Solving for Blind Spots in Bank M&A

Mergers and acquisitions are a major driver of change and returns in the banking industry. As banking leaders head into mission-critical strategic planning sessions for 2023, now is the perfect time for boards and executives to map out the coming year’s organizational and budgetary priorities. Recognizing that M&A can be a principal platform for growth, what are the key considerations empowering banks of all sizes to increase their influence and scale their organizations?

Reducing Risk
Mitigating institutional risk is at the top of the list of priorities as banks begin exploring M&A opportunities. Ensuring your bank has a comprehensive plan, inclusive of division of labor, is critical for successful M&A. Does your bank have the right staff with expertise and experience at the planning table, so nothing gets missed?

Tapping into the knowledge base of current customers and how the bank plans to maintain those relationships is a smart first step. But what about potential prospects the bank wants to reach – what do those people want? What’s relevant to them?

Well-designed research programs are table stakes for successful M&A. Data on markets and prospects will give decision-makers insights beyond their customer base. Even if bank leaders feel familiar with a market, updated data-based intelligence provides a true picture of opportunity and risk, so banks can form a plan suited to their particular circumstances. Smart data will also help uncover if another financial company using similar branding and overlapping media, or presents other legal and reputational exposure before the deal is done. 

Enhancing Efficiency
Data and insights will also produce efficiencies in M&A by helping executives discover whether their brands and names bring unneeded baggage. Having a brand that requires exhaustive explanation can be an opportunity cost, resulting in time not spent focusing on a prospect’s needs and the bank’s options for meeting them. Likewise, marketing’s return on investment can be negatively impacted when brand elements are limiting or nondescript.

For example, brand names with specific vocations or cities may cause a prospect to wonder if that bank is truly designed to help someone like them; they may eliminate the bank from their list of options before exploring the institution’s breadth of services. Also, if banks with similar branding or name invest in advertisements or community sponsorships, a consumer may mistakenly assign the message or public relations value to a competitor because they miss the distinction between local banks with similar names.

Competitive research will help boards and executives take a comprehensive look at their brand to identify what parts of their story prospects don’t know and what is meaningful to them. Leveraging data can help ensure messages and communications are spotlighting parts of the brand story that will have the most resonance with consumers, and have distinct and competitive value propositions in that market.

While it’s true that a financial institution may have to change its name because of a merger, research will help identify names that represent a hurdle to overcome both legally and reputationally. In our experience, brand research can become a downstream activity executives assume they’ll take care of later, but we think of it as a critical part of due diligence. Further, a powerful research program helps ensure banks can make the most of the brand launch, when people may be more open to hearing a renewed brand story that’s relatable and relevant.

Targeting Growth
M&A allows institutions to elevate their expansion efforts and future-proof their organizations. Oftentimes when executives consider marketing and brand research in light of M&A, they point to customer satisfaction data. While this is an important measure for retention and engagement, a more comprehensive data set is indispensable to help ensure organizations aren’t operating on biases and blind spots.

Smart banks leverage robust research in the M&A process to help uncover opportunities, eliminate friction and help distinguish, define and differentiate their brands. A crucial component of retention and growth pre-and-post merger is employees. Research insights can predict potential turbulence and inform strategies to equip employees to champion change and maintain performance. They can also be key factors in recruiting the best talent to fuel growth in new markets.

While bank executives may be satisfied with their current positioning and their current markets, data-driven insights will help institutions leverage their assets and increase the influence of their brand in the merger process — allowing them to grow and go further.

A Look Inside Fifth Third’s ESG Journey

Mike Faillo was recently promoted to the new role of chief sustainability officer at Fifth Third Bancorp, with a team focused on the Cincinnati-based regional bank’s environmental, social and governance (ESG) program, including its climate strategy and social and governance reporting. Faillo started his career in public accounting at PwC in 2008, just in time for the collapse of Lehman Brothers and the onset of the financial crisis. He spent the next several years auditing a trillion dollar bank, and then working on Comprehensive Capital Analysis and Review (CCAR) stress tests and developing resolution plans.

Faillo says those experiences informed his journey to lead ESG at $211.5 billion Fifth Third. 

When he joined the bank’s investor relations team in 2019, he dug into Fifth Third’s ESG profile and learned that the organization wasn’t effectively telling its story. So with support from the bank’s executive leadership team, including Chairman and CEO Greg Carmichael, Faillo transformed Fifth Third’s corporate social responsibility report into a broader, data-driven report in 2020 that tells the bank’s complete ESG story. Faillo jokes that he went from writing about the death of a bank through living wills to the life of it in the ESG report.

