The Evolving, Post-Pandemic Role of Management and Directors

Many community bankers and their boards are entering the post-pandemic world blindfolded. The pandemic had an uneven impact on industries within their geographic footprints, and there is no historical precedent for how recovery will take shape. Government intervention propped up many small businesses, disguising their paths forward.

Federal Reserve monetary policies have hindered the pro forma clarity that bank management and boards require to create and evaluate strategic plans. Yet these plans are more vital than ever, especially as M&A activity increases.

“The pandemic and challenging economic conditions could contribute to renewed consolidation and merger activity in the near term, particularly for banks already facing significant earnings pressure from low interest rates and a potential increase in credit losses,” the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. warned in its 2021 risk review.

Bank management and boards must be able to understand shareholder value in the expected bearish economy, along with the financial markets that will accompany increased M&A activity. They need to understand how much their bank is worth at any time, and what market trends and economic scenarios will affect that valuation.

As the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency noted in its November 2020 Director’s Book, “information requirements should evolve as the bank grows in size and complexity and as the bank’s environment or strategic goals change.”

Clearly, the economic environment has changed. Legacy financial statements that rely on loan categories instead of industries will not serve bank management or boards of directors well in assessing risks and opportunities. Forecasting loan growth and credit quality will depend on industry behavior.

This is an extraordinary opportunity for bank management to exploit the knowledge of their directors and get them truly involved in the strategic direction of their banks. Most community bank directors are not bankers, but local industry leaders. Their expertise can be vital to directly and accurately link historical and pro forma information to industry segments.

Innovation is essential when it comes to providing boards with the critical information they need to fulfill their fiduciary duties. Bank CEOs must reinvent their strategic planning processes, finding ways to give their boards an ever-changing snapshot of the bank, its earnings potential, its risks and its opportunities. If bank management teams do not change how they view strategic planning, and what kind of data to provide the board, directors will remain in the dark and miss unique opportunities for growth that the bank’s competitors will seize.

The OCC recommends that boards consider these types of questions as part of their oversight of strategic planning:

  • Where are we now? Where do we want to be, and how do we get there? And how do we measure our progress along the way?
  • Is our plan consistent with the bank’s risk appetite, capital plan and liquidity requirements? The OCC advises banks to use stress testing to “adjust strategies, and appropriately plan for and maintain adequate capital levels.” Done right, stress testing can show banks the real-word risk as certain industries contract due to pandemic shifts and Fed actions.
  • Has management performed a “retrospective review” of M&A deals to see if they actually performed as predicted? A recent McKinsey & Co. review found that 70% of recentbank acquisitions failed to create value for the buyer.

Linking loan-level data to industry performance within a bank’s footprint allows banks to increase their forecasting capability, especially if they incorporate national and regional growth scenarios. This can provide a blueprint of how, when and where to grow — answering the key questions that regulators expect in a strategic plan. Such information is also vital to ensure that any merger or acquisition is successful.

Small Business Checking, Repositioned

This is part two of a two-part post diving into the future of small business checking. Read part one, Small Business Checking, Reimagined.

Increasingly, small businesses see digital payment solutions as both a way to get paid faster and to satisfy customers who now prefer to pay that way. Indeed, this capability has become indispensable for most small businesses. And for banks, it is the key to capturing even more small and medium-sized business relationships moving forward.

However, there is one problem: Banks don’t offer a simple solution to help their small business customers meet this fundamental need. As a result, small business owners have had to resort to outside options (four of which we explored in part one). Over time, this reliance on fintech challengers can lead to disintermediation for the bank, as the non-banks begin to replace the financial institution with their own offerings.

At this point you may be wondering: Does my bank already offer this kind of solution, or something that’s similar enough? The answer, most likely, is no — or not yet.

The reality is that the ideal solution for a small business owner is a steep change from the small business accounts of today. Current accounts are built on transactional functionality. The many supporting, and sometimes dizzying, features that go along with it, such as transaction fees, minimum balances and item allowances, may be important to the bank, but miss the mark for a small business.

Simply put, small business owners need bank accounts designed for a very specific reason: to receive digital payments and easily track their critical cash flow in the process.

To be truly relevant, this reimagined small business checking account needs to include the following three crucial components:

  • Digital payment acceptance, including credit cards, and online invoicing, set up and ready for the small business owner to start getting paid faster into the very same account.
  • Manage and track customer payments, ranging from incoming, coming due, and past due, right inside the digital platform that’s comprises their checking account.
  • Expertise and high-touch support that a business owner can expect from a longstanding and trustworthy institution. This is an important differentiator, and one that fintech challengers can’t come close to matching.

