What the Pandemic Taught Me about Business: Karan Bhalla
By W.B. King
In what will be a recurring feature, Finopotamus will touch base with business leaders to better understand how operations, technology and otherwise, have changed due to the COVID-19 pandemic.
After attending the CUNA Government Affairs Conference in February, CU Rise Analytics’ CEO, Karan Bhalla, said his team was energized with lots of forward motion. But by mid-March, COVID-19 shifted the dynamic.
“The pandemic really put the brakes on everything. Within a matter of days, we transitioned our entire staff from the office to remote work. We didn’t think twice about it, although we knew we’d have initial challenges with getting the right technology and security set-up in-home,” recalled Bhalla, who added the company has roughly 60 employees.
“We had to do this while making sure our client work and deliverables were not impacted,” he continued. “Any prolonged delay could affect our credit union clients and the interaction they have with their members.”
The Vienna, Va. – based technology company counts more than 30 credit unions as clients and helps them consolidate internal and external data, understand aggregated data and then act on it in a way that benefits the bottom line and membership, explained Bhalla.
Since CU Rise Analytics is a technology company, Bhalla said that most of the work can be performed remotely with “no impact to the deliverability or quality” of work.
“This is already an advantage to our clients – but particularly so in the current environment,” noted Bhalla. “What this means though, is that we must communicate well and keep clients appraised every step of the way.”
Despite financial fallouts resulting from COVID-19, Bhalla explained that business has “held steady.” He added that the focus has primarily been on existing clients, opposed to onboarding new customers. The latter effort had been aided by networking at in-person industry events and conferences that are temporarily on hold.
“All of the industry conferences we would typically participate in to expand our brand awareness and reach were canceled. But, things have begun to pick up again. Data analytics and member insights have emerged as critical tools for helping credit unions effectively adjust, compete and remain successful,” said Bhalla. “While we expect that 2021 could be a difficult year for the credit union industry, we don’t anticipate a decrease in demand for our services.”
Pandemic Lessons Learned
After more than six months of dealing with the pandemic, Bhalla said he has observed a few key takeaways, including the importance of having services in place so credit unions can be proactive opposed to reactive.
“One thing has become very evident: credit unions that went into the pandemic with greater digital readiness have fared much better in terms of member engagement and continued acquisition during this time,” he said.
“We have always been a tech-forward firm when it comes to working with our clients, Bhalla added. "We were using Zoom, secure file-sharing platforms and data security systems long before the pandemic made them requisite. The fact that these systems were already in place meant our work could continue almost seamlessly.”
And while there are many positives related to the use of banking technologies during the pandemic, Bhalla also noted a downside.
“For all of the upsides of the increased emphasis on technology, the pandemic has made many of us realize more fully that we are social beings. This has been an isolating experience for many and that has been very difficult. Technology has not evolved enough to replace human interaction – and hopefully, never will!” he said.
“It has also been more difficult to hire and onboard new employees, and ensure they are getting a sense of our culture and remaining engaged and productive,” Bhalla continued. “We look forward to more in-person team interaction in the future.”
A Big Bank Tech Perspective
Bhalla has served as CU Rise Analytics’ CEO since 2018, but has been working in the industry for 20 years. During his career, he has served in various roles, including working as management information system analyst/credit risk analyst II and a control risk auditor manager for Capitol One.
When asked how the credit union differs from the banking industry technology-wise, he said his answer will likely be “unpopular” with some people.
“I feel that credit unions do not fully leverage many of the technologies they have access to today. In my past life working at banks, I saw that banks are making better use of tools and processes that many credit unions don’t – or worse yet, can’t,” he said. “This is changing as credit unions look to fintechs for help, but there still is a lot of room to grow as an industry. The pandemic has accelerated that change.”
As far as CU Rise Analytics is concerned, Bhalla said services in 2021 will be more focused on technology, understanding member value and cost management.
“I don’t see us ever going back to being a 100% onsite work company. The flexibility and efficiency of remote work for our team are important considerations as we make decisions for the future,” he said. “We expect to transform the human resources area of our business to allow us to better manage a remote workforce.”