In this edition of the Slant podcast, Faillo also discusses the need for agility and teamwork on ESG, and how he works across the organization to uncover opportunities for the bank. He also digs into the complexities of measuring carbon emissions, and why it’s a great opportunity to work with business clients to help them on their own journeys to net zero. And he addresses what’s easiest — and hardest — for banks to get right on ESG. The interview was conducted in advance of Bank Director’s Bank Audit & Risk Committees Conference, where Faillo appears as part of a panel discussion, “How Banks Are Stepping Up Their ESG Plans.”

The Future of Banking in the Metaverse

From Nike’s acquisition of RTFKT to Meta Platform’s Chairman and CEO Mark Zuckerberg playing virtual pingpong, the metaverse has evolved from a buzzword into a way of doing business.

The metaverse could become a “river of entertainment in which the content and commerce flow freely,” according to Microsoft Corp. Chairman and Chief Executive Satya Nadella in “The Coming Battle Over Banking in the Metaverse.” Created by integrating virtual and augmented reality, artificial intelligence, cryptocurrency, and other technologies, the metaverse is a 3D virtual space with different worlds for its users to enhance their personal and professional experiences, from gaming and socializing to business and financial growth.

That means banking may ultimately come to play a significant role in the metaverse. Whether exchanging currencies between different worlds, converting virtual or real-world assets or creating compliant “meta-lending” options, financial institutions will have no shortage of new and traditional ways to expand their operations within this young virtual space. Companies like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and South Korea’s KB Kookmin Bank already have a foot in the metaverse. JPMorgan has the Onyx Lounge; Kookmin offers one-on-one consultations. However, banks will find they cannot operate in their traditional ways in this virtual space.

One aspect that might experience a drastic change is the branches themselves. The industry should expect an adjustment period to best facilitate the needs of their metaverse banking customers. These virtual bank branches will need to be flexible in accepting cryptocurrencies, non-fungible tokens, blockchains and alternative forms of virtual currency if they are to survive in the metaverse.

However, not everyone agrees that bank branches will be that relevant in the metaverse. The idea is that online banking already accomplishes the tasks that a branch located in the metaverse might fulfill. Another issue is that there is little current need for bank branches because the migration to the metaverse is nascent. Only time will tell how banking companies adapt to this new virtual world and the problems that come with it.

Early signs point to a combination of traditional and new banking styles. One of the first products from the metaverse is already shining a light on potential challenges: The purchase and sale of virtual space has significantly changed over the past year. In Ron Shevlin’s article, “JPMorgan Opens A Bank Branch In The Metaverse (But It’s Not What You Think It’s For),” he writes, “the average investment in land was about $5,300, but prices have grown considerably from an average of $100 per land in January to $15,000 in December of 2021, with rapid growth in the fourth quarter when the Sandbox Alpha was released.”

The increasing number of virtual real estate transactions also means the introduction of lending and other financial assistance options. This can already be seen with TerraZero Technologies providing what could be described as the first mortgage. This is just the beginning as we see opportunities for the development of banking services more clearly as the metaverse, its different worlds and its functions and services mature.

Even though the metaverse is still young and there are many challenges ahead, it is clear to see the potential it could have on not only banking, but the way we live as we know it.

Understanding the Cannabis Banking Opportunity

The legal cannabis industry is growing exponentially each year, creating extraordinary opportunities for financial institutions to offer services to this largely underbanked, niche market.

Revenue from direct marijuana businesses alone is expected to exceed $48 billion by 2025, part of a larger $125 billion cannabis opportunity that includes hemp, CBD and other support businesses, according to information from Arcview and BDS Analytics.

In the last few years, the number of banks providing services to cannabis businesses has increased, along with an expansion of the products they are offering. Financial institutions are moving far beyond being “a place to park cash’ which defined the pioneer era of cannabis banking. Today, our bank clients are approaching the industry as a new market to deploy all of their existing products and services, including online cash management, ACH origination, wire transfers, lending, insurance, payments and wealth management. Additionally, a contingent of banks are trailblazing bespoke solutions.

For banks wanting to better understand what the current cannabis banking opportunity looks like, we recommend starting by:

Exploring the Entire Cannabis Ecosystem
A common pitfall for banks considering a cannabis line of business is failing to grasp the true market opportunity. It’s important that bankers explore the entire supply chain: growers, cultivators, manufacturers, distributors and delivery operations and public-facing retail and medical dispensaries that make up the direct cannabis ecosystem.

