Why a Solid Risk Management Framework Helps Manage Change

Who owns risk management at your bank?

If your bank limits that function to the teams that report to the chief risk officer, it’s fumbling on two fronts: It’s failing to drive accountability across every corner of the enterprise, and it’s conceding its edge in a marketplace that’s never been more competitive.

Recognizing that every employee owns a piece of this responsibility make risk management an equal offensive and defensive pose for your organization. This empowers your employees to move nimbly, strategically and decisively when the bank encounters change, whether it’s an external regulatory pressure or an internal opportunity to launch a new product or service. In either case, your team navigates through change by building on best operational practices, which, in the end, work to your advantage.

Getting the bank into that position doesn’t happen overnight; the vision starts with the actions of your senior leaders. They set the tone and establish expectations, but everyone plays a hands-on role. When management prioritizes an environment where people can work collaboratively and have transparency into related roles, they foster consistency across your change management process that minimizes risk.

The need for a risk-aware culture aligns precisely with the signals coming out of Washington, D.C., that the stakes are getting higher. The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau hinted early at increased regulatory scrutiny, advising that it would tighten the regulatory standards it had relaxed to allow banks to quickly respond to customers’ financial hardship in 2020.

In response to the competitive and regulatory environment, your bank’s risk management framework should incorporate four key elements:

  • Start with setting the ground rules for how the bank will govern its risk. Define its risk strategy, the role the board and management will play and the committees that compose that governance structure — and don’t forget to detail their decision-making authority, approval and escalation process across those bodies. This upfront work also should introduce robust systems for ongoing monitoring and risk reporting, establish standard parameters on how the bank identifies issues and create a basic roadmap to remediate issues when they come along.
  • Operating Model. Distinguish the roles and responsibilities for every associate, with a key focus on how they manage risk generated by the core activities in that business. By taking the time to ensure all individuals, in every line of defense, understand their expected contributions, your bank will be ahead of the game because your people can act quicker and efficiently when a change needs to happen.
  • Standard Framework, Definitions and Taxonomies. In basic terms, everyone across the enterprise needs to speak the same language and assign risk ratings the same way. Calibrating these elements at the onset builds confidence that your bank gives thoughtful attention to categorize risks into the right buckets. Standardization should include assessment scales and definitions of different risks and risk events, leading to easier risk aggregation and risk reporting that enables a holistic view of risk across the enterprise.
  • Risk Appetite. Nothing is more important than establishing how much risk your organization is willing to take on in its daily business. Missing the mark can impact your customers, bottom line and reputation. Optimally, bank leaders will reestablish this risk appetite annually, but black swan events such as the pandemic should prompt more timely reviews.

Too often, banks reinvent the wheel every time a change or demand comes along. As the industry eyes increasing regulatory pressure in the year ahead, driving and promoting a robust risk management culture is no longer a “nice to have” within your organization; it’s a “need to have.”

When you reset the role and ownership of risk management as a strategic pillar in your bank’s future growth and direction you minimize your bank’s risk and actually propel your company forward.

Banks looking to check out best practices and a strategic framework for creating their enterprise risk framework should check out my latest whitepaper, Turning a Solid Risk Framework Into a Competitive Advantage.

2020’s Growth All-Stars

Low interest rates pressured net interest margins in 2020, but they also produced outsized growth for banks with a strong focus on mortgage lending.

“From a nominal — that is, not inflation-adjusted perspective — [2020] was the biggest year in the history of the [mortgage] industry, and it was driven heavily by the fact that mortgage rates fell to 2.5%” for customers with good credit history, says Douglas Duncan, senior vice president and chief economist at Fannie Mae. Single-family mortgage originations totaled $4.54 trillion, he says. Almost two-thirds were mortgage refinancing loans; the remaining loans were used for purchases. His tally represents an estimate — the U.S. government doesn’t calculate total mortgage loan volume.

But Duncan’s estimation is reflected in the countless press releases I’ve read from banks boasting record mortgage volume — and revenues — over the past few months. And mortgages are a major factor that fueled 2020 growth for the fastest-growing banks.

Using data from S&P Global Market Intelligence, Bank Director analyzed year-over-year growth in pre-provision net revenue (PPNR) at public and private banks above $1 billion in assets to identify the banks that have grown most quickly during the pandemic. We also included return on average assets, calculated as a three-year average for 2018, 2019 and 2020, to reward consistent profitability in addition to growth. The analysis ranked both factors, and the numeric ranks were then averaged to create a final score. The banks with the highest growth and profitability had the lowest final scores, meaning they ranked among the best in the country.

