Digital Transformation From a Branch Perspective

If you ask five bankers to define what constitutes a successful digital transformation, you will receive five different answers. However, organizations can employ a few measures to help them succeed, including establishing priorities, assessing capabilities and creating a digital road map.

Meeting current challenges
Many financial institutions were in no rush to transform prior to March 2020. However, the Covid-19 pandemic accelerated the implementation of digital-first models. It also put pressure on organizations to battle-test alternative business models supporting remote operations and service delivery. Most notably, banks had to activate remote working models while simultaneously figuring out how to service and support face-to-face customers.

Now in 2021, the initial challenges posed by the pandemic have mostly been addressed. At the same time, bankers acknowledge that branch traffic levels might never recover to pre-pandemic levels.

Establishing priorities
First, organizations should establish priorities. The average mid-size, full-service retail office has annual operating expenses exceeding $350,000 a year — real money that could be repurposed to build a competitive digital service. Unleashing this capital and using it more effectively is key to initiating an effective digital transformation.

One initial objective should be to rank branch locations in terms of profitability and other performance metrics to identify the bottom 20%. In most cases, that percentage represents the locations that have been habitual low performers, or that might be in declining markets or suboptimal locations. It’s important to determine if these locations are leased, and if so, if there is a clear path to exit the lease. These details affect the timeline required to exit and any write-offs or write-downs related to each location.

Digital channels do not work in a vacuum. Experience tells us that community bankers do not like to lay off staff who live and work in these markets, and organizations should consider redeployment of these employees. Reassigned branch personnel can support new customers and existing users as they navigate organization websites and online product applications.

Once organizations understand the exit strategy and cost impact for low-performing locations, they can create plans that outline the timing and potential resources that could be freed up from physical branches and funneled into the digital channel.

Assessing capabilities
After determining the digital transformation budget, organizations should make an honest assessment of their existing capabilities and identify gaps or weaknesses. One goal should be to fix what is broken or not optimal, then prioritize the spend and deployment timeline for true enhancements.

Selecting digital enhancements involves many options, dependencies and complexities, which can slow down decision-making about digital transformation initiatives. Fixing obvious problems first and then investigating enhancements will take time, so organizations don’t need to close low-performing branches immediately.

Executives need to fully understand the features of potential enhancements, what is lacking from current capabilities, what is additive to current capabilities, enhancement release timelines and costs associated with each improvement. They also should consider the roll-out of these features and the impact on existing and future customers.

Creating a digital road map
Creating a digital road map can enable banks to set expectations about when changes to digital services will occur. Doing so requires honest introspection about where the organization is positioned on the digital transformation continuum.

For example, banks might think they have effective online account opening processes, but they should ask: Is it truly an automated, end-to-end process that works at all times under all conditions? Or do deposit operations personnel need to manually move data or paper along to make sure accounts can get set up? Organizations should fully understand where and how their existing customers might be affected, and where and how new customers will be serviced as they open accounts online.

While creating their digital road maps, banks also should take a look at the digital features they’ve already deployed. Are they useful and easy to adopt? Do they drive the user toward desired actions? Do the customers really use the available digital features? Are there benefits to users? If the answers to any of these questions is “no,” organizations should consider removing problematic features or improving processes.

Teeing up for success
Keeping tabs on customer usage trends and optimizing the customer experience should be top priorities in a digital transformation. Banks that make necessary changes can help improve the entire digital experience. To learn more about digital transformation from a branch perspective, view this video.

 

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.

Positive Outlook for Bank M&A as the Pandemic Subsides

Will there be an acceleration of bank merger and acquisition activity in 2021 and beyond?

The short answer is yes.

As the Covid-19 pandemic recedes, we expect bank M&A activity to rebound, both in terms of branch and whole-bank acquisitions. Banks and their advisors have evolved since the pandemic’s onset forced office closures and the implementation of a new remote working environment. In the past year, institutions and their boards of directors improved technology and online banking capabilities in response to customer needs and expectations. They also gained substantial experience providing banking products and services in a remote environment. This familiarity with technology and remote operations should cause acquirors and sellers alike to reconsider where they stand in the M&A market in 2021 and beyond.

