Community Banks Fuel the Future of Renewable Energy

The transformational Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) contains a number of provisions designed to entice a large numbers of community and regional banks to deploy capital into renewable energy projects across the US.

Large U.S. banks and corporations have made significant renewable energy tax credit investments for over a decade. Through the IRA, there is greater opportunity for community and regional banks to participate.

The act extends solar tax credits, or more broadly renewable energy investment tax credits, (REITCs) for at least 10 more years, until greenhouse gas emissions are reduced by 70%. It also retroactively increases the investment tax credit (ITC) rate from 26% to 30%, effective Jan. 1, 2022. This extension and expansion of ITCs, along with other meaningful incentives included in the act, should result in a significant increase in renewable energy projects that are developed and constructed over the next decade.

Community banks are a logical source of project loans and renewable energy tax credit investments, such as solar tax equity, in response to this expected flood of mid-size renewable projects. REITCs have a better return profile than other types of tax credit investments commonly made by banks. REITCs and the accelerated depreciation associated with a solar power project are fully recognized after it is built and begins producing power. This is notably different from other tax credit investments, such as new markets tax credits, low-income housing tax credits and historic rehabilitation tax credits, where credits are recognized over the holding period of the investment and can take 5, 7, 10 or 15 years.

Like other tax equity investments, renewable energy tax equity investments require complex deal structures, specialized project diligence and underwriting and active ongoing monitoring. Specialty investment management firms can provide support to community banks seeking to make renewable energy or solar tax credit investments by syndicating the investments across small groups of community banks. Without support, community banks may struggle to consistently identify suitable solar project investment opportunities built by qualified solar development partners.

Not all solar projects are created equally; and it is critical for a community bank to properly evaluate all aspects of a solar tax equity investment. Investment in particular types of solar projects, including utility, commercial and industrial, municipal and community solar projects, can provide stable and predictable returns. However, a community bank investor should perform considerable due diligence or partner with a firm to assist with the diligence. There are typically three stages of diligence:

  1. The bank should review the return profile and GAAP financial statement impact with their tax and audit firm to validate the benefits demonstrated by the solar developer and the anticipated impact of the investment on the bank’s earnings profile and capital.
  2. The bank should work with counsel to identify the path to approval for the investment. Solar tax equity investments are permissible for national banks under a 2021 OCC Rule (12 CFR 7.1025), and banks have been making solar tax equity investments based on OCC-published guidance for over a decade. In 2021, the new rule codified that guidance, providing a straightforward roadmap and encouraging community banks to consider solar tax equity investments. Alternatively, under Section 4(c)(6) of the Bank Holding Company Act, holding companies under $10 billion in assets may also invest in a properly structured solar tax equity fund managed by a professional asset manager.
  3. The bank must underwrite the solar developer and each individual solar project. Community banks should consider partnering with a firm that has experience evaluating and underwriting solar projects, and the bank’s due diligence should ensure that there are structural mitigants in place to fully address the unique risks associated with solar tax equity financings.

Solar tax credit investments can also be a key component to a bank’s broader environmental, social and governance, or ESG, strategy. The bank can monitor and report the amount of renewable energy generation produced by projects it has financed and include this information in an annual renewable energy finance impact report or a broader annual sustainability report.

The benefits of REITCs are hard to ignore. Achieving energy independence and reducing carbon emissions are critical goals in and of themselves. And tax credit investors that are funding renewable energy projects can significantly offset their federal tax liability and recognize a meaningful annual earnings benefit.

Venture Capital Funds Remain Hungry for Fintechs

Fintech investment isn’t drying up, so much as resetting from rabid to rational. That’s the assessment of several bank-backed fintech investment funds, where interest in striking deals remains high.

“Given the reset in valuations, more disciplined cash burn in the companies we are looking at and record deal flow, it’s a great environment for us and I expect us to step up our pace of investments in 2023,” says Adam Aspes, general partner at JAM Special Opportunity Ventures.

Over the past two years, its JAM FINTOP joint venture has raised about $312 million from a network of more than 90 bank investors to put into promising fintech and blockchain technology. It has two funds with a five-year investment period, “so we are still in the very early days of deploying capital,” Aspes says.

Regulators have signaled that they’ll be scrutinizing bank-fintech partnerships more closely and reviewing how well compliance issues are addressed. That might have unsettled some venture capitalists, especially those from outside the industry who are sometimes referred to as fintech “tourists.” But Aspes is unphased.