Among the best was eighth-ranked $2.4 billion Leader Bank. President Jay Tuli credits low interest rates with driving outsized growth at the Arlington, Massachusetts-based bank. Its sizable mortgage operation helped it to take advantage of demand in its market, roughly doubling mortgage volume in 2020 compared to the previous year, says Tuli.

With rates coming down during Covid, there was a big surge in mortgage demand for refinances,” explains Tuli. Most of those mortgage loans were sold on the secondary market. “That produced a substantial increase in profitability.”

Mortgage lending also significantly lifted revenues at Kansas City, Missouri-based NBKC Bank, according to its chief financial officer, Eric Garretson.

The $1.2 billion bank topped our ranking, and it’s one of the two banks in this analysis that have become specialists of sorts in banking-as-a-service (BaaS). The other is Celtic Bank Corp., which is also a Small Business Administration lender that funded more than 99,000 Paycheck Protection Program loans.

NBKC’s BaaS program grew in 2020, says Garretson, though “this was dwarfed by the increase in revenue from mortgage lending.” Right now, NBKC focuses on deposit accounts, allowing partner fintechs to offer these accounts under their own brand, issue debit cards and deliver similar banking services. Lending products are being considered but aren’t currently offered, says Garretson.

As the financial technology space continues to grow, the opportunities should increase for banks seeking to partner with fintech companies, says Alex Johnson, director of fintech research at Cornerstone Advisors. Banks like NBKC and Celtic Bank Corp. have developed the expertise and skills needed to partner with these companies. They also have a technology infrastructure that’s fintech friendly, he explains, allowing for easy integration via standard, defined application programming interfaces (APIs) and a microservices architecture that’s more modular and decentralized. Put simply — a good BaaS bank will have the same tech capabilities as its fintech client.

“There’s a very clear model for how to do this, and there’s growing demand,” says Johnson. “One thing that tends to characterize banks that do well in the banking-as-a-service space are the ones that build a specialization in a particular area.” These banks have a track record for building these products, along with the requisite processes and contracts.

“When a company comes to them, it’s as easy [a process] as it could possibly be,” says Johnson. “The more of that work they do, the more that ripples back through the fintech ecosystem. So, when new fintech companies are founded, [and venture capitalists] are advising them on where to go — they tend to point to the banking-as-a-service partners that will work well.”

Top 10 Fastest-Growing Banks

Bank Name/Headquarters Total Assets (millions) ROAA
3-year avg.
PPNR growth YoY Score
NBKC Bank
Kansas City, MO
$1,207.5 7.93% 67.52% 14.67
Plains Commerce Bank
Hoven, SD
$1,129.9 3.97% 86.75% 15.33
The Federal Savings Bank
Chicago, IL
$1,076.2 7.66% 60.37% 19.67
Northpointe Bank
Grand Rapids, MI
$3,685.5 2.58% 73.24% 25.00
Celtic Bank Corp.
Salt Lake City, UT
$4,704.8 4.22% 55.87% 28.00
Union Savings Bank
Cincinnati, OH
$3,586.3 2.75% 56.76% 29.67
North American Savings Bank, F.S.B.
Kansas City, MO
$2,470.9 2.71% 58.57% 30.67
Leader Bank, N.A. $2,419.6 2.46% 61.63% 32.67
Waterstone Financial
Wauwatosa, WI
$2,198.0 2.41% 59.23% 38.00
BNC National Bank
Glendale, AZ
$1,225.7 2.13% 71.44% 39.33

Source: S&P Global Market Intelligence. Total assets reflect first quarter 2021 data. Average three-year return on average assets reflects year-end data for 2018, 2019 and 2020 for the largest reporting entity. Year-over-year pre-provision net revenue (PPNR) growth reflects year-end data for 2019 and 2020. Bank Director’s analysis of the fastest-growing banks ranked PPNR growth and average ROAA at banks above $1 billion in assets; scoring reflects an average of these ranks.

Marketing Campaigns Go High Tech

For years, community banks had to sit on the sidelines while the biggest banks rolled out sophisticated marketing and revenue-generating programs using artificial intelligence.

That’s no longer the case. There are now plenty of financial technology companies offering turnkey platforms tailored for community banks who can’t afford to hire a team of data analysts or software programmers.

“It’s amazing how far the industry has come in just five years in terms of products, regulatory structure and what banking means to customers,” says Kevin Tweddle, senior executive vice president for the Independent Community Bankers of America. Banks and regulators have gotten quite comfortable doing business with fintechs, choosing from a grocery cart full of options, he says.

One of the best examples of this is Huntsville, Alabama-based DeepTarget, which topped the operations category in Bank Director’s 2021 Best of FinXTech Awards. The category rewards solutions that boost efficiencies and growth.

