2020 Technology Survey Results: Accelerating the Drive to Digital

The Covid-19 pandemic has bankers reexamining the value of their branches.

While branch networks remain vital, their preeminence as a delivery channel has been diminished through the coronavirus crisis.

Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey, sponsored by CDW, finds that bank executives and directors indicating that the digital channel is most important to their bank’s growth (50%) outnumber those who place equal value on both the digital and branch channels (46%).

In last year’s survey, those numbers were essentially flipped, with 51% indicating that the two channels were equally important, and 38% prioritizing mobile and online channels.

This accelerates the evolution that the industry has undergone for years. Nearly all respondents — 97% — say their bank has seen increased adoption and use of digital channels due to Covid-19.

The survey was distributed in June and July, after a period of time when many banks upgraded their technology to better serve customers digitally, facilitate remote work by their employees and respond to the high demand for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Sixty-five percent say their bank implemented or upgraded technology due to the coronavirus crisis. Of these respondents, 70% say their bank adopted technology to issue PPP loans.

These executives and directors also report installing or upgrading customer-facing virtual meeting technology and/or interactive teller machines (39%), or enabling customers to apply for loans (35%) and/or open deposit accounts digitally (32%).  

Yet, just 37% sought new technology providers as a result of the pandemic.

The survey also reveals that fewer banks rely on their core provider to drive their technology strategy forward. Forty-one percent indicate that their bank relies on its core to introduce innovative solutions, down from 60% in last year’s survey. Sixty percent look to non-core providers for new solutions.

Key Findings

Focus on Experience
Eighty-one percent of respondents say improving the customer experience drives their bank’s technology strategy; 79% seek efficiencies.

Driving the Strategy Forward
For 64% of respondents, modernizing digital applications represents an important piece of their bank’s overall technology strategy. While banks look to third-party providers for the solutions they need, they’re also participating in industry groups (37%), designating a high-level executive to focus on innovation (37%) and engaging directors through a board-level technology committee (35%). A few are taking internal innovation even further by hiring developers (12%) and/or data scientists (9%), or building an innovation lab or team (15%).

Room for Improvement
Just 13% of respondents say their small business lending process is fully digital, and 55% say commercial customers can’t apply for a loan digitally. Retail lending shows more progress; three-quarters say their process is at least partially digital.

Spending Continues to Rise
Banks budgeted a median of $900,000 for technology spending in fiscal year 2020, up from $750,000 last year. But financial institutions spent above and beyond that to respond to Covid-19, with 64% reporting increased spending due to the pandemic.

Impact on Technology Roadmaps
More than half say their bank adjusted its technology roadmap in response to the current crisis. Of these respondents, 74% want to enhance online and mobile banking capabilities. Two-thirds plan to upgrade — or have upgraded — existing technology, and 55% prioritize adding new digital lending capabilities.

Remote Work Permanent for Some
Forty-two percent say their institution plans to permanently shift more of its employees to remote work arrangements following the Covid-19 crisis; another 23% haven’t made a decision.

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

How Banks in Texas Built a Recruiting Pipeline

Banking is an accidental profession.

Some bankers start as tellers trying to pay for college. Others are accountants and lawyers hired by bank clients. Still others are entrepreneurs who get frustrated with banks and start their own.

This is one reason banks face such a challenge in recruiting high-quality candidates.

Well, God helps those who help themselves. That’s Scott Dueser’s philosophy.

Dueser is the chairman and CEO of First Financial Bankshares, a $10.3 billion bank based in Abilene, Texas. It trades for the highest valuation on the KBW Regional Banking Index. Over the past two decades, it’s produced a total shareholder return of more than 2,000%.

Five years ago, Dueser started lobbying his alma mater, Texas Tech University, to launch an Excellence in Banking program that would offer classes in banking to undergraduate and graduate students studying finance.

For years, First Financial hired students from Sam Houston State University’s banking and financial institutions program in Huntsville. It did the same with Texas A&M University’s commercial banking program in College Station.

Why not construct a similar recruiting pipeline, Dueser thought, in First Financial’s West Texas stomping grounds? Other banks agreed. Much of the program’s endowment came from upwards of three dozen banks.

The inaugural group of students started earlier this year, three of whom interned at Dueser’s bank over the summer.

