Andrew Lennon, CIO, Barings, on Covid-19, data science and mergers

Mention Barings Bank to anyone working in business for the past couple of decades, and they will talk about rogue trader Nick Leeson and the infamous 1995 collapse of a company established in 1762, as a result of his fraudulent trading.

Today, however, Barings is a $338bn international investment management firm, owned since 2005 by US mutual life insurance company MassMutual. It is Britain’s oldest investment bank, and once listed Queen Elizabeth II among its clients.

In 2016, the organisation went through another huge upheaval, as MassMutual merged Babson Capital Management, Wood Creek Capital Management, Cornerstone Real Estate Advisers and Baring Asset Management to form the new Barings, providing investment management services with a focus on emerging and inefficient markets, asset allocation and specialist fixed income.

A new strategy for a new CIO

The merger meant there were huge changes across the whole business – and a huge opportunity for Andrew Lennon, previously managing director and head of global portfolio services at Babson Capital Management, who was asked to take up the role of CIO for Barings.

“They were looking for a CIO who could bring the business together and take that business knowledge and apply it to the technology strategy to drive business outcomes,” he tells Computer Weekly.

Lennon became responsible for the entire technology portfolio, which encompasses three main sections: application development, including advanced analytics and data science teams; infrastructure operations, which includes networking, hosting, audio and visual activities; and cyber security, led by an information security officer who reports to Lennon. The CIO has an IT department of 300, supporting 2,000 employees in 40 offices in around 18 countries.

To merge the MassMutual entities together from an IT perspective, Lennon had to determine the most important aspect to focus on first. To help with the strategy, he formed a management team across the globe with a similar mindset to his.

“This was about people first, technology second – the understanding of employees from an empathetic perspective of what they needed and then using that technology expertise to solve that problem,” he says.

One of the biggest challenges was communication – getting a global workforce across 18 countries to communicate more effectively would help the business to operate smoothly. The next step for Lennon and his team was to create a communications platform to tackle this.

The first part of the platform was from an external perspective – the business needed to focus on merging all its existing websites into a single public-facing website.

The other part of the platform was focused on unified communications (UC), integrating phone systems, video conferencing, email and a directory to ensure employees could get the resources they required when needed.

By putting together a platform, Barings was able to let its clients better understand its entire portfolio of services, and ensure that teams in different locations could tackle projects together.

Getting data to flow freely

As data is a key part of the asset management business, Lennon says it was a priority from the outset to ensure a technology focus on data, from a governance and engineering point of view.

“We wanted a single focus on data and how that data could be developed as an asset not just for front-office, but for our service organisations,” he says.

To extract, analyse and use data across all the business’s five entities required a thorough analysis of systems, personnel and geographic footprint. First, the company consolidated a number of offices, and then it consolidated most of its IT infrastructure into three locations: the UK, the US and Hong Kong. As a lot of the hardware that had been used was dated, the company refreshed much of this, with Nutanix as its key supplier.

Lennon explains that transporting the new capabilities was the next issue as MassMutual had a very archaic MPLS network that all of the entities were using in some capacity. The network had to be restructured from the ground up, and the company has now gone live with a new global software-defined wide-area network (SD-WAN) network.

“That’s the last piece of the infrastructure puzzle in allowing data to be harvested across the globe in a very efficient manner. A key reason for deploying the Nutanix boxes in the datacentre was so we could do heavy compute on the data science side, where we also use a bit of Microsoft Azure,” he says.

“We’re taking humans out of the equation from an entry perspective and instead using humans to add value on the back-end to make sure the evaluations are correct”

Andrew Lennon, Barings Bank

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A year and a half after establishing the compute power and infrastructure needed, Barings was able to begin a data science initiative. It has spent the past few years building that out – with 12 employees, across the US and in the UK. Most of the focus for the team has been on optimising the investment and operational processes within the business.

“If you think about the research aspect of the investment process, it requires mining a ton of data, so we’ve created several examples of how we can provide insight and storytelling with that data in a much better way than a human could – for investment professionals,” Lennon says.

There are now a huge number of data science-led activities taking place within the organisation, including the use of natural language processing (NLP) and machine learning to turn physical documents that are still used in private investment markets to electronic documents, and extracting the data from those and using it to make evaluations.

“We’re taking humans out of the equation from an entry perspective and instead using humans to add value on the back-end to make sure the evaluations are correct,” he says.

Covid-19 response

As a result of the transformational work that the company put in place since 2016, Barings was better prepared for the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic.

“We certainly never planned for the situation at hand now where you had the entire workforce working remotely, but we had the foresight of a remote working environment. From an infrastructure standpoint, what we set out to build was capacity around the globe, taking into account the requirements of our network and datacentre to allow users to get access to resources,” says Lennon.

A few weeks prior to the company being fully remote, it asked half of the workforce to work from home to trial its capacity. It then made a few tweaks, including establishing more policy-driven load balancing.

Barings has also implemented various collaboration tools to ensure employees can communicate with one another and with clients, and it has deployed cyber awareness training, which Lennon says is particularly important when staff are working from home. He says the company is operating as close to business-as-usual as anyone could expect in this situation.

Lennon says that while a lot of the technology required to underpin changes to the business has now been put in place, there’s still a lot of transformation to take place at Barings in the coming years. This is just the start, but he adds that the pandemic may mean some of those projects will be put on hold for the time being.