This checking account product offers two significant benefits. For a small business owner, it represents exactly what they have been searching for: a complete small business solution that features receivables functionality, offered by the same trusted institution that they’ve come to rely on for so many other needs.

And for banks, this new account allows them to embrace a mindset focused on customer workflows and solving real-world challenges. It could even signal a way forward, and open the door to many more opportunities. Promoting such a markedly different product, however, would require some care. Unlike a typical account, with its mandatory list of bulleted features, a reimagined solution like this one requires positioning that highlights its problem-solving capabilities.

A generic framework for our hypothetical account, organized by customer need first and benefit(s) second, could go:

Get paid, the way they want to pay
Make it easy for paying customers. Accept online payments and credit cards, or send personalized digital invoices. Either way, get paid directly into your bank account for easy access to funds.

Better control of your cash flow
Track and manage it all automatically: incoming, coming due and past due customer payments. Know exactly who has paid and when, and get an up-to-date view of your cash flow.

Do it all, all in one place
More than a checking account. Everything you need for your small business is included with your account. And there’s no need to set up multiple accounts across multiple platforms — one easy enrollment is all you need.

You don’t have to go it alone
Because a great digital experience is only the beginning. Every successful business needs an accessible financial partner — your bank is available and ready to help.

Of course, a reimagined small business checking account needs to be designed and launched with supporting capabilities in mind. Look for partners that can help your institution go to market with a proven solution — inclusive of the product capabilities and go-to-market services — that enable small business owners to get paid, while staying ahead of the competition.

Learn more about Autobooks and download your free small business resources here.

The Community Bank Advantage to Helping Small Businesses Recover

While the Covid-19 vaccination rollout is progressing steadily and several portions of the country are making steps toward reopening and establishing a new normal, it is still too early to gauge how many small businesses will survive the pandemic’s impacts.

In a 2020 study of small firms by McKinsey & Co., it was initially estimated between 1.4 million to 2.1 million of the country’s 31 million small businesses could fail because of the events experienced in 2020 and 2021. However, a more recent report from the Federal Reserve revealed that bankruptcies during 2020 were not as bad as originally feared — with around 200,000 more business failures than average. Simply put, the true impact of the pandemic’s interruptions cannot be known until later this year or even next.

A PwC study on bankruptcy activity across the broader business sectors reveals which industries were impacted the most. Of the bankruptcies in 2020 where total obligations exceeded $10 million, retail and consumer sectors led the way, followed by energy and real estate. Together, these three sectors accounted for 63% of all bankruptcies.

Reimagining Small Business Success
While a lack of revenue has been the most critical issue for small business owners, they are also suffering from other challenges like a lack of time and guidance. Business owners have faced tremendous pressure to meet local and national guidelines and restrictions around interacting with the public, many even having to transform their business models to reach customers remotely. Such burdens often leave business owners meeting operational needs during nights and weekends.

This creates a timely opportunity for community banks to better support business customers’ recovery from this period of economic stress. Financial instituions can provide anytime, anywhere access to their accounts and financial tools, more-effective cash flow management capabilities and personalized digital advisory services to meet evolving needs. These tailored services can be supported with personal digital support to revitalize the service and relationships that have always been a competitive advantage of community institutions.

Putting Humans at the Center
A 2021 study by Deloitte’s Doblin revealed five ways financial services firms can support their business customers post-pandemic, including demonstrate that they know the customer, help them save time, guide them with expertise, prepare them for the unexpected and share the same values. These findings provide insight into how business owners prefer to bank and what they look for in a bank partner. In fact, 62% of small businesses were most interested in receiving financial advice from their financial institutions.

The Doblin study goes on to explore the activities that institutions can engage in to better serve the small business marketplace. Top findings included enabling an easier lending journey, investing in innovative, digital-led initiatives and offering personalized, context-rich engagement. These areas have been priorities for community banks, and the pandemic has accelerated the timeline for adopting a strong digital strategy. Compared to competitors including national banks, digital banks and nontraditional players, community banks are uniquely positioned to help local businesses recover by combining digital solutions with services that center the human connections within the banking relationship.