The program’s director is Mike Mauldin, who spent 17 years leading First Financial’s Hereford region.

“Mike is the perfect guy for the job,” Dueser says. “He’s not an academic; he’s a banker. A really good one. He’s also great with kids.”

Mauldin has structured the program around four pillars.

The first is a bank management class, covering the gamut of issues that lower and mid-level managers face in banks. The second is a marketing course, delving not only into traditional marketing strategies, but also into etiquette, teaching students how to navigate a professional environment.

The third pillar is a credit and lending course. This is where the rubber meets the road insofar as banking is concerned. According to the syllabus, students learn how to work with customers, read financial statements and assess credit risk.

Finally, students must intern at a bank. They’re required to write weekly papers as a part of it, Mauldin says, making them reflect on what they’ve learned.

“I don’t think of it as an internship,” Mauldin says. “I think of it as a long job interview. What we want at the end of the process is for the students to get jobs.”

Now, as a publication read by practitioners, we can be honest: No one learns much in college. At least I didn’t. But you do learn how to learn —a critical skill in an industry as dynamic as banking.

The program also acclimates students to banking. It’s a profession that everybody knows about, but few people understand.

Banking is to business what ballet is to dance, requiring a combination of both strength and grace. It’s an art and a science to balance the fragility associated with leverage and the stabilizing influence of capital and prudent credit policies.

“When assets are twenty times equity — a common ratio in this industry — mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity,” Warren Buffett wrote in his 1990 shareholder letter. “And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks.”

Programs like the one at Texas Tech are designed to combat this.

A second rationale for the program, Dueser explains, is the need to diversify the industry’s workforce, which has proved to be a perennial issue in banking.

And so far, the program has lived up to expectations. Half the inaugural class consists of minority and women candidates.

Done right, banking is a lucrative and fulfilling profession. No community can thrive without a bank. The more students that appreciate this, the easier it’ll be to recruit them.

Realities Beyond the Balance Sheet Facing Bank Buyers

Financial leaders face new and unique challenges as the navigate the remainder of this year and well into 2021.

The early reads on credit quality, credit access, operational and execution risk, regulatory oversight impacts and dimming growth prospects paint a bleak picture. Underlying this environment is an ongoing consideration for consolidation forcing institutions to assess their long-term viability. A closer examination of tangible book values clearly demonstrates who could be the buyers and potential sellers.

So, what is so different for M&A now? I have always believed that no two deals are the same —and that remains true. In the past, we may have looked solely at regulatory good standing, loan concentration, deposit pricing and distribution like geography and branches. While these remain fundamentally most important at the core, we now fully expect to see a heightened focus in due diligence around key layers of bank leadership, corporate culture and values, ability to deliver digital offerings to key customer segments, financial literacy programs and community investment.

A recent study by Deloitte noted that more than ever, bank M&A strategies need the right tools, teams and processes — from diligence through integrations — to pull off successful mergers. Additionally, buyers need to consider the compatibility and integration of any digital tools and how they will meet customer expectations. Can your bank deliver what these customers expect?

Most institutions looking to acquire or be acquired need to address several non-financial topics when considering how to proceed. Five in particular are consistently under-communicated by acquirers and will be even more impactful moving forward. These items speak to the fit of the merger partners — the intangible elements that cause the difference between a high customer retention rate with a platform for organic growth or a tepid retention rate with little sign of future organic growth.

1. Strategic Leadership
How an institution’s leaders navigated the recent Covid-19 pandemic says a lot about what investors, employees, customers and communities can expect if it merges with another bank. For example, the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program may have given some banks lessons and plans that may make them potential partners worth exploring. No one knows what lies ahead, but strategic leaders must be able to think, clarify and execute during these new M&A conditions.

2. Bank Culture and Values
Most banks have a mission, vision and values statements. Until the current environment, how leaders must lead to make employees feel included and valued had not been challenged. But in almost every M&A engagement, there are significant segments of impacted employees and customers that experience uncertainty and fear. Demonstrated values can go a long way to secure trust and help the execution of these transactions succeed.

3. Digitization Expectations for Employees and Customers
Many institutions were not prepared for what occurred earlier this spring. Disaster recovery and business resumption plans were a solid start, but many were insufficient for this type of event, requiring operations and services to move off-site in a matter of days.