We see a number of factors supporting an improved M&A market in 2021. First, many acquirors and potential deals were sidelined in the spring of 2020, as the pandemic’s uncertainty setting in and the markets were in turmoil. We expect a number of these deals to be rekindled in mid- to late-2021, if they haven’t already resurfaced. We also expect a robust set of acquirors to return to the market looking to add deposits, retail and commercial customers, lending teams, and additional capabilities.

Second, there remains a growing number of small banks struggling to compete that would likely consider potential merger partners with similar cultures and in similar geographic markets. Similarly, risk management and compliance costs continue to challenge bank managers amid tough competition from community banks, credit unions and other non-bank financial institutions. Some small banks have also struggled to provide the digital offerings that have become commonplace since the pandemic began. These challenges are sure to have smaller banks considering merger partners or new investors.

Third, larger banks are looking to grow deposits and market share as they look to compete with more regional players that have the necessary compliance infrastructure and digital offerings. We expect these more regional players to use acquisition partners as a way to grow core deposits and increase efficiencies. Acquiring new deposits and customers also affords these regional banks the ability to cross-sell other products that smaller banks may not have been able to offer the same customers before — increasing revenue in a sustained low-interest rate environment.

Finally, the low-interest rate environment has opened the capital markets to banks of all sizes looking to raise subordinated debt, which may support community bank M&A. Many subordinated debt offerings are priced in the 4% to 5% range, and often are oversubscribed within just a few days. Banks have found these offerings to be an attractive tool to pay off debt with higher interest rates, fund investments in digital infrastructure, provide liquidity to shareholders through buyback programs and seek branch or whole-bank acquisition targets.

We are already seeing activity pick up in bank M&A, and expect that as the economy — and life itself — begins to normalize in 2021, more transactions to be announced. The prospects for an active merger market in 2020 were cut off before spring arrived. This year, as we approach spring once again, the M&A market is not likely to return to pre-pandemic levels, but the outlook is certainly much more optimistic for bank M&A.

2021 Risk Survey Results: High Anxiety

An outsized crisis requires bold action. The banking industry responded in kind when the economy spiraled as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Financial institutions across the country assisted small businesses by issuing Paycheck Protection Program loans. Banks also almost universally modified loans to help borrowers weather the storm, according to Bank Director’s 2021 Risk Survey, sponsored by Moss Adams LLP. At the peak of the downturn, 43% of the directors, CEOs, chief risk officers and other senior executives responding to the survey say their bank modified more than 10% of the loans in their portfolio.

Conducted on the heels of a tumultuous 2020 — with the pandemic, social strife and political change continuing into January — the survey reveals high levels of anxiety across the risk spectrum. In particular, respondents indicate greater unease regarding cybersecurity (92%) and credit (89%), as well as strategic (62%) and operational (52%) risks.

Almost half of respondents indicate that some or most of the loan modifications extended into the fourth quarter 2020, and two-thirds reveal concerns about concentrations in their loan portfolio, with most pointing to commercial real estate (43%) and/or the hospitality industry (31%).

Forty-three percent indicate that their bank tightened underwriting standards during the downturn. Looking ahead, many are unsure whether they’ll ease their standards to lend to business customers in 2021 and 2022. The challenges to bankers have been deep during the past year.

As the CEO of a small, southeastern community bank put it: “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger.”

Despite this uncertainty, bankers express some optimism. More than three-quarters believe that supporting their communities during the pandemic has positively affected their bank’s reputation. Eighty-seven percent expect fewer than 10% of their bank’s business customers to fail. And 84% will improve their bank’s business continuity plan due to what they’ve experienced.

Key Findings

More Robust Stress Testing
More than 80% say their bank conducts an annual stress test. Of these, 60% have expanded the quantity and/or depth of economic scenarios examined in response to the Covid-19 pandemic.

Cybersecurity Gaps
Sixty-three percent say their institution increased its oversight of cybersecurity and data privacy in 2020. Most say the bank needs to improve its cybersecurity program by training staff (68%) and implementing technology to better detect or deter threats and intrusions (65%).

