There are few bankers who understand the process of digital transformation better than Mike Butler.
Beginning in 2014, Butler oversaw the evolution of Boston-based Radius Bancorp from a federally chartered, brick-and-mortar thrift to one of the most tech-forward banks in the country. Radius closed all its branches except for one (federal thrifts are required to have at least one branch) and adopted a digital-only consumer banking platform.
The digital reinvention was so successful that in February 2020, LendingClub Corp. announced a deal to buy Radius to augment that marketplace lender’s push into digital banking. Now Butler is off on another digital adventure, this time as president and CEO of New York-based Grasshopper Bancorp, a five-year-old de novo bank focused on the small business market. Like Radius, Grasshopper operates a digital-only platform.
Butler will moderate a panel discussion at Bank Director’s upcoming Acquire or Be Acquired Conference focusing on the importance of integrating bank strategy with technology investments. The conference runs Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2022, at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Phoenix.
Butler says that successful transformation begins with the bank’s executive management team and board of directors, where discussions about technology need to be an integral part of strategic planning. And most importantly, management and the board need to see digital transformation as crucial to the bank’s future success. Butler says there are still plenty of “digital deniers” among bankers who believe they can be successful without strengthening their institution’s digital capabilities.
“Have you embraced the kinds of changes that are taking place inside the industry?” Butler says. “And do you have a very strong cultural commitment to be a part of that change? When you do that, you start to look to technology as the enabling driver to get you to that place.”
Management teams that are just starting out on a path to digital transformation can easily find themselves overwhelmed by the sheer number of potential projects. “The most important thing to do is to prioritize and recognize that you cannot do this all at once,” Butler says. “It would be a mess if you tried. Pick two to three things that you think are critically important.”
A third element of a successful transformation process is finding the right person to lead the project. “You’ve got to have the right talent to do it,” Butler says. “That leader better be somebody who has been pushing it rather than you push it on them as CEO. You can’t say, ‘Joe, you’ve been running branches for 30 years, do you believe in digital? Eh, kind of. Okay, I want you to put in a digital platform.’ That’s not going to work.”
Butler goes so far as to say that only true believers should run those fintech projects. “You cannot do this without people that have the passion and the belief to get to the other side, because you will hit a lot of roadblocks and you’ve got to be able to bust through those roadblocks,” he says. “And if you don’t believe, if you don’t have the passion, there’s a lot of reasons to stop and go a different way.”
Butler might not seem the most likely person to be a digital change agent. He spent 13 years at Radius and pursued a branch banking strategy in the early years. Prior to joining Radius, Butler was president of KeyCorp’s national consumer finance business. He did not come from the fintech sector. He has a traditional banking background. And yet as Butler is quick to point out, Radius didn’t reinvent banking, it reinvented the customer experience.
The fact that Butler lacked a technology background didn’t deter him from pursuing a transformational strategy at Radius. He was smart enough to see the changes taking place throughout the industry, so he understood the business case, and he was also smart enough to surround himself with highly committed people who did understand the technology.
In building out its digital consumer banking platform, Radius worked with a number of third-party fintech vendors. “I wasn’t making technology decisions about whose technology was better, but I surely was making decisions about the companies that we were partnering with and what type of people we were willing to work with,” Butler says. “I met every single CEO of every company that we did business with, and that was a big part of our decision as to why we would partner with them.”
At Grasshopper, Butler says he prefers the challenge of building a new digital bank from scratch rather than converting a traditional bank like Radius to a digital environment. Sure, there are all the pain points of a startup, including raising capital. But the advantages go beyond starting with a clean piece of paper from a design perspective. “It’s really hard to transform a culture into something new inside of an organization,” Butler says. “So, I’d say the upside is that you get to start from scratch and hire the right people who have the right mindset.”