But aside from the initial challenges of the PPP, most banks appear to have done an outstanding job of helping employees work from home without too much customer disruption. This operating model will be the new way forward in banking. When banks merge, it is important to understand how each institution’s plan worked, and how much or little displacement that model could be for employees and customers going forward.

4. Financial Literacy and Inclusion
The reality of how our country has operated over decades has come into focus during the pandemic. One issue that many banks have identified is access to capital and providing banking services in a service-blind manner going forward. Financial literacy and inclusion must be a tenet in creating a more-effective banking system. Aligning how these programs can work, collaboration and inclusiveness can create a platform for capital distribution that works with any institutional strategy and grows exponentially after a merger.

5. Community Investment
Many institutions have invested significantly in community programs over the years. In a merger, these groups need to understand what the plan for that support will be going forward. The pandemic has made it even more important to discuss and support these investments in communities, given the struggle of many organizations these days. While these five items are not exhaustive, we know that they are among the top issues of executives, employees and customers at prospective selling institutions.

Three Concepts that Drive Performance

The former top general in the Marine Corps, Gen. Jim Mattis, wrote in his memoirs, published last year, that “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”

That’s bold. But given its source, it can’t be discounted.

“Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before,” Mattis wrote in a 2003 email to a colleague. “It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

In no industry is experience by proxy as important as it is in banking, thanks to a pair of peculiar dynamics. Banks use three or more times as much leverage as the typical company. They’re also exposed to the unforgiving vicissitudes of the credit cycle.

It follows that in banking, as in the military, though in an obviously less lethal context, there is little margin for error. To be a high-performing bank, your credit decisions must be right 99% of the time — a high bar to clear.

With this in mind, here are three concepts from three books that can help sharpen one’s decision-making and reduce the incidence of error.

Cognitive Dissonance
The study of behavioral finance gained traction after the financial crisis of 2008-09, which eroded confidence in the efficient market hypothesis — the assumption that markets operate best when they are most unfettered by rules and regulation.

Behavioral finance is predicated on the general rule that markets tend to produce rational outcome. More important than this rule, however, are multiple exceptions to it, called “behavioral biases,” which are so powerful that they can swallow the general rule.

The granddaddy of behavioral biases is cognitive dissonance. This is the “state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent,” explained Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.”

An example is the belief that “‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day,’” Tavris and Aronson wrote.

People don’t like hearing information that they disagree with. It’s why so many of the banks that got into trouble in the financial crisis of 2008-09 tended to minimize the ominous warnings from the risk managers, preferring instead to believe the lofty predictions of their revenue generators.

Deliberate Practice
If you want to get better at something, it helps to practice. But not all practice is equally effective.

“There are various sorts of practice that can be effective to one degree or another, but one particular form — which I named ‘deliberate practice’ back in the early 1990s — is the gold standard,” wrote Anders Ericsson in “Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise.”

There is an assumption that after reaching a satisfactory skill level at something, the more you do that thing, the better you’ll be at it. But this isn’t necessarily true.

Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of ‘acceptable’ performance and automaticity, the additional years of ‘practice’ don’t lead to improvement,” Ericsson explained. “If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities generally deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.”

Deliberate practice has several characteristics that distinguish it from what Ericsson calls “naïve practice.” These include specific, well-defined goals; focused and intentional effort; regular feedback; and the willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone.

Level 5 Leadership
A central paradox lies at the heart of effective leadership: while leadership calls for confidence, it also demands humility.

Jim Collins encapsulates in the concept of Level 5 Leadership, which he developed in his book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.”

Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will,” Collins explained. “They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.”

“The good-to-great executives were all cut from the same cloth,” he continued. “It didn’t matter whether the company was consumer or industrial, in crisis or steady state, offered services or products. It didn’t matter when the transition took place or how big the company. All the good-to-great companies had Level 5 leadership at the time of transition.”

Ultimately, there are no silver bullets to achieve exceptional performance — in banking or elsewhere — but concepts like these are fundamental building blocks that will accelerate one’s progress toward that goal.

Turning Goals from Wishes to Outcomes

Community banks should measure their goals and objectives against four tests in order to craft sustainable approaches and outcomes.

