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Can you introduce yourself and share a bit about your background both personally and professionally?

Sure. I'm Stuart Cook. I used to introduce myself as a recovering banker, then I was a recovering fintech professional, and now I’m back to being a recovering banker again. My journey in financial services spans over 20 years, having started in the UK before moving to the US, where I've lived for the last 15 years. In fact, I just celebrated my fifth anniversary as an American citizen.

I began my career with a five-year stint at a bank in the UK, then ventured into the fintech world, where I spent about 15 years with various startups. Most recently, I held positions at Valley Bank as the Chief Product Officer and Chief Innovation Officer, and I was responsible for building a $100 million venture fund that directly invested in fintech startups over the last few years.

Personally, I’m still a fintech nerd. I love it, and I still spend time thinking about all of the opportunities and challenges in financial services. Outside of work, I have a strong love for music and cycling. I used to play in a band, and both of my children are musicians who also play in bands. That’s how I try to be normal and not just a fintech nerd.

How has your experience in banking and fintech shaped your perspective?

Spending time at a bank teaches you how important regulated financial institutions are to the fabric of society. They play a crucial role in our daily lives, especially in the US. I admire the financial services ecosystem here. People often ask me what my favorite part of being in America is, and while my first answer is always the national parks for their sheer beauty and grandeur, my second answer is the banking system. Its uniqueness helped lift the country out of the Great Depression and it fosters the entrepreneurial spirit of being American.

That said, driving innovation within large financial organizations is challenging. There's a definite need for entrepreneurship and fintech, which thrive in spaces where larger incumbents struggle to reach due to various constraints. I’m a big fan of disruptive innovation—it's essential for driving the changes we want to see in financial services. For me, being a change agent in banking was energizing, but I often need to refresh and recharge because effecting change from within can be really hard.

You've had decades of fintech and financial services experience as both an investor and an operator. Is there a subsector within fintech that you find really exciting right now?

We've discussed how the nature of regulated financial institutions is marked by a lag between innovation and regulation. There are fascinating opportunities at this intersection. The seemingly mundane companies, the ones entrenched in infrastructure, are actually the most intriguing to me. Once you get into the operational mechanics of large financial organizations, you discover massive inefficiencies. To me, that’s some of the shame of the consolidation that’s happening across community banking. It’s really hard to run a bank. It’s costly. It should be simpler in terms of cost, yet many operate with high efficiency ratios—like 60 or 70 percent—due to redundant human labor.

The first wave of fintech highlighted these issues, especially the importance of customer experience—a facet traditional banks had grown complacent about. Banks take a project-centric approach, where everything is driven by annual cycles and quarterly earnings, contrasting sharply with what I would call a product mindset focused on customer outcomes, iteration, and pivoting.

There were lessons from that sort of first tranche of neobanks, and I think some of them weren't learned the way they should have been. It's not just about creating a slick app or simplifying online account opening; the true changes need to go deeper, addressing structural inefficiencies that affect everything from customer experience to operational costs.

The things we do internally at the bank actually drive some of that customer experience. The way that banks are siloed drives that customer experience. It's not just the UI or the UX layer.

By tackling these structural issues, banks can achieve higher efficiencies and also enhance overall customer experiences, reduce costs, and increase their share of wallet—goals that are important for any bank's board.

You’ve served as both Chief Product Officer and Chief Innovation Officer at Valley Bank. How did you make your way into the product function?

In my early days in the industry, the role of a "product person" wasn't as clearly defined as it is now. To me, a product person is someone deeply obsessed with customer needs and committed to delivering the right outcomes for both the customer and the business. This role involves continuously discovering what needs to be done, making informed choices, and understanding the opportunity costs associated with limited resources.

Before it was formally recognized, I was essentially performing the duties of a product person in a bank. When I transitioned to an early-stage company, it became official: I was the product person. At that time, we were pioneering mobile connectivity to financial services, which seems obvious now but was groundbreaking in the mid-2000s. We grappled with technical feasibility and the viability of the business model, and figuring out how to satisfy latent demand from a customer point of view. I’m insatiable for that stuff. It’s a magic formula if you can bring it all together.

A role like that in the early stages is inherently cross-functional and collaborative. You’re matrixed across teams, but no one reports to you. You’re relying heavily on influence and persuasion rather than direct authority. I had to transition my linking from being output-focused because those are all lagging indicators. I learned how to focus on leading indicators because that will drive the outcomes you want.

Over ten years, I helped grow a product team from a couple of individuals to managing 65 product managers globally. I remember that in the early days, we made prototypes with paper and ink pads. We basically drew an interaction design and got people off the street to put their fingers in an ink pad. Then, we asked them how they would do something so that we could see where they pressed. This is before you could do a high-resolution prototype on a screen.

So we went from doing that—being so close to a customer and shipping product—to then driving millions of dollars of revenue, running these large teams, and having to make this leap into much more of a leadership position. That’s a completely different muscle. Then, it’s more about guiding large teams through evolving processes, which grows more complex as a company scales.