“We have always had a thesis [that] there would be greater emphasis on fintechs being compliant with a bank’s regulated rails,” he says. “So, I don’t think our investment thesis has changed, but I think the market is definitely moving in our direction,” especially in the areas of blockchain technology and banking as a service, or BaaS.

Activity at the venture capital divisions of the largest U.S. banks has not cooled off significantly either, says Grant Easterbrook, a fintech consultant.

“While the total dollars involved may be down relative to 2021 — as firms retrench in a down market and valuations fall — I am not seeing any signs of a major pullback from fintech,” Easterbook says. “Banks know that technology continues to be both a weakness and an opportunity, and they are looking for deals.”

Carey Ransom, managing director of the BankTech Ventures fund, is on the hunt for “real solutions to real problems,” and thinks the fintech shakeout will benefit investors like him. His goal is to find fintechs that can be of value to the more than 100 community banks in his fund by advancing their digital transformation efforts in some way. So the fund isn’t just injecting capital, but helping the fintechs grow.

“We have increasing relevance in a market shift like this,” Ransom says. “We have a very clear value proposition.”

In his view, the market had gotten out of whack with all the free-flowing money over the last year. Now the focus is on more sensible valuation metrics. “Some of it is just returning back to the right valuations and fundamentals,” he says.

David Francione, managing director and head of fintech at Capstone Partners in Boston, has a similar take, pointing out that 2021 skewed perceptions in more ways than one. With the pent-up demand following the Covid-19 pandemic, “2021 was a record year by anybody’s imagination for any metric.”

He notes that investment in fintechs for this year is up compared to the years prior to 2021, so he thinks the dramatic drop-off needs to be put into perspective. “If you strip out 2021, and you look at the prior three or so years before that, this year is still a record year, relatively speaking,” Francione says.

Still, he would not be surprised if there is a lull in activity, given factors like the geopolitical environment and the threat of a recession.

“I think this year is sort of a transition year. Things are probably taking a little bit longer to finance. At least that’s what we’re seeing in some of the transactions that we’re in,” says Francione, whose firm was recently acquired by the $179 billion Huntington Bancshares in Columbus, Ohio. “I would call it more of a pause than anything.”

Like Ransom, Francione thinks the pause could benefit banks that want to partner with fintechs. Francione’s advice to fintechs is to reflect on what they can do to solve a problem that banks — or more importantly, the bank’s customers — have.

“A lot of these fintechs that we’re talking to, they think, ‘Oh, this bank could be interesting.’ But sometimes they don’t really understand why and what they can really do for them. So they really have to peel back the onion and figure out: Who are their customers? Is it a similar target market? What are some of their needs? Does our technology solution address those needs? Can they integrate easily? What is the real value that they’re going to bring to this potential bank partnership, whether the partnership is in the form of an investment or is strictly a partnership to resell some of its products?”

Ransom says he has been in meetings where fintech executives come in saying they are out to disrupt banks. Then they find out that Ransom works with banks and because they need to raise money, “mid-conversation they shift their tone to, ‘Maybe I can help banks,’” he says.

His top recommendation to fintech executives that want to work with BankTech Ventures is to understand the value their technology can provide to community banks. “If we have to explain it, they’ll lack credibility,” Ransom says.

The fintech founders who tend to be a fit for his fund — which is backed by banks ranging in size from $200 million to $20 billion in assets — are less flashy and more pragmatic. The ideal founders also have taken care to capitalize the fintech properly.

“Don’t raise $100 million for a business that’ll sell for $200 million,” Ransom says. “That’s a change we have seen — which I see as healthy.”

Those that take on too much money create a situation where the risk is no longer worth the potential return for investors. But the total amount raised is not the only concern; the types of investments can also be an issue.

He believes some fintechs take on too much “preference capital,” the outside money that gets priority for returns over common shares, which the founding executives tend to own. If the executives think they are unlikely to get paid, it misaligns incentives and creates a risk that they could decide to leave the fintech, Ransom says.

If some fintechs are in a sudden scramble to cut expenses, slow the cash burn and move from growth to profitability faster, fintech analyst Alex Johnson suggests that it is to be expected after the heady cash free-for-all that prevailed last year.

“Between 2019 and 2021, money was just too readily available. A lot of tourists — founders looking to get rich quickly and generalist VC firms sitting on massive piles of cash — wandered into fintech and screwed stuff up,” Johnson writes in a recent edition of his Fintech Takes newsletter.

A growth-over-everything mindset prevailed and a lot of bad behavior got overlooked. “One example: the alarming amount of first-party fraud that has been tolerated by neobanks in recent years,” he writes. “And now we are all suffering through the hangover.”