The finalists and winners recognized in the annual awards are put through their paces in a rigorous process that examines the results generated by the growing technology provider space. For more on the methodology, click here.

DeepTarget’s 3D StoryTeller product delivers customized marketing content using 3D graphics that can be produced by a small bank or credit union without an in-house graphic design staff. Marketing messages resemble the video-rich stories on Instagram, Facebook and Snapchat, allowing the smallest financial institutions to compete with the biggest companies’ marketing campaigns.

The Ohio Valley Bank Co., the $1 billion bank unit of Ohio Valley Banc Corp. in Gallipolis, Ohio, has been using DeepTarget’s 3D StoryTeller software since October 2020, says Bryna Butler, senior vice president of corporate communications.

The bank used 3D StoryTeller to market an online portal where people could shop for cars and then apply for an auto loan through Ohio Valley Bank. From January to September of last year, that car-buying website generated just four loans. But after Ohio Valley Bank used DeepTarget’s 3D StoryTeller, the site saw a 1,289% increase in traffic. Using 3D StoryTeller translated into loans, too. Ohio Valley Bank generated 72 loans through the Auto Loan Center from October to December of 2020. Butler believes the response would have been even higher if the bank hadn’t been undercut by competitors with lower rates.

3D StoryTeller is a recent addition to DeepTarget’s line up; Ohio Valley Bank has been working with the company for about a decade. DeepTarget uses performance analytics among other options to recommend specific products and services that it believes will cater to each customer’s interests, similar to the way Facebook targets ads based on its knowledge of its users. “It’s not just scheduling ads,” Butler says. DeepTarget reports the return on investment for each campaign to the bank every month, including how many clicks translated into new account openings.

When the pandemic hit in March 2020 and the bank put its marketing plans on hold, the graphics program easily adjusted to feature messaging on how to use the bank’s digital banking or drive-thru customer service.

Although DeepTarget integrates with several cores, Butler says the software is also core-agnostic, in the sense that she can pull a CSV file on her customers and send that securely to DeepTarget.

Ohio Valley pays a small monthly fee for DeepTarget, but Butler says the software pays for itself every year. Other Best of FinXTech Awards finalists in the operations category include the marketing platform Fintel Connect, which tracks results and connects ad campaigns to social media influencers, and Derivative Path, a cloud-based solution that helps community banks manage derivative programs and foreign exchange transactions.

Deal Integration Can Transform Finance, Risk and Regulatory Reporting

A number of banks announced mergers and acquisitions in 2020, capitalizing on growth opportunities against a forbidding backdrop of chronically low interest rates and anemic economic growth during the Covid-19 pandemic.

The deals ranged from more moderately sized with a few headline-grabbing mega-mergers —a trend that expected to continue through 2021.

The appeal of M&A for regional and superregional institutions in the United States is that the right transaction could create big benefits from economies of scale, and enhance the proforma company’s ability to gain business. While the number of deals announced in this environment are modest, the stakes involved in contemplating and executing them certainly are not. Nor is the work that banks will face after a combination. Once the transaction has been completed, the hard work begins.

A Closer Look From Regulators
One potential outcome is added scrutiny from the authorities; a new merged entity, with more assets and a broader range of activities, could have more complex risk calculations and reporting obligations to deal with.

Overall, regulators have sharpened their focus on banks during and after the merger process by performing additional audits, more closely scrutinizing key figures and ensuring that the M&A plan is being adhered to. Even if there are no significant changes to a firm’s profile with regulators, or if any needed changes in risk and reporting obligations are manageable, the formidable task of combining the operations of two organizations remains. A single, seamless whole must be assembled from two sets of activities, two work forces with their own culture and two sets of technological assets.

Merging the Parts, Not Just the Wholes
None of these issues is distinct from the others. Consider the technology: The proforma company will have to contend with two data systems — at least. Each company’s data management architecture has staff that makes it run using its own modus operandi developed
over years.

And that is the best-case scenario. Joining so many moving parts is no small feat, but it provides no small opportunity. Deal integration forces the constituent institutions to reassess legacy systems; when handled correctly, it can assemble a comprehensive, fully integrated whole from existing and new tech to meet the combined entity’s compliance and commercial needs.

Creating the ideal unified finance, risk and reporting system starts with an honest evaluation of the multiple systems of the merging partners. Executives should take particular care to assess whether the equipment and processes of the merged entity are better than the acquirer’s, or have certain features that should be incorporated.

