Capital One upgrades service delivery systems

IT overhaul a big deal for credit card provider

A decade of rapid growth has a way of making any cutting-edge enterprise feel outdated. But Rob Alexander, executive vice president of Capital One Financial, and his team rose to the challenge.

From its humble origins in 1995 as the credit card division of a regional bank in Virginia, Capital One has mushroomed into the fourth-biggest issuer of plastic, serving 60 million accounts. Growing demands from all corners forced its IT architects to cobble together solutions in one department that didn't always play well with applications and practices in another. Meanwhile, operating costs just kept mounting.

"Our system had become so convoluted over time that I liken it to sclerosis in your veins," Alexander says. The company has invested more than 3 million worker hours in the past 30 months overhauling the hardware and software that controls billing, call center operations, and core functions. A primary goal was to streamline processes and systems and thereby reduce delivery time for new products and services.

From the start, Capital One designed its extreme makeover to be customer-driven. Although he reported to marketing, Alexander supervised executives from both IT and operations. "It really enabled alignment around this goal of delivering the project, and it was always working backwards from what the business need was," he says.

The first chore his team tackled was rebuilding the data warehouse and re-engineering the way documents were handled. "People who had been around for years knew where to find things, but it was more tribal knowledge, versus the new environment, where things are better organized," Alexander says.

The team, which consisted of Capital One employees, outside consultants, and vendor partners, next customized a suite of applications developed by Total Systems, and integrated them into Capital One's system. Along the way, they also replaced their aging mainframe, which is used to run billing, authorization, and other computationally intensive applications, with a new one from IBM. They also installed new servers to handle call center tasks and chores related to the company's rewards program.

The company began reaping benefits in less than a month. Handling charge-offs now may take a week rather than a year. Rolling out a new credit card service takes two weeks instead of six months. Alexander says the new infrastructure reduces costly user errors, and is less expensive to maintain on a daily basis.

After more than two years of planning, the moment of truth for Alexander and his team finally arrived early one morning in October. Within the span of 90 minutes, they planned to bring the new system online for all 37 sites around the world. The group had planned for the event for months, running through drills that only went so far in calming the nerves. "It was much bigger than anything we had ever bitten off before," Alexander says of the project. "We could have had tremendous servicing problems associated with that."

As it turned out, the rehearsals and attention to detail paid off. More than 1,000 people gathered in command centers around the world to monitor operations as the switch was flipped. Silence ... and then success.

"This was a very big deal," says Alexander, recalling the celebratory mood of the moment. "It was early in the morning, so we did mimosas."

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