Beyond that, there is a supporting cast of businesses that service the industry: armored couriers, security firms, consultants, accountants, lighting companies, packaging companies, doctors who prescribe medical cannabis, and many more. These are not plant-touching businesses, but they require additional scrutiny and often struggle with non-cannabis-friendly institutions. All this is in addition to the significant hemp market, which represents an additional $40 billion opportunity by 2025.

Thinking Beyond Fees
Aside from low-cost deposits, many financial institutions initially entered this niche line of business for additional fee income. While the industry still provides strong fee opportunities, including account opening fees, monthly account fees per license, deposit fees and fees for services such as ACH and cash pickup, these can vary greatly from market to market and will decrease as more financial institutions build programs.

Instead of limiting their focus to fees and deposits, banks should understand the full breadth of the services and solutions they can offer these underserved businesses. Most services that a bank provides their average business customer can be offered to legal cannabis businesses — and there is a significant opportunity to create additional services. We believe there are products this industry needs that haven’t been created by banks yet.

Banks thinking about where to start and what products to add should consider common challenges that legal cannabis businesses face: electronic payment products, cash logistics, fair lending and the numerous difficulties around providing opportunities to new business owners and social equity entrepreneurs. Bankers should become familiar with the industry; find out what it’s most similar to — namely agriculture, food processing and manufacturing — as well as how it is unique. That’s where the real opportunity lies.

Building a Scalable Program
To safely service this industry and meet examiner expectations, banks need to demonstrate they understand the risks and institutional impact of banking cannabis and have the capabilities to accomplish the following, at a minimum:

  • Consistent, transparent and thorough monitoring of their cannabis business clients and their activity, to demonstrate that only state legal activity and the associated funds are entering the financial system.
  • Timely and thorough filing of currency transaction reports (CTRs) and suspicious activity reports (SARs).
  • Ability to gracefully exit the line of business, should the bank’s strategy or the industry’s legality change.
  • An understanding of the beneficial ownership structures, particularly when working with multi-state operators.

Performing these tasks manually is time consuming, prone to error and not suitable for scale. Technology allows banks to automate the most tedious and complicated aspects of cannabis banking compliance and effectively grow their programs. Look for technology that offers advanced due diligence during onboarding, detailed transaction monitoring, automated SAR/CTR reporting and account monitoring to ensure full transparency and portfolio management in your program.

Finding a Trusted Partner
When it comes to partners, banks must consider whether their partner can quickly adapt to changes in rules and regulations. Do their tools support visibility into transaction level sales data, peer comparisons and historical performance? Have they worked with your examiners? What do they offer to help banks service both direct and indirect businesses? Can they help their institutions offer new and innovative products to this line of business?

Banks weighing which partners they should take on this journey need to consider their viability for the long run.

The Future of Banking

Open banking is bigger in the United States than it is in Europe, says Lee Wetherington, the senior director of corporate strategy for Jack Henry & Associates, one of the banking industry’s largest technology solution providers. For financial technology companies, that means an unlimited potential to access data, and offer products and services that customers would like or will like in the future.

Wetherington answers three questions in this video:

  • How can fintechs leverage open-banking rails to improve their offerings and reach?
  • What will the banking industry look like in 10 years?
  • Looking beyond 10 years, will there be a banking industry as we know it now?

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.

Bank Profitability to Rebound from Pandemic

The Covid-19 pandemic has been a defining experience for the U.S. banking industry — one that carries with it justifiable pride.

That’s the view of Thomas Michaud, CEO of investment banking firm Keefe Bruyette & Woods, who believes the banking industry deserves high marks for its performance during the pandemic. This is in sharp contrast to the global financial crisis, when banks were largely seen as part of the problem.

“Here, they were absolutely part of the solution,” Michaud says. “The way in which they offered remote access to their customers; the way that the government chose to use banks to deliver the Paycheck Protection Program funds and then administer them via the Small Business Administration is going to go down as one of the critical public-private partnership successes during a crisis.”

Michaud will provide his outlook for the banking industry in 2022 and beyond during the opening presentation 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.

Unfortunately, the pandemic did have a negative impact on the industry’s profitability. U.S. gross domestic product plummeted 32.9% in the second quarter of 2020 as most of the nation went into lockdown mode, only to rebound 33.8% in the following quarter. Quarterly GDP has been moderately positive since then, and Michaud says the industry has recaptured a lot of its pre-pandemic profitability — but not all of it. “The industry pre-Covid was already running into a headwind,” he says. “There was a period where there was difficulty growing revenues, and it felt like earnings were stalling out.”