Leveraging Innovations to Double Down Where Fintechs Can’t Compete

For years, financial technology companies, or fintechs, have largely threatened the domain of big banks. But for community banks — perhaps for the first time — it’s getting personal. As some fintechs enter the lending domain, traditional financial institutions of all sizes can expect to feel the competitive impact of fintechs in new ways they cannot afford to ignore.

The good news is that fintechs can’t replicate the things that make local community banks special and enduring: the relational and personal interactions and variables that build confidence, trust and loyalty among customers. What’s even better is that local financial institutions can replicate some of the fintechs playbook — and that’s where the magic happens.

It’s likely you, the board and bank management understand the threat of fintech. Your bank lives it every day; it’s probably a key topic of conversation among the executive team. But what might be less clear is what to do about it. As your institution navigates the changing landscape of the banking industry, there are a few topics to consider in creating your bank’s game plan:

  • Threat or opportunity? Fintechs give consumers a number of desirable and attractive options and features in easy-to-navigate ways. Your bank can view this as a threat — or you can level up and find a way to do it better. Your bank should start by identifying its key differentiators and then elevating and leveraging them to increase interest, engagement and drive growth.
  • It’s time for a culture shift. Relationships are not built through transactions. Banks must move from transactional to consultative by investing time, talent and resources into the relational aspects of banking that are best done in-person. They also need to find ways to meet the transactional needs of consumers in low friction, efficient ways.
  • It’s not about you … yet. Step outside of the services your bank directly provides. Think of your institution instead as a connector, a resource and trusted advisor for current and prospective consumers. If your bank doesn’t provide a certain service, have a go-to referral list. That prospect will continue to come back to you for guidance and counsel and one day soon, it will be for the service you provide.
  • What’s in your toolbox? What is the highest and best use of your team’s time? What are your team members currently spending time on that could be accomplished more efficiently through an investment in new, different or even fintech-driven tools? By leveraging technology to streamline operations, your bank can benefit from efficiencies that create space and time for staff to focus on relationship-building beyond the transaction.
  • Stop guessing. You could guess, but wouldn’t you rather know? Banks have access to an incredible amount of data. Right now, many financial institutions are sitting on a treasure trove of data that, when activated appropriately, can help target and maximize growth efforts. Unlocking the power of this data is key to your financial institution’s growth and evolution; data drives action, offering valuable insight into consumer behaviors, preferences and needs.

Your bank can adopt a view that fintechs are the enemy. Or it can recognize that fintechs’ growth stems from an unmet consumer need — and consider what it means for your bank and its products and services. The key is doubling down on the who, what and why that is unique to your brand identity, and capitalizing on the opportunity to highlight and celebrate what makes your bank stand out, while simultaneously evolving how your institution determines and delivers against your consumers’ needs.

4 Reasons to Build a Digital-Only Brand

Digital transformation offers many long-term benefits for community banks. But it can also pose strategic challenges, such as how to test new products and services without affecting the identity of an institution’s core brand.

One solution is to launch a digital-only brand that is distinct from the bank’s current brand. Developing a digital brand can drive powerful results that might otherwise be inaccessible for community banks that are looking to innovate but may be hesitant to make too many changes too quickly. In this piece, we explore how developing a digital-only brand can benefit banks, and which strategies are key to ensuring their success.

1. Build a New Tech Stack and Test Alternative Providers
The legacy banking technology that community banks typically rely on doesn’t always make it easy to roll out new products or customize offerings. Fortunately, new platforms can streamline the process and give them the power to easily change rates and marketing copy in real time. A digital-only brand is a great way to test out new technologies like online account opening before expanding them to the bank’s core brand.

One community bank in Missouri is doing just that. In 2019, Midwest BankCentre, based in St. Louis, Missouri, launched its digital-only brand, Rising Bank. Rising gave the 115-year-old bank a way to explore new technologies, test digital marketing methods and measure how the market would respond to product changes. In its first five months, Rising Bank experienced:

  • An average conversion rate of 48% on online applications.
  • Average initial deposits of over $55,000.
  • Net-new deposits of more than $100 million.

Launching Rising allowed Midwest to de-risk innovation efforts and test new approaches to digital transformation. The community bank was then able to take these insights and drive similar results for its core brand.

