How One Midsized Regional Bank Separates Itself From the Competition

When Ira Robbins took over in 2018 as CEO of Valley National Bancorp, one of his highest priorities was to broaden the bank’s strategic focus into new product and customer segments where it could be a meaningful player.

“When we started changing the organization’s direction five years ago, we said we weren’t going to be everything to everyone,” Robbins says. “We were going to be everything to someone and understand who that someone was and what the overall relationship looked like.”

Diversification and differentiation is a two-pronged strategy that should be on the minds of all bank CEOs and their boards of directors today. Continued pressure on the industry’s net interest margin is a threat to the banking industry’s long-term profitability that’s not going to ease anytime soon. Unless banks are able to develop new sources of revenue to counteract that pressure, “We’re left to think about cost reductions as opposed to building things because as the revenue side of the balance sheet comes down, all you’re able to do is focus on contracting expenses,” Robbins says.

And cutting costs is never as much fun as building a new business.

Robbins offered his views on the importance of diversification and differentiation to Bank Director Editor-at-Large Jack Milligan in advance of a panel discussion session Monday at Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference. The conference runs Jan. 30 to Feb. 1, 2022, at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Phoenix.

The core niche at Valley National, a $41 billion asset regional bank headquartered in Wayne, New Jersey, is commercial real estate. “That’s who we are,” says Robbins. “And I think as an organization, most of the balance sheets that we understand are from a relationship perspective. People aren’t coming to us because we’re the cheapest in town. We have an ability to execute unlike any other organization that’s embedded in who we are from a credit perspective.” In other words, borrowers go to Valley National because they know their deals will get done.

Robbins wanted to replicate this approach in other customer segments, and in recent years the bank has diversified into auto lending, as well as banking for homeowners’ associations and cannabis businesses. But moving into a new customer segment or product line isn’t enough. Banks also have to find ways of differentiating themselves from their competitors in that niche. Increasingly, that is through the customer experience — with technology as the point of the spear.

A good example is Valley National’s push into cannabis banking, an initiative that began about three years ago. The bank spent the first year and a half studying the market from a strategic and operational risk perspective before it finally launched a treasury platform solution focused on marijuana-related businesses including dispensaries, cultivators, wholesalers and testing labs. The program is currently available in 13 states, and Valley National worked closely with several regtech companies to understand — from “seed to sale,” as Robbins puts it — the regulatory compliance requirements in each jurisdiction.

“We’ve been in the business for about a year and a half,” Robbins says. “It’s getting to be a decent-sized business for us. And it’s one that we think aligns with our risk appetite. It’s an opportunity in an industry that really isn’t being served today.”

But merely entering an underserved market doesn’t guarantee success if you’re not providing a differentiated customer experience. The cannabis business tends to be cash intensive. Producers and sellers need ways to get that cash to their bank, so Valley National set up a separate armored car service to handle collection. The bank also developed a mobile app called “ValleyPay” that is linked to a Valley National debit card and can be used to make purchases in a dispensary or retail store. “It’s the first ability to have a digital payment come in,” Robbins says. “And we’re the only bank in the country that’s beginning to offer it, so that’s pretty neat.”

Providing a differentiated customer experience is very much at the heart of Valley National’s diversification effort.

“To be honest with you, it’s…understanding what the customer experience looks like,” Robbins says. “What was the customer challenge? And what was the experience that we wanted to create?” While other banks are in the cannabis space as well, “ours is a specific niche [that is] focused on an experience that really isn’t being delivered.”

[You can read more about Valley National Bancorp and cannabis banking in the Q3 2021 issue of Bank Director magazine, available to subscribers.]