How to create an ‘intrapreneurial’ success

UBS SmartWealth founders Nick and Shane

A 155-year-old bank might seem an unlikely hotbed for disruptive ideas, but two UBS colleagues and the brains behind UBS SmartWealth are showing what happens when a progressive board backs an ‘intrapreneurial’ spirit

Shane Williams I’m a technologist at heart. I’ve spent most of my career in tech, developing solutions for business. I started at Ford, designing drive-by-wire engine management systems, then worked at various banks. I’ve been at UBS for 10 years. Now I have flipped over to the business side to co-head our new venture, UBS SmartWealth, with Nick.

Nick Middleton I’ve been a financial adviser for 20 years. I started as a private client stockbroker and evolved into other areas, but I’ve always been client-facing. When the idea first emerged, Shane came to me for my views on how it could be positioned. I’ve now left my comfortable existence looking after affluent private clients and stepped into the crazy world of building a business.

Williams Being actively involved in the innovation side, I have a finger in many pies and get involved in things I probably shouldn’t! So a discussion began in the summer of 2015 as to whether we could create a best-in-class digital wealth management offering – an investment platform and wealth-planning tool which harnesses the bank’s expertise and insight to provide regulated advice entirely digitally, something no else in the UK currently does.

Middleton Within UBS there’s a group innovation board which gives seed funding to ideas that wouldn’t normally pass through normal governance channels – that don’t have a good business case in terms of return on investment. Ideas that come under ‘I think this could work, but we need to experiment, and we need money to be able to do that.’ That’s how we approached it.

Williams We worked with an experienced digital design agency to help us through. We didn’t look at what the bank already offers and think about how we could transform it for digital – we started with a blank piece of paper and user-centred design, focusing on building something really good for the customer. Importantly, the agency hadn’t worked in wealth management before, so they were constantly asking ‘Why?’ Anything we felt we needed that wasn’t focused around the customer was just thrown away.

Middleton We pitched the business to Jürg Zeltner, president of UBS Wealth Management, and his executive  committee. They liked it. Jürg said, ‘What do you need from us?’ We said, ‘We just need to be left alone, give us room.’ That’s what they did. To have senior management buy into a concept and then truly give it the space to see what happens is invaluable.

Williams It was crucial. I’d say to any board that doesn’t have expertise in technology, make sure you find the intrapraneurs within your company and let them build, give them freedom. Give them help, support and guidance when they need it but give them room. Because if you interfere, saying ‘I wouldn’t do this or that’ and start tweaking around, you will crush it and it won’t become anything.

Middleton We went from a pitch and a go-ahead in 2015 to standing in front of Jürg again last November and saying, ‘It’s open, it’s up and running, the first accounts are here and funded.’ We officially launched on 27 February. A start-up, moving at the speed of an entrepreneurial fintech business, built inside a large organisation in just over a year.

Williams We built the team and the product at the same time, recruiting everyone – data scientists, business analysts, developers, marketers – both from within the organisation and outside. We spent a lot of time on culture too, rather than telling people what the values are we asked everyone to get together and work out the values as a team.

Middleton One of those values is that we are jargon-free. We hired journalists to write our educational material, so it’s factual, instantly consumable and written from a storytelling point of view. It needs to be really accessible to everybody.

Williams We’re in this together. Having deliberately used the co-founder model you often see in successful fintech businesses, we have built a team which acts and thinks like a start-up. By marrying our different but complementary backgrounds in technology and client management, we have ultimately given ourselves and developers the freedom to focus on the needs and wants of the client.

Middleton The great thing is UBS has been around over 155 years, and yet they’re taking a view of this new business, not as five years and an exit, but 10, 15, 20 years. This is what the rest of the business needs to be moving towards. That long-term view, the flexibility to execute fresh ideas, is key to our success.

UBS SmartWealth vital stats

Parent company UBS – the Zurich-headquartered financial services company, with invested assets of over CHF2.2trn (£1.75trn), founded in 1862.

New venture UBS SmartWealth – a London-founded online investing platform for phone, tablet, laptop or desktop. Aimed at demystifying wealth planning and opening up the organisation’s expertise and regulated advice to a new audience beyond its typical high-net-worth customers.

Founded Conceived summer 2015, launched February 2017

Minimum investment £15,000

Key people Co-heads Shane Williams and Nick Middleton

For more information, visit

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About author

Chris Maxwell

Chris Maxwell

Director’s editor spent nine years interviewing TV and film stars for Sky before joining the IoD in 2011 and turning the microphone on Britain’s business leaders. Since then he’s grilled everyone from Boris to Branson and, away from work, maintains an unhealthy obsession with lower league football.

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