Community banks set goals: growth targets for loans or deposits, an earnings target for the security portfolio, an return on equity target for the year. But aggressive loan growth may not be a prudent idea if loan-to-asset levels are already high entering a credit downturn. Earnings targets can be dangerous if they are pursued at any cost, regardless of risk. However, in the right context, each of these can lead to good outcomes.

The first test of any useful goal is answering whether it’s a good idea.

One personal example is that about a year ago I set a new goal to lose 100 pounds. I consulted with my doctor and we agreed that it was a good idea. So then we moved to the second test of a useful goal: Is it sustainable?

As “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” author James Clear puts it: “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your process and systems.”

What good would my weight loss goal be if it wasn’t sustainable? If the approach I took did not change my habits and instead put me through a shock program, there would be little reason to doubt that the approaches and habits that led me to create this goal would bring me back there again. The only way to pursue my goal in a sustainable fashion would changing my habits — my personal processes and systems.

Banks often pursue goals in unstainable ways as well.

Consider a bank that set a goal in June 2018 of earning $3 million annually from its $100 million securities portfolio with no more than 5 years’ duration (sometimes called a “yield bogey”). Given a choice between a 5-year bullet agency at 2.86% and a 5-year, non-call 2-year agency at 3.10%, only the latter meets or beats the goal. A 3.10% yield earns $310,000 for this portfolio.

In June 2020, the callable bond got called and was replaced by a similar length bond yielding only 40 basis points, or $40,000, for the remaining three years. The sustainable plan would have earned us $286,000 for the past two years — but also $286,000 for the next three. To make earnings sustainable, banks always need to consider multiple scenarios, a longer timeframe and potentially relaxing their rigid “bogey” that may cost them future performance.

 The third test of a useful goal is specifying action.

The late New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said, “There are only two rules for being successful: One, figure out what exactly you want to do, and two, do it.”

In my case, I didn’t do anything unsustainable. In fact, I did not do anything at all to work toward my long-term goal. When I checked my weight six months later, it should not have surprised me to see I had lost zero pounds. A goal that you do not change your habits for is not an authentic goal; it is at best a wish.

My wish had gotten exactly what you would expect: nothing. Upon realizing this, I took two material steps. It was not a matter of degree, but of specific, detailed plans. I changed my diet, joined a gym and spent $100 to fix my bicycle.

The fourth test of a useful goal is if it is based on positive changes to habits.

Banks must often do something similar to transform their objectives from wishes to authentic goals. Habits — or as we call them organizationally, processes and systems — must be elevated. A process of setting an earnings or yield bogey for the bond portfolio relied on the hope that other considerations, such as call protection and rate changes, wouldn’t come into play.

An elevated process would plan for earnings needs in multiple scenarios over a reasonable time period. Like repairing my bike, it may have required “spending” a little bit in current yield to actually reach a worthy outcome, no matter which scenario actually played out.

If your management team does not intentionally pursue positive changes to processes and systems (habits), its goals may plod along as mere wishes. As for me, six months after making changes to my habits, I have lost 50 pounds with 50 more to go. Everything changed the day I finally took the action to turn a wish into a useful goal.

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.

How Leaders Meet Followers’ Critical Needs During COVID-19

Humans experience the worldabout 30% rationally and 70% emotionally. Effective bank executives and directors would be well served by remembering that during this time.

Right now, many of those emotions tend toward fear and uncertainty. While what you as a leader communicate is important, how you do it and how it makes your people feel is crucial for effective leadership. Gallup has found that most critical emotional needs of followers — be it employees or customers — are trust, compassion, stability and hope. Yet, many banks are starting with deficits in these areas

Trust: Predictability In Unpredictable Times
Right now, employees are not only looking for honesty and clarity — they’re also watching intently for behavioral predictability. Leaders can’t predict the future, but they must be predictable. It’s hard to trust an erratic leader.

But bank leaders may be starting from a trust deficit. Most bank employees didn’t trust their leadership before the COVID-19 pandemic. Gallup research shows that just three in 10 financial services employees strongly agree that they trust the leadership of their organization, and just two in 10 say leadership communicates effectively with the rest of the organization.

Most banks are prioritizing employee and customer safety, which is necessary for trust. But employees are wondering how a health and economic crisis will affect their jobs and how leadership is making decisions for the future: the principles they’re using, how they conform to the organization’s purpose, the outcomes they’re aiming for.