Management also should consider the possibility that both sets of legacy systems are not up to present or future challenges. It could be that the corporate combination provides an opportunity to start over, or nearly so, and build something more suitable from the ground up. Another factor they should consider is whether the asset size of the new unified business warrants an independent verification process to supplement the risk and regulatory reporting program.

Understanding What You Have and What You Need
To get the evaluation process under way for the operational merger, a bank should list and assess its critical systems — not just for their functionality, but with respect to licensing or other contractual obligations with suppliers to determine the costs of breaking agreements.

Managers at the combined entity should look for redundancies in the partners’ systems that can be eliminated. A single organization can have a complicated back-end systems architecture, with intricate workarounds and many manual processes. Bringing together multiple organizations of similar complexity can leave the combined entity with expensive and inflexible infrastructure. A subledger and controlling functions can simplify this for finance, risk and regulatory reporting functions. They can consolidate multiple charts of accounts and general ledgers, relieving pressure on the general ledgers. Organizations in some cases can choose to migrate general ledgers to a cloud environment while retaining detailed data in a fat subledger.

Whatever choices executives make, a finance, risk and reporting system should have the latest technology, preferably based in the cloud to ensure it will be adaptable, flexible and scalable. Systems integration is critical to creating a unified financial institution that operates with optimal productivity in its regulatory compliance, reporting efforts and general business.
Integrating systems helps to assure standardization of processes and the accuracy, consistency,
agility and overall ease of use that result from it.

Eliminate Customer Friction to Unlock Your Bank’s Growth

Why don’t your target customers want to join your bank? Because they’re not impressed.

Banks often sabotage their own attempts at success through their siloed, disjointed, out-of-touch and unimpressive approaches to doing business that leave small-to-medium businesses, private wealth clients, upwardly mobile millennials and even commercial customers underwhelmed by their service delivery.

Eliminating customer friction must be your guiding policy
For 10 years, the rallying cry of the C-Suite has been “invest in technology to stay relevant.” The next 10 years must be defined by a singular, focused, and undeviating devotion to eliminating the friction of doing business with your institution.

Fixing customer friction will be challenging and expensive, but it will also offer the best return for your shareholders. Your bank must organize teams around this mission. Executives need to evaluate resource and budget requests against a simple criterion: How much friction will this reduce, compared to the cost of funding it? Every budget request should be accompanied by a detailed user story, a list of friction points, and a proposed solution that describes the customer experience. Every touchpoint is an opportunity to reinforce your brand as customer-friendly or customer-hostile. Your bank should move quickly through these three steps:

  1. Get aligned. Your bank needs support from your board, your C-suite and even your investors to pivot to this focus. Once you have the buy-in and mission statements crafted, it’s time to designate the priority projects.
  2. “Shovel-ready” projects come first. Rescore projects that were previously denied funding or resources because they were too difficult to execute or didn’t cross a financial hurdle on a simple 2×2 matrix that evaluates improvement in customer experience and reduced friction vs. cost and complexity to implement. The projects in the top-right corner should be your initial list of funded initiatives.
  3. Deliver quick wins and results that measurably drive customer engagement. This will define success for the next 10 years. Re-engineer how you extend customer offers and execute pricing for standard and relationship clients. Your investment in tech will pay off if you accelerate this function.

For a fast return on investment, examine how your bank prices on base versus relationship status and rewards customer behaviors. Segmenting customers into single-service households, small to medium-size businesses, commercial, or mass-market and tying rewards or pricing adjustments to their categories can mean the difference between retaining or losing target customers. One-size-fits-all pricing, or even pricing by geography, will leave customers feeling like they do today: you don’t understand them or price according to their life stage or needs.

Aim for high-frequency iterations so you can test and learn everything before you scale it. Imagine being able to execute 100 or more micro-campaigns and evergreen trigger-based offers annually, with multivariant testing. Drill down to specific customer personas, identify specific trigger events, and act on intelligence that demonstrates to your customers that your bank understands them.

Get in the habit of defining a user story, designing a process and executing an offer or pricing schema in a sprint. I was astounded how quickly banks moved on preparing their infrastructure to administer Paycheck Protection Program loans. Imagine being able to consistently move at that speed — without the associated late nights and headaches.

Lastly, installing an agile middleware layer will unshackle your bank from the months-long cycles required to code and test customer offers and fulfillment. High-speed, cloud-based offer management that crosses business lines and delivers omni-channel offer redemption will be a game changer for your institution.

Installing a high-speed offer and pricing engine may seem like science fiction for your bank, but it’s not. It will require investments of time and money, coordinated efforts and lots of caffeine. But the results will allow your financial institution to prove success, build a model and inspire your teams to get serious about bulldozing customer friction.