Pandemic Plans Adjusted
Respondents identify several areas where they’ll enhance their business continuity plan as a result of the pandemic. The majority point to formalizing remote work procedures and policies (77%), educating and training employees (56%) and/or providing the right tools to staff (55%). Roughly half say that fewer than a quarter of employees will work remotely when the pandemic abates; 25% say that no employees will work remotely.

Banking Marijuana
Forty-one percent of respondents represent a bank headquartered where marijuana use is at least partly legal. Overall, one-third are unsure if their bank would be willing to serve marijuana businesses. Just 7% serve these businesses; 34% have discussed banking this industry but don’t work with these companies yet.

Climate Change Still Not a Hot Topic
Just 14% say their board discusses the risks posed by climate change at least annually; this is up slightly from 11% in last year’s survey. Fewer than 10% say an executive reports to the board about the risks and opportunities that climate change presents to the institution.

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

Pandemic-Induced Innovation Charts Path Toward New Normal

As the financial institutions industry embarks on 2021, our reflections capture a world disrupted by the Covid-19 pandemic. Economic uncertainty continues to impact strategic and growth plans for an inestimable period of time. Banks are closely monitoring loan payment trends and deposit account fluctuations as customers continue to struggle with stable employment and small businesses fight to survive.

The Covid-19 crisis occurred at a time of strength for most financial institutions. Unlike the 2008 Great Recession, banks have been able to rely on strong capital positions, which was crucial when it became no longer possible to continue operating business as usual.

Essentially overnight, consumer behavior shifted away from most face-to-face interactions, prompting an increase in online and contactless activity. Banks had to quickly adapt and explore innovation in order to meet both customer and employee needs. Outdated manual processes, continuity vulnerabilities and antiquated methods of communication immediately became apparent, with institutions pivoting to operate effectively. The pandemic became an accelerant and forced banks to embrace innovation to avoid business interruption, while prioritizing information security and employee and customer safety. Necessity is the mother of invention, and the Covid-19 pandemic created necessity — with an emphasis on urgency.

Top Five Covid-19 Challenges That Prompted Innovation

  1. To reduce the potential virus spread, executives found alternative means of meeting and interacting with employees and customers. Virtual meetings were the solution for many banks.
  2. While many institutions allowed for some remote work, this was not permitted for most employees prior to the pandemic. In some cases, chief technology officers had to quickly implement secure VPN access, evaluate hardware availability, order laptops and expand upon remote working policies and procedures.
  3. Digital transformation immediately moved from “wouldn’t it be great if we did this?” to “to be competitive and survive we must accomplish this immediately.” No. 1 on the transformation list was enhancing the customer experience. To remain competitive, transformation was no longer optional but absolutely required. Digital channels have been trending as customers’ preferred way to bank in the last few years, but this became the primary channel for customer engagement out of necessity. This shift prompted banks to reevaluate and enhance digital channel offerings along with supporting technologies.
  4. Round one of the Paycheck Protection Program was a difficult, labor-intensive process for participating institutions. The need for an efficient PPP application process prompted lenders of all sizes to embrace automation and fintech partnerships, resulting in a smoother process during round two.
  5. C-suite executives and bankers across the organization found themselves in a position where it was difficult to access information quickly and easily in order to make timely decisions to improve the customer experience and manage the bank. For many institutions, especially community financial institutions, this continues to be a challenge.

The need for accurate and efficiently delivered information and data across the organization has never been so great. It is still quite common for financial institutions to manage information in data silos, making it impossible to create the contextual customer intelligence necessary to compete in the post-pandemic environment. Financial institutions have the most intimate data about their customers. This data is of little value until it is transformed into meaningful information that can be easily digested, interpreted, and acted upon.

Banks that recognize that their data is a valuable asset are actively seeking out intelligent analytics tools to create contextual customer intelligence that can be strategically deployed across the organization and leveraged for consistent multichannel experiences to generate sales, increase customer and employee loyalty and reduce operating expenses. Financial institutions must have the ability to gather, aggregate and analyze their complex data assets quickly and accurately to remain competitive, meet regulatory reporting expectations and to achieve market success. The ability to analyze this data and act decisively is the path to not only being a better financial institution but prospering in uncertain times. Leveraging high-value data is imperative to thriving and increasing an institution’s competitive advantage.