2. Attract Customers in New Markets
The right tools allow community banks to deliver great service, no matter the channel. A digital-only brand can help smaller institutions compete with megabanks’ online offerings and unlock untapped market share. Unlike a brick-and-mortar institution, a digital brand is accessible to customers anytime, anywhere. This means a bank can expand the geographic reach of its business and target new markets without building new branches.

3. Uncover Opportunities for Hyper-Personalization
Hyper-personalization means using data and analytics to develop a deep understanding of customers’ interests, expectations and gaps in service. Using these insights, banks can develop hyper-personalized products that address the needs of specific demographics, communities, profession, and underserved groups. By targeting these audiences, banks can carve out a successful niche and maintain sustainable growth.

Data collected through a digital-only brand — through online interactions, geolocation data, aggregated payments behavior and so forth — will reveal to your bank where the opportunities are. For instance, a bank could launch an online-only brand that caters to healthcare workers or the LGBTQ+ community.

4. Develop New Products Without Fear of Cannibalization
One of the concerns banks may have about developing new banking products or strategies is the potential to cannibalize existing business. It’s key that the digital brand is distinct from the core brand — while still supported by the bank’s experience and brand recognition. When the new brand and existing brand serve different purposes and appeal to different customer bases, the risk of cannibalization is low.

For example, Rising Bank and Midwest BankCentre’s core brand achieve different goals for the institution. As a digital-only brand, Rising appeals to younger demographics and has raised significant deposits from a national customer base, while Midwest is community-focused and excels at building relationships in-market. Further, Midwest and Rising avoid cannibalization given their varying interest rates. Yet both brands have achieved considerable success on digital channels.

“This year alone, Midwest BankCentre’s digital-only brand and our core brand’s online channel held the No. 1 and No. 2 spots, respectively, in most accounts opened across our organization,” says Erin Erhart, Midwest’s executive vice president of bank and digital operations.

A digital-only brand can complement the bank’s core brand in a targeted way. This large-scale digital transformation project may seem overwhelming, but vendors can help banks find the right approach and determine how to achieve the best results with a digital brand.

Research Report: Fortifying Boards for the Future

Good corporate governance requires, among many other things, a strong sense of balance.

How do you bring in new perspectives while also sticking to your core values? How does the board balance responsibilities among committees? What’s the right balance between discussion about the fundamentals of banking, versus key trends and emerging issues?

There’s an inherent tension between the introduction of new ideas or practices and standard operating procedures. We explore these challenges in Bank Director’s 2022 Governance Best Practices Survey, sponsored by Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner LLP. But tension isn’t necessarily a bad thing.

The survey polled 234 directors, chairs and chief executives at U.S. banks with less than $100 billion in assets during February and March 2022. Half of respondents hailed from banks with $1 billion to $10 billion of assets. Just 9% represent a bank above the $10 billion mark. Half were independent directors.

We divide the analysis into five modules in this report: board culture, evaluating performance, building knowledge, committee structure and environmental, social and governance oversight in the boardroom. Jim McAlpin, a partner at the Bryan Cave law firm in Atlanta and leader of the firm’s banking governance practice, advised us on the survey questions and shared his expertise in examining the results.

We also sought the insights of three independent bank directors: Samuel Combs III, a director and chair of the board’s governance committee at $2.8 billion First Fidelity Bancorp in Oklahoma City; Sally Steele, lead director with $15.6 billion Community Bank System in DeWitt, New York; and Maryann Goebel, the compensation and governance chair at $11 billion Seacoast Banking Corp. of Florida, which is based in Stuart, Florida. They weighed in on a range of governance practices and ideas, from the division of audit and risk responsibilities to board performance assessments.

The proportion of survey respondents representing boards that conduct an annual performance assessment rose slightly from the previous year’s survey, to 47%. Their responses indicate that many boards leverage evaluations as an opportunity to give and receive valuable feedback — rather than as an excuse to handle a problem director.

Forty-seven percent of respondents describe their board’s culture as strong, while another 45% rank it as “generally good,” so the 30% whose board doesn’t conduct performance assessments may believe that their board’s culture and practices are solid. Or in other words, why fix something that isn’t broken? However, there’s always room for improvement.

Combs and Steele both attest that performance evaluations, when conducted by a third party to minimize bias and ensure anonymity, can be a useful tool for measuring the board’s engagement.

Training and assessment practices vary from board to board, but directors also identify some consistent knowledge gaps in this year’s results. Survey respondents view cybersecurity, digital banking and e-commerce, and technology as the primary areas where their boards need more training and education. And respondents are equally split on whether their board would benefit from a technology committee, if it doesn’t already have one.