The financial rewards of executing better offers, engaging more customers and delivering relevant, optimized pricing will give your bank the financial resources to remain independent while your competitors shop for merger partners.

Level 5 Banking

Over the past six months, nCino has partnered with the team at Bank Director on a unique and immersive study of banking. It was originally intended to peer into the future of the industry, but the more we looked ahead, the more we realized that the future of banking is not a revolution, but an evolution. 

Banking is undergoing a vast and vital transformation. The distribution channels of today may soon be obsolete, and technology and innovation are moving ever faster. But this doesn’t mean that the traditional tenets of prudent and profitable banking are outdated. If anything, we found that technology accentuates their importance.

Leadership. Leadership is the most important tenet in banking, but what is leadership? Interviews with dozens of bankers across the country suggest that one keystone character trait is more important than any other: an insatiable curiosity and indomitable will to never stop learning. Best-selling business author Jim Collins refers to this in his book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t” as Level 5 leadership.

One industry leader who displays this trait is Brian Moynihan, chairman and CEO of Bank of America Corp. “Brian has a deep knowledge because he wants to learn about different things, not just about banking,” says Dean Athanasia, president of consumer and small business at Bank of America. “He looks across every single industry. He’s looking at Amazon, Walmart, the brokerage firms. He’s looking at all these companies and breaking them down.”

Growth. The second tenet we examined is growth. Mergers and acquisitions have been the principal vehicle for growth in the banking industry since the mid-1980s. But as the consolidation cycle has seasoned and digital distribution channels offer alternative ways to acquire new customers and enter new markets organically, we must accept that there are many avenues to growth. 

We’ve seen this firsthand at nCino, as institutions of all sizes successfully leverage our technology in the pursuit of growth and efficiency. But the day has not yet arrived that technology alone can help a bank grow. This is why the majority of banks view it as a way to supplement, not replace, their existing growth strategies.

Risk management. Another tenet we examined is risk management, a core pillar of prudent and profitable banking. Robust risk management is necessary for banks to avoid insolvency, but an equally important byproduct is consistent performance. The banks that have created the most value through the years haven’t made the most money in good times; their real strength has been avoiding losses in tough times.

Technology can help by improving credit decisions and making it easier to proactively pinpoint credit problems. But it must be paired with a culture that balances risk management and revenue generation.

“There are always going to be cycles in banking, and we think the down cycles give us an opportunity to propel ourselves forward,” says Joe Turner, CEO of Great Southern Bancorp, a Springfield, Missouri-based bank that ranks near the top of the industry in terms of total shareholder return over the past 40 years.

Culture. Culture and communication go hand-in-hand, and those financial institutions that are most successful are the ones that empower their employees with information, technology and autonomy. We learned this lesson the hard way during the financial crisis, when the banks that got into the most trouble were the ones that stifled the flow of information about unsavory business practices and questionable credit quality.

Since then, we’ve also seen a clear connection between a bank’s culture and its performance. “We’ve actually done a correlation analysis between employee engagement and client satisfaction scores in different departments,” says Kevin Riley, CEO of Billings, Montana-based First Interstate BancSystem. “It’s amazing the correlation between engaged employees and happy clients.”

Capital allocation. In an industry as competitive as banking, there aren’t many ways to produce extraordinary results. Running a prudent and efficient operation is table stakes. True differentiation comes from capital allocation — distributing an organization’s resources in a way that catalyzes operating earnings. The best capital allocators don’t view it as a mechanical process. They see it instead as a mindset that informs every decision they make, including how many employees they hire, how much capital they return or which third-party technology they choose to implement, among others.

Ultimately, navigating a bank through such a dynamic time is no easy feat. Leaders must embrace change and technology. That isn’t an option. But this doesn’t mean that the timeless tenets of banking should be discarded. The institutions that thrive in the future will be those that blend the best of the old with the new.

Five Reasons to Consider Banking Cannabis

Like nearly every industry, the banking sector is facing major economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Operational strategies designed to capitalize on a booming economy have been rendered obsolete. With the Federal Open Markets Committee slashing interest rates to near zero, financial institutions have needed to redirect their focus from growth to protecting existing customers, defending or increasing earnings and minimizing losses.

While this will likely be the status quo for the time being, bank executives and their boards have a responsibility to plan ahead. What will financial markets look like after absorbing this shock? And, when rates begin to rise again — as they will, eventually — how will you position your financial institution to take advantage of future growth?