A Look at the Great Loan Modification Experiment

After almost a year, Congress’ decision to suspend loan modifications rules was an unprecedented, unorthodox and, ultimately, effective way to aid banks and borrowers.

The banking industry is going on four quarters of suspended requirements for coronavirus loan modifications. Suspending the reporting rules around loan modifications was a creative way for regulators and lawmakers to encourage banks in the spring of 2020 to work with borrowers facing coronavirus-related hardships. The result is that the industry, and economy, had more time to reassess the rapidly uncertain environment before needing to process troubled credits.

“Standing here today, having completed most of my year in audit and having a pretty good idea of how things are panning out — I would call it a raging success,” says Mandi Simpson, a partner in Crowe’s audit group. She adds that the decision to pause loan payments may have helped avoid a number of business closures and foreclosures, which will help the economy stabilize and recover long-term.

Ordinarily, these modifications, like no payments or interest-only payments for a period of time before restarting payments and catching up, would have been categorized as troubled debt restructurings, or TDRs, under U.S. generally accepted accounting principles.

TDRs occur after a bank offers a concession on a credit that it wouldn’t otherwise make to a borrower experiencing financial difficulties or hardship. The CARES Act suspended the determination that a loan modified because of the coronavirus would count as a TDR, “including impairment for accounting purposes.” Banks could now offer deferments and modifications to borrowers impacted by the coronavirus without needing to record them as TDRs.

The suspension came as part of the Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act of 2020, or CARES Act, and was extended in the stimulus bill passed before the end of the year. The move was supported by the U.S. Securities and Exchange Commission, the Financial Accounting Standards Board and bank regulators, who had encouraged banks to work with borrowers prior to the suspension. It is scheduled to be in effect through until Jan. 1, 2022, or 60 days after the termination of the national emergency, whichever is earlier.

“The regulatory community gets a high-five for that, in my opinion,” says Christopher Marinac, director of research at Janney Montgomery Scott. “Think about the accounting change in TDRs as another form of stimulus … For the companies and the clients that received deferrals – this pandemic is not their fault. … There was a recognition that this gave people a way to buy time. The one variable you can’t quantify in a crisis is time.”

The widespread forbearance allowed borrowers to adapt their businesses, get a handle on their finances or apply for Paycheck Protection Program funding from the Small Business Administration. It also gave banks a chance to reassess their borrowers’ evolving risk and offer new loan terms, if needed.

Reported Bank Deferral Data for 2020

Quarter Loans in deferral, median Low range High range Number of banks reporting
Q1’2020 11.1% 0.3% 38% 224
Q2’2020 15.3% 1.2% 46.4% 234
Q3’2020 3% 0% 21.5% 240
Q4’2020 1.4% 0% 14.5% 238

Source: Reports authored by Brad Milsaps, managing director at Piper Sandler & Co.

A number of institutions took advantage of the suspension to offer borrowers relief. Simpson remembers that many banks freely offered short-term forbearance in the second quarter, and panicked borrowers accepted. When those forbearance periods expired in the third quarter, borrowers had a better sense of their financial condition — aided by the PPP — and banks were better prepared to work with customers under continued pressure.

By the end of the second quarter, most banks “expressed optimism” about the direction of deferrals and reported “minimal” second requests, mostly related to restaurant and hotel borrowers, wrote Brad Milsaps, managing director at Piper Sandler & Co.

He expected deferrals to become “less of a focus going forward,” as those loans’ performance normalized or banks felt confident in marking them as nonaccruals. To that end, the median ratio of criticized loans to total loans, excluding Paycheck Protection Program loans, increased to 3.6% at the end of the third quarter, from 2.9% in the second quarter.

“Deferrals were an impactful tool utilized at the beginning of the pandemic, but have fallen to a very minimal level given the impact of PPP, the CARES Act, and improvement in the economy,” he wrote in a February 2021 report. “Although deferral data continues to be disclosed by most banks, the investment community has mostly moved on from deferrals as an area of primary focus.”

