Goldman Sachs, the 150-year-old investment bank, is staking its future on a mobile app

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A woman looks at Marcus, a new savings and loans app recently launched by Goldman Sachs in New York, January 10, 2020.

Mike Segar | Reuters

When Goldman Sachs released a long-awaited app for customers of it Marcus consumer bank last week, it did so with little fanfare or hype.

Unlike the intense attention on its last retail product, the Apple Card, the launch of the bank’s Marcus app was heralded by little more than a smattering of user reviews.

But the app may prove to be far more important to Goldman than its credit-card partnership with Apple. That’s because the portal, which today lets customers check balances and set up recurring transactions, will one day serve as the bank’s storefront and one-stop shop for an array of digital banking services, according to Adam Dell, a Goldman Sachs partner and head of product at Marcus.

“Over time, our ambition is to extend the capabilities of the Marcus app and have that be the centerpiece of our consumer-facing experience,” Dell said in an exclusive interview.

The app comes at a crucial time for Goldman. Ahead of the bank’s first-ever investor day later this month and earnings report this week, shareholders are eager to hear about how three-year old Marcus will drive revenue growth. Last week, Goldman, which has served corporations, heads of state and rich individuals for most of its 150-year history, changed its reporting lines to give its retail operations a standalone division for the first time.

Goldman executives like Dell – an entrepreneur and brother of billionaire Michael Dell who joined Goldman in 2018 after selling his start-up to the bank for $100 million – have made no secret of their intention to beat big retail banks at their own game. That means expanding Marcus from its two products – savings and personal loans – to potentially include wealth management, mortgages, car loans, insurance and cards beyond the Apple Card.

Adam Dell, head of product at Marcus by Goldman Sachs

Source: Goldman Sachs

Dell, who is a part of a recent wave of outsiders to join Goldman at the senior-most partner level, said the firm spent much of last year planning, building and testing the app with hundreds of employees. The development team was led by Dell and former employees of Clarity Money, the personal finance start-up that Goldman acquired.

“Our aspiration is very clear: We want to build the best digital banking experience that any customer can have,” Dell said. “As I think about the competitive landscape of the incumbent consumer banks, I think there’s enormous opportunity for us to differentiate ourselves with great digital products.”

Making a standalone Marcus app represents a potential shift in the bank’s strategy. When Goldman acquired Clarity Money and its one million users in 2018, bank executives said part of the deal’s rationale was that Clarity Money would someday serve as the bank’s digital storefront.

Instead, Dell said that Clarity Money – which uses machine learning and behavioral finance to nudge users into better habits – will remain focused on personal finance management. At some point, it will be rebranded with the Marcus name, he said.

Still, the simplicity and appeal of Clarity Money is evident in the new Marcus app. It opens up with quotes or mantras – some from historical figures like Benjamin Franklin and some written by Dell himself – meant to get users to think of their long-term financial health. It also gently prompts users to use an auto-saving feature.

And one important principal from Clarity will remain in Marcus, he said: It will likely give users a choice of products, including from Goldman’s competitors. That aligns with its goal of being an advocate for consumers to help them achieve goals like retirement and saving for college.

“The notion of the digital storefront is to give the consumer a view of their options,” Dell said. “If you’re a Clarity Money customer today and you’re eligible for debt consolidation, you’ll see loan options not only from Marcus, but from other providers. That notion will persist through the Marcus digital storefront.”

Perhaps more than at any time in decades, bank customers are up for grabs as consumer preferences evolve, driven by slick apps from tech firms like Uber. And unlike both tech giants like Google and fintech competitors like Chime, Goldman doesn’t have to partner with a bank to offer services – it became a bank holding company in 2008.

But as last week’s disclosure showed, Goldman’s retail business is tiny compared to rivals. High expenses as the company ramped up investments in Marcus and the Apple Card meant the business generated a fraction of the profit of the bank’s other, mature lines. Marcus has collected about $55 billion in deposits and made $5 billion in loans, a pittance compared to what J.P. Morgan Chase and Bank of America have.

Only time will tell if Goldman’s approach can peel off customers from banks with massive physical branch networks. Dell is confident on the outcome, however.

“There are two kinds of incumbent banks,” Dell told the audience of a financial conference in June. “There are banks that are screwed, and there are banks that don’t know they’re screwed.”

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