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This content is part of the Essential Guide: Enterprise mobile application development: A CIO strategy guide
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To gain a competitive advantage with mobile, CIO readiness is all

Gaining a competitive advantage with mobile is no easy feat for a statewide bank. Getting an early jump made the difference for one CIO.

Ask Angelo Valletta, CIO at Sun National Bank, about IT's role in the company's sure-handed launch of its mobile banking platform back in early 2010, and he talks about team effort. Gaining a competitive advantage by being one of the first banks of its size to offer mobile banking was the result of a "team going in the same direction," says Valletta, who also heads bank operations at Sun National, a subsidiary of Sun Bancorp Inc., both headquartered in Vineland, N.J. "IT is not the tail wagging the dog here."

That may be true. But the groundwork for mobile was, in fact, laid by IT -- and not in 2010, the company's mobile target date, but four years earlier, when the technology was still a gleam in the business's eyes.

With about $3.5 billion in assets, Sun National is not a large bank by national standards. In the competitive New Jersey marketplace, however, it has become a statewide force, with 65-plus locations. It also has the second-largest commercial bank headquartered in the state. The bank touts its "local decision makers" as one of its main differentiators from the too-big-to-fails, and business tastemakers have taken notice. Forbes Magazine named Sun Bancorp Inc. one of the nation's most trustworthy companies, which the company's CEO, Thomas Geisel, proudly noted in an interview earlier this year.

There are very few situations where a bank our size can be first to market, and we really made a play for it.

It was Geisel who announced in 2009 that he wanted Sun Bancorp's banks to be out in the market with an integrated mobile offering by early 2010, Valletta said. "He wanted to be first among banks our size to offer mobile banking -- and not just with one of the forms, but text messaging, mobile native applications for the Android, iPhone and other devices, and mobile Web browsing."

While IT may not be the tail wagging the dog at Sun National, Valletta was well into the process of readying the bank for a mobile channel when Geisel made his announcement. "We started kicking around the idea in 2006," Valletta said. "We would never have been able to get there if we weren't taking a look at products early on and building those internal relationships to get it done."

How CIOs should be thinking about gaining a competitive advantage through the use of IT is a hot topic this year at CIO conferences and in headhunter circles. At the recent Gartner CIO Forum, for example, analysts pointed out that interest in how one's competitors are using technology to gain an advantage has risen sharply among business leaders.

Judy Homer, president at New York placement firm J.B. Homer Associates Inc., said that current CIO searches call for someone who can work with business units -- marketing and products, in particular -- as well as vendors to gain a competitive advantage for the business. "It's not about having a seat at the table," Homer said, "but about getting there faster, cheaper and quicker."

Gaining a competitive advantage by sharing early and often

In his nine years at the bank, the last four as CIO, Valletta has made a point of building strong relationships with the bank's business groups at every level, including those local decision makers that are the bank's strong suit. The relationships proved critical to getting an early jump on developing the bank's mobile channel. "It was not so much political positioning, but education," Valletta said.

For starters, the marketplace for mobile banking apps was very different in 2004 than today. "Back then, some vendors just had text, some had native apps for certain devices and some had just Internet-based applications. We needed a provider with all three, who could work together with our core banking partner because that was important to building those interfaces," he said. Valletta kept close tabs on what the megabanks, with their large research-and-development budgets, were considering.

Choosing a mobile partner required "a lot of due diligence" but, by starting early, IT was not only able to pin down a vendor (it wound up choosing mFoundry Inc.), but also able to begin crafting a contract, Valletta said. When the bank's business leaders did decide to pull the trigger, all that was left was "to negotiate with the vendor on price."

Knowing when to launch to gain a competitive advantage is critical, Valletta said. Here, again, business relationships were key. "We were able to say to the business that we believe this will be a new channel that our customers will want, but we don't know timing," Valletta said. "We need you marketing folks, you products folks, you people on the front lines to give us some guidance."

Valletta said he is using the same approach on other new products, such as mobile-phone capture of checks. "When we provide that to customers, it's truly a line-of-business decision, but we are ready with the infrastructure and can go to market with any one of those products within months, not years," he said. In the meantime, he can bask in the mobile app coup, which debuted with a marketing blitz of radio promotions and wrap-around bus ads.

"There are very few situations where a bank our size can be first to market, and we really made a play for it," Valletta said.

Let us know what you think about the story; email Linda Tucci, Senior News Writer.

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