But the suspension of TDR guidance is not a green light for banks to wholly ignore changing credit risk. If anything, the year of deferrals gave banks a better sense of which customers faced outsized challenges to their businesses and whether they could reasonably and soundly continue supporting the relationship. Marinac points out that many banks have risk-rated loans that received modifications, set aside reserves for potential losses and migrated those that continued to have stress over time.

And as documented in Milsaps’ reports, a number of banks decided to share their modification activity with the broader public, with many including geography, industry and sometimes even the type of modification offered. These disclosures weren’t required by regulators but demonstrated the credit strength at many banks and reassured investors that banks had a handle on their credit risk.

The suspension of TDR reporting requirements through the end of 2021 gives the industry and stakeholders like FASB, the accounting board FASB, to consider the usefulness of the existing TDR guidance.

The reporting involved with TDRs involves an individual discounted cash flow analysis, which makes the accounting complicated and tedious. TDRs also can carry negative connotations that are impossible to shake: A modified TDR, even if it’s performing, is always recorded as a TDR. Simpson points out that the loan modification disclosures banks made in lieu of reporting TDRs was, in many cases, more useful and insightful than if the banks had just treated all modified loans as TDRs. And while mass loan modifications may have been a lot of work for banks in the midst of the pandemic’s most uncertain days, it would have been exponentially more complicated to do mass restructuring recordings and discount cash flow analyses over those four quarters.

“If you aren’t going to do TDR reporting at the time when — in theory — it would be the most valuable, doesn’t that call into question whether TDR identification is really that useful after all?” Simpson asks. “The standard-setters are doing some outreach and taking a second look with exactly that in mind.”

One Bank Reworks a Key Metric for the Pandemic Era

One of the most efficient banks in the country is measuring its performance using a new metric that captures how the pandemic has changed the operating landscape.

Johnny Allison, chairman and CEO of Conway, Arkansas-based Home BancShares, debuted a new metric during bank unit Centennial Bank’s third-quarter 2020 earnings announcement that measures the bank’s performance and earnings power. The metric provides insight into how well a bank is able to convert revenue into profits; it comes at a time when bank provisions and allowances remain elevated, and generally staid earnings results are lumpier and noisier than ever.

“I love the numbers and I love to play with them,” Allison says in an interview, describing how he came up with the approach. He was looking at the third-quarter earnings table for the $16.4 billion bank and saw total revenue and pre-tax, pre-provision net revenue listed near each other.

“When I looked at those, I thought ‘[Wow], look how much we brought down pre-tax pre-provision out of the total revenue of this corporation,” he says. “That got my attention. I thought ‘I wonder what the percentage that is?’”

The non-GAAP metric is derived from two items in the earnings statement: pre-tax net income, excluding provision for credit losses and unfunded commitment expense, or PPNR, divided by total net revenue. Allison calls it “P5NR” or “profit percentage.” An efficient operator, Home BancShares converted 59.28% of its net revenue into profits before taxes and provision expense in the third quarter of 2020. It was 59.19% in the fourth quarter.

The metric has its fans.

“[P5NR] measures how much of a bank’s revenue turns into profits before taxes and provision expense,” wrote Christopher Marinac, director of research at Janney Montgomery Scott, in an October 2020 report. “We favor this new metric since it shows [how] much $1 of revenue is turned into core profits — the higher, the better.”

P5NR is related to another popular metric on the earnings report: the efficiency ratio. The ratio measures how effectively a bank spends money; the lower the ratio, the more efficient a bank is. Banks can achieve a low efficiency ratio either through keeping costs low or increasing revenue, known as positive operating leverage. Home’s third-quarter 2020 efficiency ratio was 39.56%; it was 39.64% in the fourth quarter.

Allison calls P5NR the “reverse” of the efficiency ratio because a higher number is better, but ties the figure to positive operating leverage. He says Donna Townsell, now director of investor relations, did much of the work starting in 2008 that made the bank more efficient. While the efficiency ratio is still useful, PPNR and P5NR show how much revenue a bank converts to profits, especially in an environment with high credit costs.