And then the pandemic hit. The combination of a highly accommodative monetary policy by the Federal Reserve Board, which cut interest rates while also pumping vast amounts of liquidity into the financial system, along with the CARES Act, which provided $2.2 trillion in stimulus payments to businesses and individuals, put the banking industry at a disadvantage. Michaud says the excess liquidity and de facto competition from the PPP helped drive down the industry’s net interest margin and brought revenue growth nearly to a halt.

Now for the good news. Michaud is confident that the industry’s profitability will rebound in 2022, and he points to three “inflection points” that should help drive its recovery. For starters, he expects loan demand to grow as government programs run off and the economy continues to expand. “The economy is going to keep growing and the pace of this recovery is a key part of driving loan demand,” he says.

Michaud also looks for industry NIMs to improve as the Federal Reserve tightens its monetary policy. The central bank has already begun to reverse its vast bond buying program, which was intended to inject liquidity into the economy. And most economists expect the Fed to begin raising interest rates this year, which currently hover around zero percent.

A third factor is Michaud’s anticipation that many banks will begin putting the excess deposits sitting on their balance sheets to more productive use. Prior to the pandemic, that excess funding averaged about 2.5%, Michaud says. Now it’s closer to 10%. “And I remember talking to CEOs at the beginning of Covid and they said, ‘Well, we think this cash is probably going to be temporary. We’re not brave enough to invest it yet,’” he says. At the time, many bank management teams felt the most prudent choice from a risk management perspective was to preserve that excess liquidity in case the economy worsened.

“Lo and behold, the growth in liquidity and deposits has kept coming,” Michaud says. “And so the banks are feeling more comfortable investing those proceeds, and it’s happening at a time when we’re likely to get some interest rate improvement.”

Add all of this up and Michaud expects to see an improvement in bank return on assets this year and into 2023. Banks should also see an increase in their returns on tangible common equity — although perhaps not to pre-pandemic levels. “We started the Covid period with a lot of excess capital and now we’ve only built it more,” he says.

Still, Michaud believes the industry will return to positive operating leverage — when revenues are growing at a faster rate than expenses — in 2022. “We also think it’s likely that bank earnings estimates are too low, and usually rising earnings estimates are good for bank stocks,” he says.

In other words, better days are ahead for the banking industry.

Disney’s Lesson for Banks

When Robert Iger became The Walt Disney Co. CEO in 2005, the company’s storied history of animation had floundered for a decade.

So Iger turned to a competitor whose animation outpaced Disney’s own and proposed a deal.

The relationship between Pixar Animation Studios and Disney had been strained, and Iger was nervous when he called Pixar’s CEO at the time, Steve Jobs. The two sat down in front of a white board at Pixar’s headquarters and began listing the pros and cons of the deal. The pros had three items. The cons had 20, as the now-retired Iger tells it in his Masterclass online.

“I said ‘This probably isn’t going to happen,’’’ Iger remembers. “He said, ‘Why do you say that?’”

Jobs could see that the pros had greater weight to them, despite the long list of the cons. Ultimately, Disney did buy Pixar for more than $7 billion in 2006, improving its standing, animation and financial success. In the end, Iger says he “didn’t think it was anything but a risk worth taking.”

I read Iger’s memoir, “The Ride of a Lifetime,’’ in 2021, just as I began planning the agenda for our annual Acquire or Be Acquired Conference in Phoenix, which is widely regarded as the premier M&A conference for financial industry CEOs, boards and leadership teams.

His story resonated, and not just because of the Disney/Pixar transaction.

I thought about risks worth taking, and was reminded of the leadership traits Iger prizesspecifically, optimism, courage and curiosity. Moreover, many of this year’s registered attendees wrestle with the same issues Iger confronted at Disney: They represent important brands in their markets that must respond to the monumental changes in customer expectations. They must attract and retain talent and to grow in the face of challenges.

While some look to 2022 with a sense of apprehension — thanks to Covid variant uncertainty, inflation, supply chain bottlenecks and potential regulatory changes — I feel quite the pep in my step this January. I celebrate the opportunity with our team to return, in-person, to the JW Marriott Desert Ridge. With over 1,350 registered to join us Jan. 30 through Feb. 1, I know I am not alone in my excitement to be again with people in real life.

So what’s in store for those joining us? We will have conversations about:

  • Examining capital allocation.
  • Balancing short-term profitability versus long term value creation.
  • Managing excess liquidity and shrinking margins.
  • Re-thinking hiring models and succession planning.
  • Becoming more competitive and efficient.