And while directors certainly do not want to be mandated into diversifying their ranks, in anonymous comments some respondents express a desire to get new blood into the boardroom and detail the obstacles to recruiting new talent.

“Our community bank wants local community leaders to serve on our board who reflect our community,” writes one respondent. “Most local for[-] profit and not-for-profit boards are working to increase their board diversity, and there are limited numbers of qualified candidates to serve.”

To read more about these critical board issues, read the white paper.

To view the results of the survey, click here.

The Future-Proof Response to Rising Interest Rates

After years of low interest rates, they are on the rise — potentially increasing at a faster rate than the industry has seen in a decade. What can banks do about it?

This environment is in sharp contrast to the situation financial institutions faced as recently as 2019, when banks faced difficulties in raising core deposits. The pandemic changed all that. Almost overnight, loan applications declined precipitously, and businesses drew down their credit lines. At the same time, state and federal stimulus programs boosted deposit and savings rates, causing a severe whipsaw in loan-to-deposit ratios. The personal savings rate — that is, the household share of unspent personal income — peaked at 34% in April 2020, according to research conducted by the Federal Reserve Bank of Dallas. To put that in context, the peak savings rate in the 50 years preceding the pandemic was 17.7%.

These trends became even more pronounced with each new round of stimulus payments. The Dallas Fed reports that the share of stimulus recipients saving their payments doubled from 12.5% in the first round to 25% in the third round. The rise in consumers using funds to pay down debt was even more drastic, increasing from 14.6% in round one to 52.3% in round three. Meanwhile, as stock prices remained volatile, the relative safety of bank deposits became more attractive for many consumers — boosting community bank deposit rates.

Now, of course, it’s changing all over again.

“Consumer spending is on the rise, and we’ve seen a decrease in federal stimulus. There’s less cash coming into banks than before,” observes MANTL CRO Mike Bosserman. “We also expect to see an increase in lending activities, which means that banks will need more deposits to fund those loans. And with interest rates going up, other asset classes will become more interesting. Rising interest rates also tend to have an inverse impact on the value of stocks, which increases the expected return on those investments. In the next few months, I would expect to see a shift from cash to higher-earning asset classes — and that will significantly impact growth.

These trends are unfolding in a truly unprecedented competitive landscape. Community banks are have a serious technology disadvantage in comparison to money-center banks, challenger banks and fintechs, says Bosserman. The result is that the number of checking accounts opened by community institutions has been declining for years.

Over the past 25 years, money-center banks have increased their market share at the expense of community financial institutions. The top 15 banks control 56.2% of the overall marketshare, up from 40% roughly 25 years ago. And the rise of new players such as fintechs and neobanks has driven competition to never-before-seen levels.

For many community banks, this is an existential threat. Community banks are critical to maintaining competition and equity in the U.S. financial system. But their role is often overlooked in an industry that is constantly evolving and focused on bigger, faster and shinier features. The average American adult prefers to open their accounts digitally. Institutions that lack the tools to power that experience will have a difficult future — regardless of where interest rates are. For institutions that have fallen behind the digital transformation curve, the opportunity cost of not modernizing is now a matter of survival.

The key to survival will be changing how these institutions think about technology investments.

“Technology isn’t a cost center,” insists Christian Ruppe, vice president of digital banking at the $1.2 billion Horicon Bank. “It’s a profit center. As soon as you start thinking of your digital investments like that — as soon as you change that conversation — then investing a little more in better technology makes a ton of sense.”

The right technology in place allows banks to regain their competitive advantage, says Bosserman. Banks can pivot as a response to events in the macro environment, turning on the tap during a liquidity crunch, then turn it down when deposits become a lower priority. The bottom line for community institutions is that in a rapidly changing landscape, technology is key to fostering the resilience that allows them to embrace the future with confidence.

“That kind of agility will be critical to future-proofing your institution,” he says.

The Gap in the Three Lines of Credit Risk Management Defense

I started my banking career in the credit management training program of a regional bank, where I later became the head of corporate banking. Subsequently, I became a chief credit officer and, ultimately, the CEO and board chairman of a community bank. This experience, coupled with 30 years of providing credit risk management services for banks from de novos to one of the 10 largest financial institutions in the world, has allowed me to see many changes in the way banks’ credit risk management (CRM) identifies, measures, monitors, controls and reports credit risk. There have been some very good improvements — along with some activities that miss the mark on best practices.