P5NR also speaks to the industry’s focus on bank PPNR, which the Federal Reserve defines as “net interest income plus noninterest income minus noninterest expense.” In an interview, Marinac says the metric came into focus as part of the annual stress test exercise that big banks must complete — capturing the earnings at a bank before it deducts credit costs. It’s not surprising the metric has been popular with analysts trying to look past the lumpiness of quarterly results to the underlying earnings power of a bank. Building up reserves subtracts from earnings, and releasing them can pump up earnings — both activities that can make it hard to assess the underlying revenue and profits of a bank.

Home included the figure for third and fourth quarter 2020 earnings, along with backdated calculations for previous quarters, but is cautious about leading with it. Like many bank-specific metrics, it is non-GAAP — a profit calculation that doesn’t follow a standard, required calculation for companies to disclose under generally accepted accounting principles. Allison says Home also includes the number in its monthly profit and loss statement and plans to include it in future earnings reports.

Not surprisingly, Home BancShares is touting a metric that makes the bank look good. Marinac’s report pointed out that Home Bancshares had the best P5NR of all banks early reporting during the third quarter of 2020, but says the metric still has application for other banks.

“It’s not hard to do the math. When Johnny said it, it made a ton of sense,” he says. “It makes our job easy, and it’s a simple concept that everyone should follow.”

Cloudy M&A Expectations for 2021

Due to the Covid-19 pandemic, related economic downturn and recent presidential election, 2020 was a historic year characterized by high levels of uncertainty. These circumstances resulted in a significant drop in M&A activity in the banking sector, as stock prices dropped and bankers’ focused on serving customers and supporting their staff.

Bank Director’s 2021 Bank M&A Survey, sponsored by Crowe LLP, explores this unique environment. Rick Childs, a partner at Crowe, offers his perspective on the survey results — and what they mean for 2021 — in this video.

  • Top Deal Drivers

  • Pricing Expectations

  • Looking Ahead

ESG: Walk Before You Run

Covid-19 and last year’s protests over racial injustice added to the mounting pressure corporations face to make progress on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues — but banks may be further ahead than they believe.

“ESG took on a life of its own in 2020,” says Gayle Appelbaum, a partner at the consulting firm McLagan. Institutional investors have slowly turned up the heat on corporate America, along with community groups, proxy firms and ratings agencies, and regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, which now mandates a human capital management disclosure in annual reports. Customers want to know where companies stand. Prospective employees want to know if a company shares their values. And President Joe Biden’s administration promises to focus more on social and environmental issues.

Big banks like Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have been responding to these pressures, but now ESG is trending down through the industry. With the right approach, banks may find that these practices actually improve their operations. However, smaller community and regional banks can’t — and probably shouldn’t — merely copy the ESG practices of their larger brethren. “People have to think about what’s appropriate for their bank, given [its] size and location,” says Appelbaum. “What are they already doing that they could expand and beef up?”

That means banks shouldn’t feel pressured to go big or go home when it comes to ESG. Begin with the basics: Has your bank reduced waste by encouraging paperless statements? How many hours do employees spend volunteering in the community? “When you sit down and talk to bankers about this, it’s interesting to see [their] eyes open,” says Brandon Koeser, senior manager and financial services senior analyst at the consulting firm RSM. The pandemic shed light on how banks support their employees and communities. “The reality is, so much of what they’re doing is part of ESG.”

Robin Ferracone, CEO of the consultancy Farient Advisors, tells companies to think of ESG as a journey, one that keeps strategy at its core. “You need to walk before you run. If you try to bite [it] all off at once, you can get overwhelmed,” she says. Organizations should prioritize what’s important to their strategy and stakeholders. ESG objectives should be monitored, revisited and adjusted along the way.

Stakeholders are watching. Glacier Bancorp CEO Randall Chesler was surprised to learn just how closely in a conversation with one of the bank’s large investors two years ago.

“One of our investors asked us, ‘Have you looked at this? We see your score isn’t very good; are you aware of that? What are you going to do about it?’ And that was the first time that we started to dig into it and realized that we were being scored by ISS,” says Chesler. (Institutional Shareholder Services provides an ESG rating on companies, countries and bonds to inform investors.)

It turned out that $18.5 billion Glacier was doing a lot, particularly around the social and governance aspects of ESG. The Kalispell, Montana-based bank just wasn’t telling its story. This is a common ESG gap for community and regional banks.

