From the start, Eric White anticipated the solar lender he launched in 2013 would eventually be owned by a bank. But it wasn’t until last fall that he settled on the $207 billion Fifth Third Bancorp in Cincinnati, Ohio.
The bank announced on Jan. 19 that it would acquire Dividend Finance for an undisclosed amount and closed the deal in May, with White, its founder and CEO, continuing to run the business.
White recalled two moments that made him feel certain his company had found its ideal buyer — the first was last fall when a group of Fifth Third’s top executives visited the fintech’s San Francisco’s headquarters for an initial meeting and the second was not much later when he met Ben Hoffman, Fifth Third’s chief strategy officer.
“It starts with people,” White says. “You have to like the people who are on the other side of the table from you before you get on the same side of the table as them.”
Hoffman echoed that, saying Fifth Third has come up with a couple of heuristics that help it determine whether it wants to pursue a partnership with a particular fintech. One is the way it assesses the entrepreneurs at the helm.
“We look at the leadership team and we ask, ‘Are these people that we could see filling other roles in the bank? Not because we intend to take them off mission — quite the opposite. When we bring these leaders in, it’s about empowering them to continue doing the thing that they’re incredibly passionate about and great at,” Hoffman says.
Not all bank-fintech partnerships turn into acquisitions, nor does Hoffman intend them to. And not all acquisitions start out as partnerships. Fifth Third and Dividend Finance had not worked together prior to striking their deal.
But Fifth Third’s introspective question serves as “a real test for cultural fit,” Hoffman says. “If there isn’t another real job on the org chart that you think these individuals could do, how can you expect them to understand us, and how can you expect us to really understand them, and to appreciate each other?”
Ensuring a Cultural Fit
In anticipation of rising interest rates, White began seeking prospective bank buyers for Dividend Finance late last year. His prerequisite was that the banks had to be experienced with indirect lending, as his company is a point-of-sale lender that partners with contractors nationwide to provide their customers with financing for solar and other home improvement projects.
White says Fifth Third’s long partnership with GreenSky – a point-of-sale lender that offers home improvement loans through merchants – gave him comfort. Fifth Third invested in and began collaborating with GreenSky starting in 2016. (Goldman Sachs acquired the fintech in March.)
“Indirect lending is a very different model than direct lending. Some banks just don’t get it, and Fifth Third did,” White says.
But it was in that first meeting with Fifth Third, as then-President Tim Spence talked about how he had previously worked at technology startups and as a strategy consultant, when White first felt a sense that this bank stood out from the other contenders. Spence had been lured away from Oliver Wyman, where he focused on helping banks — Fifth Third among them — with their digital roadmaps. (He succeeded Greg Carmichael as Fifth Third’s chief executive officer in July.)
“Hearing Tim introduce himself and give his background was an eyeopener in and itself. He doesn’t come from a traditional bank executive background,” White says. “So, it was a different and a very refreshing perspective. It was very exciting for us.”
Hoffman made just as strong an impression on White when they met later on, further reassuring him that Dividend Finance had found “a perfect cultural fit” in terms of management philosophy and the long-term goals of both sides.
Hoffman previously worked with Spence as part of the Oliver Wyman team that advised Fifth Third and other banks; he followed Spence to the bank side in 2016. Hoffman’s mandate has evolved over the years, but one facet of his duties is overseeing Fifth Third’s fintech activities. White gives Hoffman rave reviews, calling him “one of the most creative thinkers that I’ve come across in my entire career.”
With the people test passed, the most salient selling point for White was “how the bank thinks about technology and product.”
In his perspective, too many banks are stuck in “archaic approaches” to managing growth and innovation. But Spence’s answer when asked why he decided to work at a bank in Cincinnati “really stuck with me,” White says. “He viewed Fifth Third as a platform to combine the best elements of traditional banking along with the opportunity to infuse innovation and a technology-driven approach to product development and organizational management.”
It gave White confidence that Fifth Third would not make the mistake that he believes other banks sometimes do, which is “trying to make the fintechs conform to the way that the bank has operated historically and in doing so, stripping out the qualities that make that fintech successful.”
White says his confidence has only grown since the acquisition. At Fifth Third, his title is Dividend Finance president, and he operates the business with a comfortable level of autonomy, reporting to Howard Hammond, executive vice president and head of consumer banking.
Ensuring a Strategic Fit
Fifth Third has partnerships with about a dozen fintechs at any given time and, over the past year and a half, has acquired two niche digital lenders outright, Dividend Finance, in the ESG space, and Provide, in the healthcare space. (ESG stands for Environmental, Social and Governance, and is often used to refer to the components of a sustainability-minded business approach.)
ESG and healthcare are two categories that align with Fifth Third’s own areas of focus, in accordance with a rule Hoffman follows when choosing fintechs of interest, whether for partnerships or acquisitions. He considers this rule — the fintech must help the bank improve on its existing strategy — key to helping ensure a partnership will eventually produce enough of a return to make Fifth Third’s investment of time, effort and money worthwhile.