Strategy without execution is ineffective at best. Whether it is football or banking, execution is the key to success. Execution of strategy for CRM’s three lines of defense requires that each line must perform its job and communicate with the other two lines for the “team” to win.

What I have observed for many years now is that the members of the first line — like client-facing loan officers and relationship and portfolio managers — are often too focused on production and minimize their role as the first line of defense as it relates to credit risk issues and red flags. Communication with borrowers is often lacking or reactive, and isn’t documented, except in a sales capacity. This became more apparent during the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic, when banks critically needed more information on their borrowers and the first line was often unprepared.

How can the second line of credit risk management defense — like credit officers, credit departments and loan approvers — do their job properly without up-to-date information? How can the third line — loan review, internal audit and compliance — do their job without up-to-date information? Quite simply, they can’t. If the key link in the chain does not perform to best practices, the chain breaks.

I once made a presentation to a bank board and a director took issue with my mentioning that the bank was not receiving borrower financial statements promptly and analyzing them. He told me that the bank was doing great, with no delinquencies or charge offs, and that getting financial statements was merely paperwork without any value. What he did not understand, of course, was that delinquencies and charge-offs were lagging indicators; the financial statements — or lack thereof — were leading indicators. This principle remains true today: Banks have better results in problem loan situations when they can detect problems early and deal with them before it is too late to effectively negotiate with the borrower.

For the safety and soundness of a bank’s asset quality, and the protection of all constituencies, better monitoring of borrowing relationships and their risk profiles by the first line makes all three lines more effective. This ultimately improves a bank’s portfolio performance, profitability and asset quality and can be accomplished without harming production, since additional borrower contact can also present new opportunities for sales. Bank management can promote this mindset with more focus on matching job descriptions and performance reviews to incentive compensation, with a significant component tied to continuous monitoring of borrowers. The now-frequently unused practice of a regular customer calling program, with documented call reports on substantive credit issues, could substantially improve the first line’s performance.

Now is the time for banks to act. The board and management team must emphasize and focus on this priority to all three lines, rather than waiting for the shoe to drop. Many borrowers may be under their institution’s radar, due to deferrals and Paycheck Protection Program loans masking their true operational and financial position. Every bank’s portfolio contains borrowers at risk as the economy continues reflecting the challenges of the past several years and deferrals expire. The first line can mitigate the potential damage through more intensive customer contact to detect issues of concern.

The Unbankey Bank: Coastal Financial’s Evolution

Coastal Financial Corp., a $2 billion community banking company in Everett, Washington, was a typical community bank seven years ago. It wasn’t looking to launch a banking-as-a-service (BaaS) division, where the bank would lend out its charter, payment rails and other bank exclusive products and services to third parties.

But that is exactly what the bank did.

When asked if he knew anything about BaaS prior to 2015 — the launch year of Coastal’s BaaS program — CEO Eric Sprink confessed, “Nope — we stumbled into it.”

In 2015, Sprink met Arkadi Kuhlmann, former CEO of ING Direct USA and ING Direct Canada, who was looking for a bank partner to offer banking services on the back end for his financial technology company, Zenbanx. The fintech offered deposit accounts, international currencies and money transfers.

This was the first time Sprink had heard anything about BaaS. He was interested, the board was interested, the executive team of Coastal was interested; so, the bank started an almost 15-month process of engaging investment bankers and consultants, speaking with regulators and preparing to enter into this new line of business.

But then, Coastal lost the bid to do business with Zenbanx to the personal finance giant SoFi Technologies, which later bought the fintech. Six months later, SoFi announced it was shutting down all Zenbanx accounts.

Instead of opting for resignation, Sprink — with the blessing of his board — continued to chase down new technology leads and partners. In the words of one of Sprink’s board members: “‘We’ve got to find out more about this … start running.’”

And Sprink hasn’t stopped running since. Along the way, Coastal recruited multiple new board members — one about every 18 months, and four in total — who have helped build Coastal’s BaaS strategy from the ground up. Sprink explains the process as being, “evolutionary, not revolutionary … We’ve intentionally looked really hard for expertise that we’re lacking in the evolution of our BaaS group.

That expertise, in part, is coming from its newest members: Stephan Klee; venture capitalist veteran and current CFO of Portage Ventures; Sadhana Akella-Mishra, chief risk officer at alternative core provider Finxact; Rilla Delorier, a former innovation executive at Umpqua Bank and PNC Bank; and Pamela Unger, a former tax manager at PwC, who brings understanding of direct venture capital accounting and oversight.