Don’t shy away from difficult topics like layoffs or pay. Clearly lay out the scenarios and the decision criteria. Make firm commitments in critical areas wherever possible. Just as weather sirens indicate when people should be on high alert, companies should do the same. Otherwise, employees will live and work in constant anxiety.

Compassion: Loud and Reinforced
This is the time to show care. Your employees are juggling new responsibilities, fears and problems. They need to hear their managers and leaders say, out loud, that they understand, that the company is behind them and that everyone at the firm will get through this new situation together. They need to feel genuine compassion.

However, bank leaders may face a deficiency here as well: only three in 10 financial services employees strongly agreed in pre-pandemic times that their company cared about their well-being.

Compassion should also be boldly practiced through a bank’s policy decisions. The commitments, support and sacrifices executives make to keep employees, customers and communities whole are a reflection and demonstration of their priorities. Put bluntly: verbal compassion without policy compassion is insulting. Real compassion changes things — when the pandemic has passed, how you treated employees and companies will be remembered most.

Stability: Psychological Safety Without Tunnel Vision
There are two elements to stability, the practical and the psychological. Providing practical stability means making sure employees have the materials, equipment and technology they need to work under rapidly changing circumstances.

But the core of stability is psychological security — the need to know where a company is headed and that one’s job is secure. This is why executives must clearly define, communicate and act on their decision principles, especially when it comes to employment and pay.

Leaders need to provide a sense of normalcy to prevent tunnel vision. Not every conversation needs to be about COVID-19. Regularly communicate progress and accomplishments during this difficult time so that it doesn’t feel like the world has completely stopped.

Hope: The Most Precious Asset During Turmoil
Hope sits on the foundation of trust and stability. It pulls people forward and invites them to participate in creating a future that’s better than the present.

Leaders should view hope as precious capital. Hopeful workers are more resilient, innovative and agile, better able to plan ahead and navigate obstacles — valuable assets in good times and bad. Tell people what you want to achieve this week, this month, this quarter — and why you’re confident those goals can be reached.

Change The Lens
Amid the chaos and uncertainty, when employees are looking to you, know one thing for sure: You don’t have to have all the answers. But you do need to know how to meet your followers’ four basic needs in every plan, action and communication.

Remember, the employees most vulnerable to the ripple effects of COVID-19 are often the ones closest to your customers. Your people are looking to you for trust, compassion, stability and hope. Their eyes are on you — will you rise to the challenge?

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.

Connecting with Millennials By Going Beyond Traditional Services


technology-8-28-19.pngBanks are at a crossroads.

They have an opportunity to expand beyond traditional financial services, especially with younger customers that are used to top-notch user experiences from large technology companies. This may mean they need to revisit their strategy and approach to dealing with this customer segment, in response to changing consumer tastes.

Banks need to adjust their strategies in order to stay relevant among new competition: Accenture predicts that new business models could impact 80% of existing bank revenues by 2020. Many firms employ a “push” strategy, offering customers pre-determined bundles and services that align more with the institution’s corporate financial goals.

What’s missing, however, is an extensive “pull” strategy, where they take the time to understand their customers’ needs. By doing this, banks can make informed decisions about what to recommend to customers, based on their major consumer life milestones.

Only four in 10 millennials say that they would bundle services with financial institutions. Customers clearly do not feel that banks are putting them first. To re-attract customers, banks need to look at what they are truly willing to pay for — starting with subscription-based services. U.S consumers age 25 to 34 would be interested in paying subscription fees for the financial services they bundle through their bank such as loans, identity protection, checking accounts and more, according to a report from EY. With banks already providing incentives like lower interest rates or other perks to bundle their services, customers are likely to view a subscription of bundled services with a monthly or annual fee as the best value.

Subscription-based services are a model that’s already found success in the technology and lifestyle sector. This approach could increase revenue while re-engaging younger generations in a way that feels personal to them. Banks that decide to offer subscription-based services may be able to significantly improve relationships with their millennial customers.

But in order to gain a deeper understanding of what services millennials desire, banks will need to look at their current customer data. Banks can leverage this data with digital technology and partnerships with companies in sectors such as automotive, education or real estate, to create service offerings that capitalize on life events and ultimately increasing loyalty.

