some events defy all expectations. That said, being prepared for the effects of the pandemic was never really likely since few saw it coming. And, says Ng, by impacting absolutely every aspect of our lives, “from the way we work, to the why, when, where and how we use technology”, it has exposed new weaknesses but also created fresh opportunities.

“Apart from the obvious increased reliance on technology from a personal perspective, the pandemic has had a seismic impact on business globally, including the trade finance industry, which has historically been slow to change,” she comments. Indeed, many companies are forced to rely on technology to manage their business in a volatile environment. But recent peak volatility has encouraged many companies to prioritise their digitisation efforts. A McKinsey report indicated that Covid has accelerated digitisation of many businesses by three or four years. For digitally native companies such as Contour, the pandemic has presented some openings, says Ng.

“Many companies are seeking a technology platform through which they can manage their trade finance solutions. The benefits of this solution in a post-pandemic world cannot be overstated. For example, pre-pandemic, it may have been acceptable for counterparties to post each other documents to sign to close out a letter of credit. But post-pandemic, when mail systems are experiencing enormous delays, the benefits of having a secure, stable and reliable technology platform like Contour are enormous.”