The booming legal cannabis industry is one sector banks have been eyeballing as a source for low-cost deposits and non-interest income. While ongoing conflict between state and federal law has kept many financial institutions on the sidelines, others have made serving this industry part of their growth strategy. According to new market research, the U.S. legal cannabis market will be worth $34 billion by 2025. While we don’t claim that sales will be immune to the financial shock caused by the pandemic, they have remained somewhat steady — due in large part to being deemed essential in most states with legal medical cannabis programs. With much of this revenue unbanked, it’s worth taking a closer look at how this industry can be part of your bank’s long-term strategy. Here are five reasons why.

  1. Cannabis banking can provide reliable non-interest income. As net interest margins compress, financial institutions should look to non-interest income business lines to support overall profitability. Cannabis companies are in dire need of quality banking solutions and are willing to pay upwards of 10 times the amount of traditional business service charges. Assessing substantially higher base account charges, often without the benefit of an earnings credit to offset those charges, means there are untapped cash management fee opportunities. Together, these fees can fully offset the operational cost of providing a cannabis banking program.
  2. New compliance technologies can reduce costs and support remote banking. Many banks serving cannabis customers are using valuable human capital to manage their compliance. However, new technologies make it possible to automate these processes, significantly reducing the labor and expense required to conduct the systematic due diligence this industry requires. New cannabis banking technologies can also enable contactless payments, and handle client applications, account underwriting and risk assessment — all via remote, online processes.
  3. Longer-term, cannabis banking can provide a source of low-cost deposits. The pressure to grow and attract low-cost deposits may wane momentarily but will continue to be a driver of bank profitability long-term. Increasing those deposits today will protect future profitability as the economy improves.
  4. Comprehensive federal legalization is on the back burner — for now. While your bank may want to wait for federal legalization before providing financial services to this industry, there’s a significant first-mover advantage for institutions that elect to serve this industry today. The ability to build new customer relationships, earn enhanced fee income and gain access to new sources of low-cost deposits early on could be a game-changer when legalization eventually occurs.
  5. You don’t need to be a pioneer. Having spent most of my career leading retail operations at a community bank, I know financial institutions don’t want to be the first to take on something new. Although it is still a nascent industry, there are financial institutions that have served cannabis businesses for several years and are passing compliance exams. Banks entering the industry now won’t have to write the playbook from scratch.

The coronavirus pandemic requires banks to make many difficult decisions, both around managing the financial impact and the operational changes needed to protect the health of customers and employees. While adapting operating procedures to the current environment, banks should also begin planning for a future recovery and identifying new potential sources of growth. Cannabis banking can provide a lucrative new revenue stream and the opportunity for financial institutions to grow deposits with minimal competition — at least for now.

The Biggest Priorities for Banks in Normal Times

Banks are caught in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping across the United States.

As they care for hurting customers in a dynamic and rapidly evolving environment, they cannot forget the fundamentals needed to steer any successful bank: maintaining discipline in a competitive lending market, attracting and retaining high-quality talent and improving their digital distribution channels.

Uncovering bankers’ biggest long-term priorities was one of the purposes of a roundtable conversation between executives and officers from a half dozen banks with between $10 billion and $30 billion in assets. The roundtable was sponsored by Deloitte LLP and took place at Bank Director’s annual Acquire or Be Acquired conference at the end of January, before the brunt of the new coronavirus pandemic took hold.

Kevin Riley, CEO of First Interstate BancSystem, noted that customers throughout the $14.6 billion bank’s western footprint were generally optimistic prior to the disruption caused by the coronavirus outbreak. Washington, Oregon and Idaho at the time were doing best. With trade tensions and fear of an inverted yield curve easing, and with interest rates reversing course, businesses entered 2020 with more confidence than they entered 2019.

The growth efforts reflect a broader trend. “In our 2020 M&A Trends survey, corporate respondents cited ‘efficiency and effectiveness in change management’ and ‘aligning cultures’ as the top concerns for new acquisitions,” says Liz Fennessey, M&A principal at Deloitte Consulting.

A major benefit that flows from an acquisition is talent. “More and more, we’re seeing M&A used as a lever to access talent, which presents a new set of cultural challenges,” Fennessey continues. “In the very early stages of the deal, the acquirer should consider the aspects core to the culture that will help drive long-term retention in order to preserve deal value.”

One benefit of the benign credit environment that banks enjoyed at the end of last year is that it enabled them to focus on core issues like talent and culture. Tacoma, Washington-based Columbia Banking System has been particularly aggressive in this regard, said CEO Clint Stein.

The $14.1 billion bank added three new people to its executive committee this year, with a heavy emphasis on technology. The first is the bank’s chief digital and technology officer, who focuses on innovation, information security and digital expansion. The second is the bank’s chief marketing and experience officer, who oversees marketing efforts and leads both a new employee experience team and a new client experience team. The third is the director of retail banking and digital integration, whose responsibilities include oversight of retail branches and digital services.