Naturally, we discuss the various growth opportunities available to participants. We talk about recent merger transactions, market reactions and integration hurdles. We hear about the importance of marrying bank strategy with technology investment. We explore what’s going on in Washington with respect to regulation and we acknowledge the pressure to grow earnings and the need to diversify the business.

As the convergence of traditional banking and fintech continues to accelerate, we again offer FinXTech sessions dedicated to delivering growth. We unpack concepts like banking as a service, stablecoins, Web3, embedded finance and open banking.

Acquire or Be Acquired has long been a meeting ground for those that take the creation of franchise value very seriously — a topic even more nuanced in today’s increasingly digital world. The risk takers will be there.

“There’s no way you can achieve great gains without taking great chances,’’ Iger says. “Success is boundless.”

Why the Time is Right to Enable Payments on Real-Time Rails

Despite strong adoption worldwide, U.S. financial institutions have been slow to embrace real-time payments.

This reluctance is largely due to the complexity of the financial landscape, established consumer payment habits and lack of a federal mandate driving change. But the coronavirus pandemic fueled greater demand for real-time payments, as consumers and businesses increasingly transact digitally. As the share of real-time payment transactions in the U.S. doubled in 2020, financial institutions have an opportunity to launch real-time services that meet demand and enhance the customer experience.

Real-time payments are irrevocable, account-to-account payments that can be initiated through any device — laptop, mobile, or tablet. Because they are cleared and settled nearly instantly, 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year, the funds are available to the recipient immediately. This has significant cash flow and liquidity advantages over traditional payment options.

More than 60 countries are live with real-time payment systems today, and real-time payments grew 41% globally from 2019 to 2020. The U.S. ranks ninth worldwide with 1.2 billion transactions; well behind real-time leader India, which had 41 million real-time transactions per day in 2020.

The Clearing House was an initial driver of real-time in the U.S., launching its RTP® network in 2017. Currently reaching more than 60% of U.S demand deposit accounts, RTP is open to any federally insured depository institution. The Federal Reserve’s FedNow, which is now live with a pilot program, will drive further adoption when it launches in 2023. 

Real time payments have been primarily driven by person-to-person (P2P) and consumer-to-business (C2B) uses cases. Services like Zelle®, which was introduced in 2017 by Early Warning Services (EWS), have propelled adoption by making it easy for consumers to pay digitally; for example, paying a friend for dinner or making a rent payment on the day it’s due. In late 2020, Zelle® was integrated with RTP, making these transactions truly real time.

EWS reported a 51% year-over-year increase in Zelle® transactions in the third quarter of 2021, noting growing use of its service by businesses. Having the flexibility to pay rent, process payroll or pay for supplies in real time has particularly strong benefits for small businesses with liquidity challenges.

Disbursements also represent a growing use case, with businesses taking advantage of the ability to efficiently send refunds and make other payments in real time. An insurance company paying claims following a car accident or hurricane could avoid the overhead associated with processing paper checks. At the same time, real-time disbursements boost customer satisfaction by making funds available immediately. Payroll is another example, with the gig economy companies particularly benefitting from the ability to pay workers instantly.

Nowhere has the need for real-time payments been more apparent than in issuance of pandemic stimulus checks. As Federal Reserve Board Governor Lael Brainard said, “The rapid expenditure of COVID emergency relief payments highlighted the critical importance of having a resilient instant payments infrastructure with nationwide reach, especially for households and small businesses with cash flow constraints.”

Request for Payment
Popular in countries like India, Request for Payment is emerging as a convenient tool to facilitate real-time payments on a mobile device. A push notification and short series of prompts detail the payment request, and the payee can authorize payment from a banking app within a few clicks.

Businesses using Request for Payment benefit from immediate funds availability and a more efficient, cost-effective billing process; consumers gain convenience and control. Consumers issuing Requests for Payment can use it to avoid awkward reminders to friends or colleagues by simply sending a request digitally when money is owed.

Establishing a Real-Time Strategy
As financial institutions look to broaden their real-time payments offering, it’s important to consider the technological infrastructure needed to support them. As transactions and use cases continue to grow, both consumers and businesses will come to expect real-time options from their financial institution, and availability of well-established services like Zelle® and newer tools like Request for Payment will become table stakes.

A partnership with a digital banking provider that not only prioritizes real-time payment offerings today, but also has plans for future integrations with real-time focused fintechs, will prove critical to long-term success.

Pursuing the Pole Position in Digital Banking


digital-banking-11-3-17.pngBanks 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.”