The Next 5 Years in Banking Is Plumbing

Of the 1,400-plus people wandering the halls of the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Phoenix last week during Bank Director’s Acquire or Be Acquired Conference, more than half wore ties and suit jackets. Roughly a quarter sported sneakers and hoodies.

Bankers mingled with fintech entrepreneurs in sessions on bank mergers and growth, followed by workshops and discussions with titles such as “Curating the Right Digital Experience for Your Customers.” It’s an embodiment of the current environment: Banks are looking to an increasing array of financial technology companies to help them meet strategic goals like efficiency and improved customer experience online and on a mobile device.

Investors are pouring money into the fintech sector right now, a spigot that is fueling competition for banks as well as producing better technology that banks can buy. Last year, venture capitalists invested $8.7 billion on digital banking, credit card, personal finance and lending applications, more than double the amount the prior year, according to Crunchbase.

At the conference, venture fund managers filtered through the crowd looking for bankers willing to plunk down money for funds devoted to start-up fintech companies. Many of them have found willing investors, even among community banks. In Bank Director’s 2021 Technology Survey, 12% of respondents said they had invested directly in technology companies and 9% said they had invested in venture funds in the sector. Nearly half said they had partnered with a technology company to come up with a specific solution for their bank.

It turned out that an M&A conference goes hand in glove with technology. More than half of all banks looking to acquire in Bank Director’s 2022 Bank M&A Survey said they were doing so to gain scale so they would have the money to put into technology and other investments.

“The light bulb has gone off,” said Jerry Plush, vice chairman and CEO of $7.6 billion Amerant Bancorp in Coral Gables, Florida, speaking at the conference for fintech companies one floor above, called FinXTech Transactions. Directors and officers know they need to be involved in technology partnerships, he said.

Even longtime bank investors acknowledge the shifting outlook for banks: John Eggemeyer, founder and managing principal of Castle Creek Capital, told the crowd that the next five years in banking is going to be about “plumbing.”

However, cobbling together ancient pipes with new cloud-based storage systems and application programming interfaces has proven to be a challenge. Banks are struggling to find the skilled employees who can ensure that the new fintech software they’ve just bought lives up to the sales promises.

Steve Williams, founder and CEO of Cornerstone Advisors, said in an interview that many banks lack the talent to ensure a return on investment for new bank-fintech partnerships. The employee inside a bank who can execute on a successful partnership isn’t usually the head of information technology, who is tasked with keeping the bank’s systems running and handling a core conversion after an acquisition. Engaging in a relationship with a new fintech company is similar to hiring a personal trainer. “They’re not going to just deliver you a new body,” Williams said. “You have to do the work.”

He cited banks such as Fairmont, West Virginia-based MVB Financial Corp. and Everett, Washington-based Coastal Financial Corp. for hiring the staff needed to make fintech partnerships work.

Eric Corrigan, senior managing director at Commerce Street Capital, said banks should consider whether their chief technology officer sits on the executive team, or hooks up the computers. “Rethink the people who you’re hiring,” he said.

Jo Jagadish, an executive vice president at TD Bank who spoke at the conference, has a few years of experience with bank/fintech partnerships. Prior to joining TD Bank USA in April 2020, she was head of new product development and fintech partnerships with JPMorgan Chase & Co. “You can’t do your job and a fintech partnership on the side,” she said in an interview. “Be focused and targeted.”

Jagadish thought banks will focus the next five years on plumbing but also improving the customer experience. Banks shouldn’t wait for the plumbing to be upgraded before tackling the user experience, she said.

Cornerstone’s Williams, however, thought the work of redoing a bank’s infrastructure is going to take longer than five years. “It’s going to be a slog,” he said. “The rest of your careers depends on your competency in plumbing.”

Plumbing may not sound like exciting work, but many of the bankers and board members at the conference were happy to talk about it. Charles Potts, executive vice president and chief innovation officer for the Independent Community Bankers of America, said that fintech companies and their software can put community banks on par with the biggest banks and competitor fintechs on the planet. Nowadays, community banks can leverage their advantage in terms of personal relationships and compete on the technology. All they have to do is try.