Riley at First Interstate has employed similar tactics, realigning the bank’s executive team at the beginning of 2020 to add a chief strategy officer. The position includes leading the digital and product teams, data and analytics, as well as overseeing marketing, communications and the client contact center.

The key challenge when it comes to growth, particularly through M&A, is making sure that it improves, as opposed to impairs, the combined institution’s culture. “It is important to be deliberate and thoughtful when aligning cultures,” says Matt Hutton, a partner at Deloitte. “It matters as soon as the deal is announced. Don’t miss the opportunity to build culture momentum by reinforcing the behaviors you expect before the deal is complete.”

Related to the focus on growth and talent is an increasingly sharp focus on environmental, social and governance issues. For decades, corporations were operated primarily for the benefit of their shareholders — a doctrine known as shareholder primacy. But this emphasis has begun to change and may accelerate alongside the unfolding health crisis. Over the past few years, large institutional investors have started promoting a more inclusive approach known as stakeholder capitalism, requiring companies to optimize returns across all their stakeholders, not just the owners of their stock.

The banks at the roundtable have embraced this call to action. First National Bank of Omaha, in Omaha, Nebraska, publishes an annual community impact report, detailing metrics that capture the positive impact it has in the communities it serves. Columbia promotes the link between corporate social responsibility and performance. And First Interstate, in addition to issuing an annual environmental, social and governance report, has taken multiple steps in recent years to improve employee compensation and engagement.

Despite the diversity of business lines and geographies of different banks, these regional lenders shared multiple common priorities and fundamental focuses going into this year. The coronavirus crisis has certainly caused banks to change course, but there will be a time in the not-too-distant future when they and others are able to return to these core focuses.

Former Bank Disruptor, Turned Ally, Talks Innovation

A career that began with upending traditional banks has given Alexander Sion perspective on what they can do to accelerate growth and innovation.

Sion is the director and co-head of Citibank’s D10X, which is part of Citigroup’s global consumer bank. Prior to that, he oversaw mobile banking and mobile channel governance for the consumer and community banking group as general manager of mobile at JPMorgan Chase & Co.

But before he worked at banks, he attacked them.

Sion co-founded “neobank” Moven in 2011 to focus on the financial wellness of consumers. The mobile bank disruptor has since become a vendor; in March, the company announced it would close retail accounts and pivot completely to enterprise software.

Bank Director recently spoke with Sion about how banks can create new models that generate growth, even as they face disruption and challenges. Below is a transcript that has been edited for clarity and length.

BD: How should banks think about innovation as it relates to their products, services, culture and infrastructure?

AS: Citi Ventures focuses on growth within a dynamic environment of change. It’s very difficult to achieve, and it’s very different from core growth with existing customers. But all innovation, particularly at incumbent firms, has to stem from a desire to grow.

Banks that struggle with growth, or even getting excited about innovation, need to ask themselves two sets of questions. No. 1: Do you have a deep desire to grow? Do you have aggressive ambitions to grow? No. 2: Is that growth going to be coming from new spaces, or spaces that are being disrupted? Or are you considering growth from existing customers?

If a bank is focused on existing customers, retention and efficiencies, it’s going to be hard to get excited about innovation.

BD: What’s the difference for banks between investing in tech and merely consuming it?

AS: They’re very different. If your bank is focused on growing within its core business, then you would lean more towards consuming tech. You’re building off of something that already exists and trying to make it better. You’ve got existing customers on existing platforms and you’re looking for more efficient ways to serve them, retain them or grow share.

If you’re interested in new growth and exploration — new segments, new products, new distribution channels — you might be more inclined to partner in those spaces. You have less to build from, less to leverage, and you’re naturally trying to figure things out, versus trying to optimize things that already exist.

BD: What kind of a talent or skills does a bank need for these types of endeavors? Do people with these skills already work at the bank?

AS: Existing bank employees know the product, they know the customer. At Citi, what we do at D10X and Citi Ventures is to try to expose bank employees to a different way of thinking, expand their mindset to possibilities outside the constraints of what or where the core model leans towards and think from a customer-centric view versus a product-centric view of the world.

The dynamics of customer behaviors are changing so much. There’s so much redefinition of how customers think about money, payments and their financial lives. Creating a more customer-centric view in existing employees that already have the deep knowledge and expertise of not only the product, but how the bank’s customers have evolved — that’s a very powerful combination.

BD: Why should a bank think about new markets or new customers if they found great success with their core?

AS: If most banks in the United States were honest with themselves, I think many would admit that they’re struggling with growth. America is a very banked place. The banking environment hasn’t changed all that much, and most banks are established. Their focus has been on existing customers, efficiency of the model and maybe deepening within that customer base.