Student loans are one area where financial institutions could apply this approach. If a bank has customers going through medical school, they can offer a loan that doesn’t need to be repaid until after graduation. To take the relationship even further, banks can connect customers who are established medical professionals to those medical students to network and share advice, creating a more personal experience for everyone.

These structured customer interactions will give banks even more data they can use to improve their pull strategy. Banks gain a more holistic view of customers, can expand their menu of services with relevant products and services and improve the customer experience. Embracing a “pull” strategy allows banks to go above and beyond, offering products that foster loyalty with existing customers and drawing new ones in through expanded services. The banks that choose to evolve now will own the market, and demonstrate their value to customers early on.

Why Some Banks Purposefully Shun the Spotlight


strategy-8-9-19.pngFor as many banks that would love to be acquired, even more prefer to remain independent. Some within the second group have even taken steps to reduce their allure as acquisition targets.

I was reminded of this recently when I met with an executive at a mid-sized privately held community bank. We talked for a couple hours and then had lunch.

Ordinarily, I would go home after a conversation like that and write about the bank. In fact, that’s the expectation of most bank executives: If they’re going to give someone like me so much of their time, they expect something in return.

Most bank executives would welcome this type of attention as free advertising. It’s also a way to showcase a bank’s accomplishments to peers throughout the industry.

In this particular case, there was a lot to highlight. This is a well-run bank with talented executives, a unique culture, a growing balance sheet and a history of sound risk management.

But the executive specifically asked me not to write anything that could be used to identify the bank. The CEO and board believe that media attention — even if it’s laudatory — would serve as an invitation for unwanted offers to acquire the bank.

This bank in particular has a loan-to-deposit ratio that’s well below the average for its peer group. An acquiring bank could see that as a gold mine of liquidity that could be more profitably employed.

Because the board of this bank has no interest in selling, it also has no interest in fielding sufficiently lucrative offers that would make it hard for them to say “no.” This is why they avoid any unnecessary media exposure — thus the vague description.

This has come up for me on more than one occasion in the past few months. In each case, the bank executives aren’t worried about negative attention; it’s positive attention that worries them most.

The concern seems to stem from deeper, philosophical thoughts on banking.

In the case of the bank I recently visited, its executives and directors prioritize the bank’s customers over the other constituencies it serves. After that comes the bank’s communities, employees and regulators. Its shareholders, the biggest of which sit on the board, come last.

This is reflected in the bank’s loan-to-deposit ratio. If the bank focused on maximizing profits, it would lend out a larger share of deposits. But it wants to have liquidity when its customers and communities need it most – in times when credit is scarce.

Reading between the lines reveals an interesting way to gauge how a bank prioritizes between its customers and shareholders. One prioritization isn’t necessarily better than the other, as both constituencies must be appeased, but it’s indicative of an executive team’s philosophical approach to banking.

There are, of course, other ways to fend off unwanted acquisition attempts.

One is to run a highly efficient operation. That’s what Washington Federal does, as I wrote about in the latest issue of Bank Director magazine. In the two decades leading up to the financial crisis, it spent less than 20% of its revenue on expenses.

This may seem like it would make Washington Federal an attractive partner, given that efficiency tends to translate into profitability. From the perspective of a savvy acquirer, however, it means there are fewer cost saves that can be taken out to earn back any dilution.

Another way is to simply maintain a high concentration of ownership within the hands of a few shareholders. If a bank is closely held, the only way for it to sell is if its leading shareholders agree to do so. Widely dispersed ownership, on the other hand, can invite activists and proxy battles, bringing pressure to bear on the bank’s board of directors.

Other strategies are contractual in nature. “Poison pills” were in vogue during the hostile takeover frenzy of the 1980s. Change-of-control agreements for executives are another common approach. But neither of these are particularly savory ways to defend against unwanted acquisition offers. They’re a last line of defense; a shortcut in the face of a fait accompli.

Consequently, keeping a low media profile is one way that some top-performing banks choose to fend unwanted acquisition offers off at the proverbial pass.

While being acquired is certainly an attractive exit strategy for many banks, it isn’t for everyone. And for those banks that have earned their independence, there are things they can do to help sustain it.