This experience set the stage for my return to banking. I’d seen so much of the how and then developed that leadership muscle. Then, I came back to a bank where we had very ambitious goals. It was great that I could roll up my sleeves and get to work closely with customers again, and many of the leadership lessons I’d learned in fintech became crucial because a large part of what we were doing was managing change.

How do you approach the role of a chief product or chief innovation officer at a bank?

When you walk into a bank and mention "product," the immediate response often involves tangible offerings like checking accounts, savings accounts, loans, and mortgages. However, when I speak of "product," I'm referring to something far more foundational—the outcomes we aim to drive for our customers and the structure of our teams to deliver these outcomes. This shift to a product mindset involves thinking strategically about the entire lifecycle of product development, from ideation to delivery, focusing on iterating and improving in response to real user feedback.

Shifting into an innovation role within a bank, my goal was to extend this product mindset across the entire organization. This is less about traditional digital transformation—which often focuses merely on technological upgrades—and more about a digital operating model that fosters a deep cultural transformation. It's about changing the ways we work and how we think about our processes and goals.

Innovation in banking shouldn't just be about flashy new projects that often fail to deliver sustained impact. It should be about deeply understanding the core challenges and inefficiencies within the organization and then systematically addressing them.

It involves empowering teams to think creatively, solve problems effectively, and iterate on solutions that not only meet but exceed customer expectations. This approach allows us to peel off specific opportunities, tackle them with innovative solutions, and gradually build organizational strength and flexibility.

Product and innovation should be about harnessing this mindset to drive profound changes in how the bank operates internally and how it serves its customers externally.

With all the different surface areas at a bank, how would you and the leadership team decide or set out on what to prioritize?

That’s a great question because it’s an opportunity cost question. Most banks right now are talking about the war for deposits, and quite often, these things are cyclical. We try to align our actions closely with the bank's objectives. So, we ask the question, “What are the outcomes we want to drive?” Then, we will go find the things to do.

My philosophy has always been to think big but start small. One of the challenges of the project-to-product journey requires us to move away from the mentality of teams and resources being interchangeable, deadlines being rigid, and the focus being on specific outputs. A product mindset emphasizes driving specific outcomes through hypothesis testing and iterative learning.

In a project mindset, you’re in search of a silver bullet. We have to make people comfortable with taking incremental steps and learning from them, even if they don't immediately meet our objectives. There’s still value in integrating these learnings into our ongoing processes.

What advice do you have for startups like Finley in balancing engagements with non-bank institutions and traditional financial institutions?

I spend most of my day working with companies that are transforming how banks operate. I've experienced the full arc of this transformation during my career. When I was working on an early mobile banking platform, we started with a single customer and grew to over 40 million end-users across a decade. Selling to banks is challenging—it requires a deep understanding of their priorities, operational methods, planning, and execution strategies.

Banks, especially in the U.S., often treat their vendor relationships transactionally, which fosters a certain adversarial behavior. Traditional interactions with banks tend to focus on extracting value—pressuring vendors to lower prices while maximizing their perceived benefit. Usually, startups are focused on creating value and looking to build and enhance capabilities.

When dealing with banks, it's important to find the ones with a partnership mindset and who show empathy for the founder's journey. Interestingly, credit unions differ slightly in their approach; they often prioritize member experience highly, which can provide fertile ground for startup partnerships.

Fintechs often embrace the partnership ethos more naturally, understanding the mutual benefits of collaboration. This usually results in quicker sales cycles and agreements.

The opportunity with banks is big, though. Once you break in and manage to secure one bank as a customer, it becomes significantly easier. Banks often follow the lead of industry leaders, so securing a key player can pave the way for broader adoption.

What's your impression of the Finley team and product? What are we doing well, and what do you think we can improve?

I've enjoyed getting to know the Finley team and learning the tech side of capital markets. For me, starting with the end in mind as you set out on these journeys means building extensible tech so that you can actually reach the end of the roadmap.

I see many startups that are fixated on one problem area and then opportunistic in how they get into other areas. But I know what that comes with. It comes with a lot of technical debt and a lot of heartache, both for your partners and for you as you become more successful.

And so I've been really impressed with what I've seen from Finley's point of view in the thought that went into the design of the product. I think working with borrowers was a great place to start and a completely different perspective than I've seen anywhere else in the market. I think the opportunity to help banks is a big one. I've been really impressed with the team at Finley and the platform itself.

Having experienced various roles in the fintech and financial services sectors, what personal or professional adventures are you looking forward to next?

I'm in the process of buying a place in Biarritz, a town in the southwest of France. As part of this new chapter, I'm looking forward to seriously improving my surfing skills. I'm not particularly good at surfing, but the idea of living so close to the ocean excites me from a lifestyle point of view. Just the opportunity to get up each morning and get in the ocean for two or three hours and improve on something like that. That's something I'm really looking forward to!

Want to learn more about Finley?

Finley is banking and private credit management software that helps banks streamline and monitor loan portfolios. From tracking covenants and deliverables, to assembling funding requests and analyzing asset performance, Finley gives banks peace of mind when it comes to debt capital management. For more, check out our Asset Manager Solutions page.

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All information presented herein is for informational purposes only, and Finley Technologies, Inc. does not assume any liability for reliance on the information provided. Before making any decisions that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor.


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