But now, fintechs coming in. These commerce, payments and technology players are doing two things. No. 1: They are legitimately opening up new markets of growth and segments that weren’t reachable, or the traditional model wasn’t really addressing. No. 2, and maybe more important, is they are widening and changing the perspective on customer behavior. I don’t think any bank is immune from those two trajectories; your bank can be defensive or offensive to those two angles, but you’ve got to be one or the other.

BD: What are some lessons you or Citi has learned from its testing, refining and launching new solutions?

AS: Venture incubation has to be about learning. There’s a saying that every startup is a product, service or idea in search of a business model. The challenge that every existing incumbent bank will have is that we have existing business models.

Banks need to be able to test ideas very rapidly. It’s easy to test an idea and rapidly iterate when you’re in search of a business model. It’s much more difficult to test new ideas in an already-operating business model. A typical idea is debated internally, watered down significantly and will go through the wringer before the first customer gets to click on anything. In this kind of world, that’s a difficult strategy to win on.

Making Strategic Decisions With The Help of Data Analytics

Banks capture a variety of data about their customers, loans and deposits that they can harness in visually effective ways to support strategic decision-making. But to do this successfully, they must have leadership commit to provide the funding and human resources to improve data collection and management.

Bad data or poor data quality costs U.S. businesses about $3 trillion annually, and breeds bad decisions made from having data that is just incorrect, unclean, and ungoverned,” said Ollie East, consulting director of advanced analytics and data engineering at Baker Tilly.

Companies generally have two types of data: structured and unstructured. Structured data is information that can be organized in tables or a database: customer names, age, loan balances and interest rates. Unstructured data is information that exists in written reports, online customer reviews or notes from sales people. It does not fit into a standard database and is not easily relatable to other data.

If data analytics is the engine, then data is the gasoline that powers it,” East said. “Everything starts with data management: getting and cleaning data and putting it into a format where it can be used, governed, controlled and treated as an asset.”

A maturity model for data analytics progresses from descriptive to prescriptive uses for the information. The descriptive level answers questions like, “What happened?” The diagnostic level answers, “Why did it happen?” The predictive level looks at “What will happen?” Finally, at the prescriptive level, a company can apply artificial intelligence, machine learning or robotics on large sets of structured and unstructured data to answer “How can I make it happen?”

Existing cloud-based computing technology is inexpensive. Companies can import basic data and overlay a Tableau or similar dashboard that creates a compelling visual representation of data easily understood by different management teams. Sean Statz, senior manager of financial services, noted that data visualization tools like Tableau allows banks to create practical visual insights into their loan and deposit portfolios, which in turn will support specific strategic initiatives.

To do a loan portfolio analysis, a simple extraction of a bank’s data at a point in time can generate a variety of visual displays that demonstrate the credit and concentration risks. Repetitive reporting allows the bank to analyze trends like the distribution of credit risk among different time periods and identify new pricing strategies that may be appropriate. Tableau can create a heat map of loans by balance, so bankers can quickly observe the interest rates on different loans. Another view could display loss rates by risk rating, which can help a bank determine the real return or actual yield it is earning on its loans.

Statz said sophisticated analytics of deposit characteristics will help banks understand customer demographics, and adjust their strategies to grow and retain different types of customers. Bank can use this information in their branch opening and closing decisions, or prepare for CD maturities with questions like, “When CDs roll over, what products will we offer? If we retain all or only half of CD customers, but at higher interest rates, how does that affect cost of funds and budget planning?”

Data analytics can help banks undergo more sophisticated key performance indicator comparisons with their peers, not just at an aggregate national or statewide level, but even a more narrow comparison into specific asset sizes.

Banks face many challenges in effective data analytics, including tracking the right data, storing and extracting it, validating it and assigning resources to it correctly. But the biggest challenge banks need to tackle is determining if they have the necessary data to tackle specific problems. For example, the Financial Accounting Standards Board’s new current expected credit loss (CECL) standards require banks to report lifetime credit losses. If banks do not already track the credit quality characteristics they will need for CECL, they need to start capturing that data now.

Banks often store data on different systems: residential real estate loans on one system, commercial loans on another. This makes extracting the data in a way that supports data visualization like Tableau difficult. They must also validate the data for accuracy and identify any gaps in either data collection or inputting through the system. They also need to ensure they have the human resources and tools to extract, scrub and manipulate essential data to build out a meaningful analytic based on each data type.

The key to any successful data analytics undertaking is a leadership team that is committed to developing this data maturity mindset, whether internally or with help from a third party.