Tech Hires See Russia’s Sberbank Catching Up on Big Data

(Bloomberg) -- Russia’s biggest bank is paying up to keep the nation’s best tech talent from emigrating to Silicon Valley. To analyze 135 million customers, it needs the power of big data.

Sberbank PJSC, which holds 46 percent of Russian retail deposits, says it’s luring experts in the field with some of the highest salaries at the state-owned lender, paying almost $100,000 a year for the most experienced recruits, even as it shrinks its workforce at a 16,000-strong blanch network. The bank will double the number of “data scientists” to 400 over the next three months as it increasingly looks to technology to drive earnings, Deputy Chief Executive Officer Vadim Kulik said in an interview.

Sberbank, which announced Wednesday that it plans to cut 8 percent of its staff next year, has withstood Russia’s two-year economic crisis by keeping a lid on bad loans. Its stock is up more than 70 percent in 2016. For its next leg of profit growth, Chief Executive Officer Herman Gref is turning his attention to the bank’s vast troves of customer information.

The Russian behemoth will focus on tracking client spending, enabling it to streamline lending practices and sell statistics on its customer base to third parties -- a strategy that has paid off for Western lenders like Virginia-based Capital One Financial Corp.

“In the coming years, Sberbank will earn not as much from traditional banking products as it will from synergies between us and our partners, and we are looking to data scientists to monetize this relationship,” Kulik said, adding that the lender aims to eventually employ 1,000 data specialists.

Tech Hires See Russia’s Sberbank Catching Up on Big Data

After stagnating for two years, Sberbank’s shares took off in 2016, adding 70%.

Sberbank’s salaries are competitive with western Europe and far outpace the average Russian wage. Data scientists are the highest paid data and analytics professionals in Berlin, where taxes are higher than in Russia -- earning about 45,000 euros ($47,930) or more per year for a junior position to 100,000 euros for a department head, according to Harnham, a London-based recruiter. The average monthly Russian salary was less than 36,000 rubles ($593) in September, according to the national statistics service, or about $7,100 a year.

As a former Soviet monopoly, Sberbank has the potential to know a large population’s financial habits better than almost any bank in the world. Gref, Sberbank’s Tesla-driving boss, vowed to “teach an elephant to dance” when he moved from President Vladimir Putin’s cabinet to run the bank in 2007. He can’t ride on the back of an especially vibrant economy: Gref has said Russia was among the “loser countries” this year as it failed to reform its economy or invest in technology, relying instead on exporting resources.

IT Focus

Gref is devoting increased resources to information technology, a sector where Russia is known for the quality of its programmers, as Sberbank scales back the ambitions of its investment bank, which has languished under U.S. and European sanctions in response to the crisis in Ukraine.

The push to hire such workers runs counter to an overall staff reduction, which will pick up pace next year as it closes some of its 16,000 branches. Sberbank employed about 329,000 people at the end of September. According to a presentation to investors Wednesday, Sberbank wants to make as much as 38 percent of its revenue through digital banking by 2018.

“Expect us to start to reduce our headcount number, and it will be more visible next year,” Chief Financial Officer Alexander Morozov said in November. “We continue to hire people in just selected job families, like data scientists, IT specialists, IT engineers and technologists. That’s it.”

While financial institutions have long spent heavily on information technology, there has been an explosion of data-driven innovations in the last decade. In the U.S., big banks such as Capital One have built “predictive analytics” platforms that sift through terabytes of information to score credit risk with more precision than traditional methods. A survey by the Economist Intelligence Unit found 60 percent of the global executives who participated said big data is already generating revenue for their companies.

"It’s all very well having data, but you need to know where it is, store it efficiently and be able to search and retrieve it when needed," said Rachel Lindstrom, a senior consultant with GreySpark Partners Ltd., a London-based firm. "The demand for data scientists is growing ever stronger."

Sberbank’s push comes at a time when Russian IT professionals have been increasingly looking to emigrate due to the country’s stagnating economy, even considering lateral moves, according to Mariya Pryschepa, a Moscow-based consultant at GlobalCareer, which specializes in placing tech workers. Russian emigration outside the former Soviet Union hit a 13-year high in 2015, according to the Federal Statistics Service, amid the longest recession in two decades. Ex-Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin’s Committee of Civil Initiatives called brain drain an “issue of national security” in an October presentation.

Sberbank’s attempt to shift from a Soviet savings bank to more of a tech company may not be enough to stem the flow of Russians abroad, but it won’t be because the firm is being tight with its kopeks. Kulik says some of the new hires were former expats who moved back to Moscow from the U.S.

“Sberbank offers very competitive terms,” Pryschepa said. “They’re certainly doing their part to reverse the brain drain.”