Glacier worked with consultants to develop a program and put together a community and social responsibility report, which is available in the investor relations section of its website, along with other governance documents such as its code of ethics. This provided the right level of information to lift Glacier’s score. “Our benchmark was, we want to be at our peer-level scoring on ESG,” says Chesler. “[We] ended up actually better. And we continue to watch our scores.”

“Community banks have the social and governance aspects covered better than many industries because [banks are] heavily regulated,” says Joe Scott, a managing director at Kroll Bond Rating Agency. Where they likely lag, he says, is around the environment; most are just beginning to assess these risks to their business. And it’s important that banks get this right as stakeholders increasingly focus on ESG. “We’re hearing that, beyond equity and debt investors, larger depositors — particularly corporate depositors, institutional depositors, state treasurers’ officers [and] others like that — are incorporating ESG into their considerations on who they place large deposits with. That could be a theme over time— other kinds of stakeholders factoring in ESG more and more.”

How Banks Kept Customers During the Pandemic, Even Commercial Ones

Digital transformation and strategy are examined as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired. Click here to access the content on BankDirector.com.

Despite closed branches and masked interactions, the coronavirus pandemic may have actually improved customers’ relationships with their banks. They have digital channels to thank.

That’s a shift from the mentality pervading the industry before the pandemic. Business lines like commercial lending seemed firmly set in the physical world: a relationship-driven process with high-touch customer service. The Paycheck Protection Program from the U.S. Small Business Administration completely uprooted that approach. Banks needed to deliver loans “as fast as possible” to their small commercial customers, says Dan O’Malley, CEO of data and loan origination platform Numerated during Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired. More than 100 banks are currently using the platform either for PPP applications or forgiveness.

The need for rapid adoption forced a number of community banks to aggressively dedicate enough resources to stand up online commercial loan applications. Sixty-five percent of respondents to Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey said their bank implemented or upgraded technology due to the coronavirus. Of those, 70% say their bank adopted technology to issue PPP loans. This experiment produced an important result: Business customers were all too happy to self-service their loan applications online, especially if it came from their bank of choice.

“Self-service changes in business banking will be driven by customer demand and efficiency,” O’Malley says, later adding: “Customers are willing to do the work themselves if banks provide them the tools.”

Digital capabilities like self-service platforms are one way for banks to meaningfully deepen existing relationships with commercial borrowers. Numerated found that borrowers, rather than bankers, completed 84% of PPP loan applications that were done using the company’s platform, and 94% of forgiveness applications. That is no small feat, given the complexity of the application and required calculations.

Those capabilities can carve out efficiencies by saving on data entry and input, requesting and receiving documentation, the occasional phone call and the elimination of other time-consuming processes. One regional bank that is “well known for being very relationship driven” was able to process 3,000 “self-service” PPP loan applications in a morning, O’Malley says. Standing up these systems helped community banks avoid customer attrition, or better yet, attract new customers, a topic that Bank Director magazine explored last year. Already, banks like St. Louis-based Midwest BankCentre are reaping the gains from digital investments. The $2.3 billion bank launched Rising Bank, an online-only bank, in February 2019, using fintech MANTL to open accounts online.

The impetus and inception for the online brand dates back more than three years, says President and CFO Dale Oberkfell during an Inspired By session. Midwest didn’t have a way to open accounts online, and it wanted to expand its customer base and grow deposits. It also didn’t want to replicate the branch experience of opening an account — Midwest wanted to compress the total time to three minutes or less, he says.

Creating the brand was quite an investment and undertaking. Still, Rising Bank has raised $160 million in deposits — as many deposits as 10 branches could — with only two additional employees.

“We didn’t spend the dollars we anticipated spending because of that efficiency,” Oberkfell says.

Midwest BankCentre is exploring other fintech partnerships to build out Rising Bank’s functionality and product lines. The bank is slated to add online loan portals for mortgages and home equity lines of credit — creating the potential for further growth and efficiencies while strengthening customer relationships. He adds that the bank is looking to improve efficiencies and add more tools and functionality for both customers and employees. And how are they going to fund all those technology investments?

Why, with the fees generated from PPP loans.