As business owners look to finance their road to recovery, it’s been repeatedly shown that they prefer a relationship lender who understands their holistic financial picture and can connect them to the right products, rather than shopping around. Business owners want a trusted partner who uses technology to make things easy and convenient and is available to talk in their moments of need. The best financial technologies strengthen human connections during the process of fulfilling transactions. These technologies automate redundant tasks and streamline workflows to reduce the mundane and maximize the meaningful interactions. When done right, this strategy creates an enhanced borrower experience as well as happier, more productive bank employees.

There’s a clear sense that the events of 2020 and 2021 will permanently shape the delivery of financial services, as well as the expectations of small business owners. The year has been a crisis-induced stress test for how technology is used; more importantly, how that technology can be improved in the months and years ahead. The pandemic, as challenging and destructive at it has been, generated a significant opportunity to reimagine the future, including the ways bankers and small businesses interact. Those community institutions that take the lessons learned and find ways to build and maintain human relationships within digital channels will be well positioned to serve their communities and succeed.

Banks Risk Losing Small Businesses Forever

Have you ever been through a breakup you didn’t see coming? Judging by the stories small businesses share about their banks — and the stories that banks tell themselves about those same relationships — it seems the industry is on the verge of needing a pint of ice cream and a good cry.

It might be over between small businesses and banks.

I talk to a lot of bankers, and many tout their banks’ focus on small businesses — the restaurants, hairdressers and other staples that fuel local economies. These bankers pride themselves and their teams on knowing their clients well. If a hard rain floods the local lake, they pick up the phone to call their marina clients to make sure they’re doing OK. It’s special — but in a springtime pockmarked by pandemic, it might not be enough.

The relationships between banks and their small business customers are more strained than banks might realize, according to a January research report sponsored by Autobooks and conducted by Aite Group.

“Less than half (47%) of U.S.-based small businesses believe their primary institution understands their needs,” stated Autobooks, a Detroit-based fintech that provides small business accounting tools, in a release about the research. Aite also found that more than 60% of small businesses have turned to a nonbank provider to meet at least one financial need that their bank can’t fill.

These shortfalls have been ongoing, but changing market conditions caused by the outbreak of COVID-19 could be the final straw for underserved small businesses.

It boils down to this: Banks that haven’t invested in technology are behind the curve when it comes to helping their small business clients weather crises. At the same time, technology companies that are already providing small business customers with products they love now have clear paths to offering financial services that only banks used to be able to provide. Cash management, payments and fast loans will be crucial to the survival of small businesses; technology is going to be the key to saving them.

Nowhere is the importance of technology more crystallized than in the current debate over emergency small business loans. Banks are struggling to keep up with rising loan demand. Complicated applications, slow underwriting and a lack of payment options may convince small business customers to turn to nonbank lenders for fast funding, even if they pay a higher interest rate.

The same scenario is unfolding in the realm of government-backed loans from the Small Business Administration. Until recently, banks were the only institutions that could serve as conduits for the Economic Injury Disaster Loans that help troubled businesses in times of crisis. But big, national fintech lenders were quick to lobby for an expansion of that rule, and they got it. Congressional coronavirus relief gave the U.S. Treasury Department the authority to allow “additional lenders” to make these loans. Congress acquiesced to the change because timing is everything when it comes to small business loans in a crisis.

Half of small businesses only have enough cash on hand to operate for 27 days, and an additional 25% only have enough cash reserves to operate for 13 days without new revenue, according to an oft-cited 2016 survey from JPMorgan Chase & Co. SBA loans made through partner banks typically take several months before the cash is available to borrowers — an untenable timeline for companies with mounting expenses and no revenue. Fintech lenders say they could push emergency loans out in days, potentially saving many businesses from failure but funneling significant volume away from banks.

The loans businesses need to survive today could easily morph into larger relationships with nonbanks tomorrow, as fintechs cross old regulatory moats by securing their own charters and deposit insurance.

So far, 2020 has seen significant fintech advances into banking from Varo Money and LendingClub Corp. But the move that seems to have caused the most hand-wringing among traditional banks is Square’s approval for deposit insurance as part of its Utah industrial loan charter. The payments heavyweight has an established national brand among small businesses, and could divert large amounts of small business clients away from brick-and-mortar banks when it starts offering loans and deposit products in 2021.

Square has provided mission-critical financial services for small businesses since its inception. Many businesses trust their payment products for every transaction they make. Square may have the loyalty it needs to earn the entire banking relationship.

Technology companies like Square aren’t going to pick up the phone to check in on a marina client after the local lake floods. But they are going to provide timely, tuned-in products. In a crisis, that may matter more.