Banks with unique strategies tend to perform well in the marketplace, and a $1.2 billion asset bank in Wausau, Wisconsin, is proving that formula through a digital platform and a strategy focused on lending to a niche community.
IncredibleBank serves customers nationwide as the digital division of River Valley Bank, a 15-branch community bank serving Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The division was established in 2009, when the bank was seeking to grow deposits and looked at the new online banks in the marketplace at the time, such as ING Direct (now Capital One 360). Then, the bank relied more on wholesale funding to fuel loan growth, but growing core deposits was a challenge, says Todd Nagel, River Valley Bank’s chief executive officer. “We started the online bank to create larger distribution in our regional footprint for deposits, and it was a way to replace our wholesale funding. We never dreamed that it would take off the way it did.”
River Valley Bank’s net interest margin, at 4.13 percent per the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., performs better than its peers, according to BankRegData. So does the bank’s return on assets (1.43 percent) and return on equity (15 percent).
These days, an online banking division focused on deposit gathering isn’t necessarily innovative. The management team has since expanded IncredibleBank’s focus to address the bank’s concentration in commercial real estate loans through a unique niche: motor coach loans. Motor coaches are one of Nagel’s passions, and he has one of his own, says Kathy Strasser, the bank’s chief operating officer. These vehicles aren’t the stereotypical cramped family RV, and the cost of these luxury homes on wheels range from $100,000 to $2 million or more. High-end motor homes are unique, with custom features that make it difficult to pinpoint their value. “That’s the hard part about financing them,” says Nagel. Two loan officers are dedicated entirely to this specialty niche, and these lenders visit motor coach manufacturers regularly to build their expertise in the area. Motor coach financing accounts for roughly 10 percent of River Valley’s overall business, according to Nagel.
In looking for a unique way to market IncredibleBank, Nagel and his team turned to another one of his passions: NASCAR. “There’s 150, 200 motor homes that go to every race, all over the country,” says Nagel. The bank sponsors NASCAR drivers Kyle Busch and Matt DiBenedetto, and brings the bank’s own motor home to entertain customers during meet-and-greets with the drivers at NASCAR races. A promotion around account openings offered a chance for customers to win a VIP pass at Watkins Glen International, a racetrack in Watkins Glen, New York, that hosts NASCAR events.
IncredibleBank accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the bank’s deposits, according to Nagel, and that, along with the division’s digital-only footprint, gives management some leeway to use it as something of an incubator for new technology. Nagel says the management team is working to examine every product offered by the overall organization—including all the necessary documentation—to explore whether it can be offered digitally. If that’s not possible, then “we may not offer it in the future,” he says. “We believe that everyone’s looking for an Amazon-like experience. I don’t want to be like Amazon, but I’d like to replicate the experience with banking.”
Seeing a future where Amazon is beating traditional retailers, Strasser says that River Valley Bank will continue as a traditional community bank in its markets, but won’t grow beyond a 15-branch footprint. The bank has been adding talent without traditional backgrounds—Strasser herself was an executive vice president at a company that is now a subsidiary of Deluxe Corp., which serves the financial industry with website design, customized checks and email marketing, among others. And good relationships with vendors are integral to innovation. The bank has worked closely with its core provider Jack Henry & Associates’ mobile division, Banno, which built IncredibleBank’s mobile banking app.
Still, the industry and its vendors aren’t moving fast enough for Nagel. He has high expectations for digital delivery. “Our greatest challenge is getting our partners in the industry to think like we're thinking,” says Nagel. “You should be able to open a $1,000 checking account in two minutes. That’s my expectation.”