Coastal is dedicated to partnering with fintechs that are not only unwavering in their mission, but that are compatible with Coastal’s core values: stay flexible, embrace great thinking and be “unbankey,” as Sprink says. In what he describes as their “emotional gating criteria,” the bank sits down — or Zooms in, post-March 2020 — with these fintechs. They want to better understand the business, review their performance and investors, and, most importantly, find out what they want to accomplish. The key is to find partners that will reach and embolden specific communities through financial products and services tailored to their needs.

“We try real hard upfront to make sure we’re picking the ones that best fit us and that have the most likelihood of success,’’ he says. “With limited resources, you really have to stick to your gating criteria and believe in what you’re trying to accomplish.”

The whole process, from initial discussion to commercial launching, takes upwards of one year to 18 months. As of July, Coastal was working with 24 fintechs, half of them actively offering banking products and services through Coastal.

It takes a lot of effort to get to that stage. Out of the more than 1,100 fintechs vetted, only about 2% became fintech partners.

And in regard to the 12 active fintech partners, Coastal just recently crested the $1 million in revenue mark. Coastal’s BaaS revenue for the quarter ending June of 2021 was $1.4 million, a 50.2% increase from the prior quarter. Included in Coastal’s overall BaaS revenue, the bank reported $110,000 in interchange income for the quarter ending in June, up from $35,000 in the prior quarter. The bank isn’t tracking profitability of the division yet, but plans to break it out next year for analysts and investors.

In a 2020 survey, venture capitalist firm Andreessen Horowitz found that out of those surveyed, half of the BaaS banks were seeing above-industry average rates on their return on assets and equity, calculated from 2017 to 2019. The firm says that these returns are two to three times the average industry rate.

When Bank Director magazine launched a study to determine the top 10 fastest growing U.S. banks in 2020, it found that two of the banks listed are BaaS providers: NBKC Bank, with $1.2 billion in assets, placed at the top of the list, while $4.7 billion Celtic Bank ranked fifth.

A BaaS division could lead a bank to new revenue and deposit sources, growth and access to new customer segments, but it does not have the sole capability to turn a bank profitable. It takes good timing, patience and a healthy bank with curious leaders — a combination that Coastal seems to flourish on.

The bank’s second quarter 2021 investor presentation also reports that 73% of Coastal’s fintech partners are headed by a diverse CEO, those who identify as a minority or female. Eighty-eight percent have a diverse co-founder. Partners include Greenwood, Cheese, Fair, Aspiration and Ellevest, some of which reach underserved communities or offer mission-based banking practices.

“At the end of the day, we’re still a community bank, and we’re trying to give that [community banking] experience to others [who] haven’t had it yet,” Sprink says. “And we’re using partners to deliver it.”

How Digital Channels Can Complement Physical Branches

With the rise of digital services and changing customer habits during Covid-19, the future of brick-and-mortar banking may seem in doubt.

Looking ahead, physical bank branches remain crucial for any community bank’s outreach and distribution strategy, but their use and purpose will continue to evolve. Digital acceleration is an opportunity for community banks to reshape the in-person banking environment. Incorporating the digital channel allows banks to offer more comprehensive, customer-focused experiences that complement their brick-and-mortar branches.

Physical Banks Remain a Valuable Asset
Digital banking is a critical way for community banks to provide excellent service. Integrating best-in-class online services allows financial institutions of all sizes to compete against larger banks that may be slower to innovate. Digital branch tools can bring greater accessibility and convenience for customers, a larger customer base and enhanced automation opportunities.

While many customers are excited by digital tools, not every demographic will adapt right away. Customers of all ages may lack confidence in their own abilities and prefer to talk to someone in person. These visits can be a prime opportunity for staff to educate customers on how to engage with their digital platforms.

In-person banking is an opportunity for banks to offer above-and-beyond customer service, especially for more complex services that are difficult to replicate digitally. An in-person conversation can make all the difference when it comes to major financial decisions, such as taking out a mortgage or other loans. Customers may start out with remote tools, then visit a branch for more in-depth planning.

How One Community Bank Is Evolving
Flushing Bank in Uniondale, New York, is using digital account opening software to accelerate growth. The $8 billion bank’s mobile and online banking capabilities went live in March 2020 — the timing of which allowed the bank to more easily serve customers remotely. Digital deposit account openings comprised 19% of Flushing’s customer growth between April and June.

Implementing digital account opening expanded Flushing Bank’s geographic footprint. The online account opening software allowed the existing branches to become more efficient and have a wider reach within the surrounding community, servicing more customers without building new branches.

