Pursuing the Pole Position in Digital Banking


digital-banking-11-3-17.pngBanks with unique strategies tend to perform well in the marketplace, and a $1.2 billion asset bank in Wausau, Wisconsin, is proving that formula through a digital platform and a strategy focused on lending to a niche community.

IncredibleBank serves customers nationwide as the digital division of River Valley Bank, a 15-branch community bank serving Wisconsin and the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. The division was established in 2009, when the bank was seeking to grow deposits and looked at the new online banks in the marketplace at the time, such as ING Direct (now Capital One 360). Then, the bank relied more on wholesale funding to fuel loan growth, but growing core deposits was a challenge, says Todd Nagel, River Valley Bank’s chief executive officer. “We started the online bank to create larger distribution in our regional footprint for deposits, and it was a way to replace our wholesale funding. We never dreamed that it would take off the way it did.

River Valley Bank’s net interest margin, at 4.13 percent per the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., performs better than its peers, according to BankRegData. So does the bank’s return on assets (1.43 percent) and return on equity (15 percent).

These days, an online banking division focused on deposit gathering isn’t necessarily innovative. The management team has since expanded IncredibleBank’s focus to address the bank’s concentration in commercial real estate loans through a unique niche: motor coach loans. Motor coaches are one of Nagel’s passions, and he has one of his own, says Kathy Strasser, the bank’s chief operating officer. These vehicles aren’t the stereotypical cramped family RV, and the cost of these luxury homes on wheels range from $100,000 to $2 million or more. High-end motor homes are unique, with custom features that make it difficult to pinpoint their value. “That’s the hard part about financing them,” says Nagel. Two loan officers are dedicated entirely to this specialty niche, and these lenders visit motor coach manufacturers regularly to build their expertise in the area. Motor coach financing accounts for roughly 10 percent of River Valley’s overall business, according to Nagel.

In looking for a unique way to market IncredibleBank, Nagel and his team turned to another one of his passions: NASCAR. “There’s 150, 200 motor homes that go to every race, all over the country,” says Nagel. The bank sponsors NASCAR drivers Kyle Busch and Matt DiBenedetto, and brings the bank’s own motor home to entertain customers during meet-and-greets with the drivers at NASCAR races. A promotion around account openings offered a chance for customers to win a VIP pass at Watkins Glen International, a racetrack in Watkins Glen, New York, that hosts NASCAR events.

IncredibleBank accounts for 10 to 15 percent of the bank’s deposits, according to Nagel, and that, along with the division’s digital-only footprint, gives management some leeway to use it as something of an incubator for new technology. Nagel says the management team is working to examine every product offered by the overall organization—including all the necessary documentation—to explore whether it can be offered digitally. If that’s not possible, then “we may not offer it in the future,” he says. “We believe that everyone’s looking for an Amazon-like experience. I don’t want to be like Amazon, but I’d like to replicate the experience with banking.”

Seeing a future where Amazon is beating traditional retailers, Strasser says that River Valley Bank will continue as a traditional community bank in its markets, but won’t grow beyond a 15-branch footprint. The bank has been adding talent without traditional backgrounds—Strasser herself was an executive vice president at a company that is now a subsidiary of Deluxe Corp., which serves the financial industry with website design, customized checks and email marketing, among others. And good relationships with vendors are integral to innovation. The bank has worked closely with its core provider Jack Henry & Associates’ mobile division, Banno, which built IncredibleBank’s mobile banking app.

Still, the industry and its vendors aren’t moving fast enough for Nagel. He has high expectations for digital delivery. “Our greatest challenge is getting our partners in the industry to think like we’re thinking,” says Nagel. “You should be able to open a $1,000 checking account in two minutes. That’s my expectation.”

The Little Bank That Could


strategy-9-23-16.pngSoon after Josh Rowland’s family bought Lead Bank in Garden City, Kansas, in 2005, the small financial institution felt the full impact of the financial crisis. The loan portfolio was in bad shape. Several employees lost their jobs. The entire experience lead to a lot of soul searching.

“It was really existential,’’ Vice Chairman Rowland says. “What do we survive for? What’s the point of a community bank? The situation was that dire. We had to really decide whether we should give it up.”

After much discussion, the family decided to hire Bill Bryant as the chief executive officer to help clean up the bank, now with $164 million in assets, and really focus on its niche: small business owners. A lot of community banks say they are serving small business owners, but Lead Bank decided to go a step further. In 2011, it launched a business advisory division for the purpose of coaching small business owners on cash flows, provide part-time or interim chief financial officers, and advice on strategic planning and even mergers and acquisitions. Rowland says a lot of small businesses could use advisory services, especially if they can’t afford to hire a full-time CFO. Lead Business Advisors has senior managing director Patrick Chesterman, a former energy executive for a large propane company and Jacquie Ward, a trainee analyst. The bank overall made a profit of $500,000 in the first six months of the year and saw assets grow 30 percent in the last year and a half, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data.

But the investment in advisory services is not a quick payback. Rowland says the division is not profitable yet. The challenges include marketing the program to a business community more accustomed to relying on trusted accountants or lawyers for such advice. Banks naturally have a lot of financial information and expertise, but they fail to provide it to their clients. “We ought to be figuring out every possible way to deliver that kind of financial expertise to Main Street business,” he says.

The tactic is an unusual one for community banks, which might have a wealth management division but not a business advisory division per se. And it’s expensive. Baker Boyer, a $571 million bank in Walla Walla, Washington, has been offering business advisory services as part of its wealth management division for years. But it has taken some 15 years to restructure the bank to offer such services, says Mark Kajita, president and chief executive officer. The average personnel expense per employee for the bank is roughly $80,000 annually with six lawyers on staff and the bank’s efficiency ratio is 73 percent, higher than the peer average of 66 percent.

However, the bank made $2.5 million in profits during the first half of 2016, with half of that coming from the wealth and business advisory division. Kajita says what made it possible was the fact that the bank is family owned and can invest in the long term without worrying about reporting quarterly financial results to pubic shareholders.

Community banks of that size have a real need to create a niche,’’ says Jim McAlpin, a partner at Bryan Cave in Atlanta who advises banks. “Historically, community banks have been focused on the small businesses of America, and to offer services to those small businesses is a great strategy.”

Joel Pruis, a senior director at Cornerstone Advisors in Phoenix, says banks have done themselves a disservice by relinquishing advisory services to CPAs and attorneys. “In terms of empowering lenders, in terms of providing more advice, we definitely need more of that,’’ he says. “Bankers need to be seen as a resource and an expert in the financial arena instead of just application takers.”

For Rowland, rethinking the role of the community bank is fundamental to its survival. “I don’t know how we expect to keep doing the same things and expect different results,’’ he says. People don’t feel their bank is adding any value for them, he says. “If that’s our industry’s problem that we haven’t given them an experience, that’s our fault,’’ Rowland says. “We have taught them over years and years that our services are so cheap, they ought to be free.”