High security: The man who protects our bank accounts

Francisco Fernandez Image copyright Anouk Baumann
Image caption Francisco Fernandez and his business are little known

Most people have never heard of a Swiss man called Francisco Fernandez, but tens of millions of us rely on him to look after our money.

An unassuming 53-year-old who likes playing the piano in his spare time, he is responsible for the security of $4 trillion (£3.2tn) of bank deposits around the world.

Mr Fernandez is the founder and boss of a company that is as little known as he is - Avaloq.

The Swiss business and its 2,500 employees may fly under the radar, but it is one of the world's largest providers of banking software.

Its systems are used by more than 450 banks around the world, including the UK's Barclays, HSBC, and Royal Bank of Scotland, plus Deutsche Bank, Societe Generale, UBS and Nomura.

As you'd expect, Avaloq takes security very seriously, especially protecting banks from cyber-attack. To help make its software as secure as possible, the company has a novel approach - it pays technology firms in Israel to attack it.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Avaloq says it sees off thousands of cyber-attacks every year

With a number of hi-tech Israeli companies at the forefront of protecting against hacking, Avaloq uses them to test its defences.


Mr Fernandez says: "The Israelis are very, very good, they [the young tech workers] are coming out of active military service, and they are brilliant.

"We regularly appoint them to attack our systems in a controlled way, and then with their help we try to make our systems bulletproof.

"We do our homework, security is a constant thing... we get thousands of attacks per year but so far, touch wood, we have never had an intrusion into our systems."

For a company that today enjoys annual revenues of more than $500m (£351m), Avaloq has come a long way since 1991 when Mr Fernandez led a $200,000 management buyout of the computer department of Swiss bank BZ Bank.

At the time the department had just five members of staff, but Mr Fernandez had big ambitions.

Image copyright Avaloq
Image caption Avaloq's technology uses cloud computing

He says he had long recognised that the software used by most banks across the world was both overly complicated and unstable, yet also too expensive.

His idea was to produce a simpler but stronger universal software system that could be used by multiple banks.

'Mission impossible'

So with a small amount of money coming in from a single bank customer and some additional consulting work, Mr Fernandez and his team set to work on building their software system. It took them five years.

"Building a comprehensive banking system takes time," says Mr Fernandez.

When the software was finally ready to be sold to banks, Avaloq found that the notoriously risk-averse Swiss banking sector was reluctant to take a chance on a start-up business that by then still had only 20 employees.

Image copyright Avaloq
Image caption The company is based in Zurich

Mr Fernandez says that many people thought it would be a "mission impossible" for Avaloq to find a buyer for its new software, but then thanks to a contact he was able to showcase it to no less than Switzerland's central bank, the Swiss National Bank.

The central bank was impressed enough to buy the software, which within six months saw five commercial Swiss banks follow suit. Overseas banks soon came on board too.


Today Avaloq offers banks two services - the use of its software, or a more intensive service whereby it also takes over the running of a bank's computer system. Some 17% of banks (holding $700bn of funds) now opt for the latter, which uses cloud computing technology.

Image copyright PAUL ZANRE
Image caption The business remains owned by its staff

Avaloq makes its money through continuing licence fees, and apart from a 10% stake held by a Swiss bank, the company is owned by its employees.

Of its 2,500 members of staff, 500 are programmers. In addition to a main base in Zurich, it also has offices in Edinburgh and as far afield as Manila, the capital of the Philippines.

Instead of staff getting individual bonus payments for hitting personal targets, all workers get a bonus if the company meets its annual objective, be that revenue growth or extended geographic reach.

Image copyright Avaloq
Image caption Mr Fernandez says his family background helped give him the will to achieve in life

Antony Peyton, deputy editor of trade paper Banking Tech, tells the BBC: "Avaloq's success can be attributed to chief executive Francisco Fernandez's astute leadership, and the Avaloq Banking Suite, its core software offering for private banks."

'Fugitive parents'

Mr Fernandez is the son of Spanish refugees who fled the dictatorship of General Franco and settled in the Swiss city of Lucerne before he was born.

He says his background played a large part in his decision to take a risk and launch Avaloq.

"My parents were fugitives after the Spanish Civil War, and that culture, of leaving your country, and having the guts to come out of your comfort zone, is very much in my DNA.

"As a child we couldn't afford a car, TV or central heating, but growing up in Switzerland was a huge privilege, and I was able to attend ETH Zurich, one of the best [universities] in the world for computer science.

"I feel privileged to have the top job at Avaloq, but I don't take anything for granted."

Follow The Boss series editor Will Smale on Twitter @WillSmale1

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