At the same time, in-person branches and staff remain irreplaceable for Flushing Bank. The bank is leveraging digital tools as more than just an online solution: New technology includes appointment booking, improved phone services and enhance ATM video capabilities, creating a digital experience that is safe, convenient and delightful.

Transforming Brick-and-Mortar Banking for the Future
Digital tools allow more transactions to occur remotely, which may lessen in-person branch traffic while expanding the institution’s geographic reach. Banks can focus on the transactions that do occur in person, and ensure that digital tools improve customer service in branches.

A report from Celent and Reflexis surveying banks on their current strategies noted how more institutions could use digital tools for maximum effect. Just as digital channels offer comprehensive data analysis capabilities, banks can more effectively track each customer’s in-person journey as well. One starting point is to determine why customers visit physical locations — in one case, a bank learned many customers come in looking for a notary and will quickly leave if one is not available.

The report suggests that digital tools can automate their staff’s workflow, ultimately contributing to an improved customer experience. For instance, only a third of surveyed banks offer digital appointment booking, a service that can create a more efficient experience for both customers and staff. Or, banks could onboard customers with account opening software on tablets at physical branches. These tablets are often easier for customers to understand, lower the burden on staff, and help prevent fraud with thorough identity validation.

Community banks have an opportunity during this transitional time to develop a digital strategy that complements their physical branches. A comprehensive plan includes best-in-class digital tools for remote transactions while bringing new digital capabilities to brick-and-mortar locations to ensure the highest-quality customer service.

Inspired by The Joshua Tree

Thirty-four years ago, an Irish band came up with an album that sounded revolutionary for its time. U2’s “The Joshua Tree” went on to sell more than 25 million copies, firmly positioning it as one of the world’s best-selling albums. Hits like “I Still Haven’t Found What I’m Looking For” remain in heavy rotation on the radio, television and movies.

Talk about staying relevant. As it turns out, U2 has some wisdom for us all.

Relevance is one of those concepts that drives so many business decisions. For Bank Director, the term carries special importance, as we postpone our annual Acquire or Be Acquired Conference to January 30 through Feb. 1, 2022. In past years, this special event drew more than 1,300 bankers, bank directors and advisors to discuss concepts of relevance and competition in Phoenix.

While we wait for our return to the Arizona desert, we got to work on a new digital offering to fill the sizable peer-insight chasm that now exists.

The result: Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired.

This new, on-demand offering goes live on February 4. Available exclusively on BankDirector.com, it consists of timely short-form videos, CEO interviews, live “ask me anything”-type sessions and proprietary research. Topics range from raising capital to deal-making, pricing to culture and yes, technology’s continued impact on our industry.

Everything within this board-level intelligence package provides insight from exceptionally experienced investment bankers, attorneys, consultants, accountants, fintech executives and bank CEOs. So, with a nod towards Paul David Hewson (aka Bono) and his bandmates in U2, here’s a loose interpretation of how three of their songs from “The Joshua Tree” are relevant to bank leadership teams, together with our Spotify #AOBA21 playlist for your enjoyment.

With or Without You

(The question all dealmakers ask themselves.) 

Many aspects of an M&A deal are quantifiable: think dilution, valuation and cost savings. But perhaps the most important aspect — whether the deal ultimately makes strategic sense — is not. As regional banks continue to pair off with their peers, I talked with a successful dealmaker, D. Bryan Jordan, the CEO of First Horizon National Corp., about mergers of equals.

 

Where the Streets Have No Name

(Banks can help clients when they need it most.)

A flood of new small businesses emerged in 2020. In the third quarter 2020 alone, more than 1.5 million new business applications were filed in the United States, according to the U.S. Census Bureau, nearly double the figure for the same period the year before. Small businesses need help from banks as they wander the streets of their new ventures. So, I asked Dorothy Savarese, the Chair and CEO of Cape Cod 5, how her community bank positions itself to help these new business customers. One part of her answer really resonated with me, as you’ll see in this short video clip.

 

Running to Stand Still

(Slow to embrace new opportunities? Don’t let this become your song.)

With the rising demand for more compelling delivery solutions, banks continue to find themselves in competition with technology companies. Here, open banking provides real opportunities for incumbents to partner with newer players. Ideally, such relationships provide customers greater ownership over their financial information, a point reinforced by Michael Coghlan, the CEO of BrightFi.

These short videos provide a snapshot of the conversations and presentations that will be available February 4. To find out more about Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired, I invite you to take a longer look at what’s on our two-week playlist.