As a result of the Dividend Finance acquisition, Fifth Third is actively assessing whether to increase its sustainable finance target. The bank had set a goal two years ago that called for achieving $8 billion of lending for alternative energy like solar, wind and geothermal by 2025.
“The things that we do with fintech are things that we were going to do one way or another. We’re not taking on incremental missions. We’re just pursuing those missions in different form. So, that framing completely changes the analysis that we’re doing,” Hoffman says.
Other banks might have to look broadly at competing priorities to decide between partnering with a specific fintech or tackling some other important initiative. But Fifth Third engages in a different thought process.
“It’s not, if we decide to partner with Provide, or should we acquire Dividend Finance, what will we not do?” Hoffman says.
Instead, Fifth Third asks, does this accelerate the timeframe for achieving a goal the bank has already set for itself?
“These partnerships are successful when they are aligned to our strategy and they accelerate, or de-risk, the execution of that strategy, as opposed to being separate and apart from the core ambitions of the franchise,” Hoffman says.
Assessing the Priority Level of Partnering — for Both Sides
Beyond that, any proposed partnership also needs to be “a top five priority” for both the fintech’s leadership and the relevant Fifth Third business line.
Hoffman advises other banks against the common approach of setting up a “tiny” partnership for the two sides to get to know each other with the idea of taking things to the next level when the time is right. “The likelihood of the timing ever being right, is very, very low,” he says. Those relationships often end up as distracting “hobbies” rather than ever escalating to the priority level necessary to add value for both sides and pay off in a meaningful way.
His insight is informed by experience. Hoffman leads Fifth Third’s corporate venture capital arm, which makes direct minority investments in fintechs. Given recent regulatory changes, it also participates as limited partners in several fintech-oriented venture capital funds.
His team is responsible for nurturing Fifth Third’s fintech partnerships, offering strategic insight and facilitating access to resources within the bank.
“As you can imagine, with some of the early-stage companies that we invest in, it’s six partners and an idea. Meanwhile, we have 20,000 people and branches and a half-dozen regulators and all of that. So, we provide a single point of contact to help sort of incubate and nurture the partnership until it reaches a level of stability and becomes a larger business,” Hoffman says.
“We work hard, as the partnerships mature, to stabilize the operating model such that the handholding, the single point of contact, becomes less necessary.”
That transition typically happens as the fintech gets better integrated into the day-to-day operations of the core business with which it is partnering, whether consumer banking, wealth management or another area in the bank.
Delivering Above and Beyond
With Provide, a digital lending financial platform for healthcare practices, the bank was an early investor, taking a lead role in a $12 million funding round with the venture capital firm QED Investors in 2018.
Fifth Third began funding loans made on the platform about two years later, with the amount increasing over time to the point where it was taking about half of Provide’s overall loan volume, the largest share among the five participating banks.
Through the Fifth Third partnership, Provide also expanded its offerings to include core banking and payments services, which are now used by more than 70% of the doctors for whom the fintech provides acquisition financing nationwide.
In announcing the agreement to buy Provide in June 2021, Fifth Third says the fintech would maintain its brand identity and operate as an independent business line.
Daniel Titcomb oversees Provide as its president and reports to Kala Gibson, executive vice president and chief corporate responsibility officer. (Gibson had oversight of business banking when Titcomb came on board and, though he’s in a new role as of March, continues to work with Provide.) Under Fifth Third’s ownership, Titcomb, who co-founded the fintech with James Bachmeier III in 2013, envisions being able to fuel loan growth and offer expanded services that help make starting and running a healthcare practice easier for doctors.
Since its launch, Provide has originated more than $1 billion in loans, largely through “practice lending,” which enables healthcare providers to start, buy or expand their practices. Its average loan size is $750,000.
Titcomb cited “a shared belief” in bank-fintech partnerships as one reason the early relationship with Fifth Third proved to be a success. “We both had a view of the future that didn’t include one destroying the other,” he says.
Years ago, fintechs and banks were often wary of each other — even adversarial — with banks being labeled by some as “dumb pipes,” the implication being that they were unable to keep up with nimble and innovative startups and were useful merely for product distribution to a larger customer base, Titcomb says. But he always found Fifth Third to be thoughtful and strategic, defying those stereotypes.
Though selling his business was scary, he says, “it was a lot less scary than it could’ve been,” given the established relationship.
Still, “we had to get comfortable and confident that they weren’t going to encourage us to spend less on technology,” he added. “Any time you enter into an agreement like that, you hope, but you don’t know.”
Titcomb says he is thrilled that the consistent feedback from Fifth Third since he joined has been: “You run this business the way you think it should be run.”
“It’s a relief,” he says.
Given outcomes like those experienced by White and Titcomb, Fifth Third has become known in fintech circles as a strong partner that delivers on its promises. Hoffman works hard to maintain that reputation—a competitive advantage.
“These companies have options, and some of those options are very compelling,” Hoffman says, adding that his goal is to make sure Fifth Third is “the partner of choice” for the fintechs it targets. That only happens, he says, if their experience after signing a deal aligns with what he says beforehand.
Count an enthusiastic Titcomb among those who attest that it has. “They have delivered above and beyond,” Titcomb says.