Of all the most difficult issues that bank boards must deal with, technology may be at the top of the list. Banks have long been reliant on technology (think IBM mainframes and ATMs) to run their operations, but in recent years technology has become a primary driver of retail and small business banking strategy. This change can be tied to the growing ubiquity of digital commerce, the integration of the mobile phone into the fabric of our everyday lives, the birth of social media and its adoption as an important business and commercial channel, and the ascendency of the millennial cohort as a major factor in our economy. Technology is everywhere, it’s in everything, and that trend is only going to become more pronounced in the future.
Why do bank directors as a group struggle so much with technology? Are they just a bunch of Luddites? In all fairness, most directors are not career technologists and therefore bring only limited professional knowledge of technology to the task of board governance. But demographics are clearly a factor as well. The average age for most bank boards ranges between the early 60s to the mid-70s, and baby boomers often find themselves overwhelmed by all of the technology-driven changes they see occurring around them. And while there may be an understandable tendency to resist adapting to new technologies in their personal lives, bank directors simply must understand how technology is changing their industry, and how it is impacting their institutions.
Christa Steele is the former president and CEO of Mechanics Bank, a $3.4 billion asset bank in Richmond, California, and more recently the founder and CEO of Boardroom Consulting LLC in San Francisco, where she works closely with bank CEOs and their boards. Steele doesn’t mince words—directors must educate themselves about the changes in financial technology that are transforming their industry—and she offers some suggestions about how this can be done. The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.
BD: Why do most directors at community banks struggle so much with the topic of technology?
Scope of knowledge and lack of diversity in the boardroom. This diversity does not stop at gender, age and ethnicity. Typically, community bank boardrooms are filled with childhood friends and family. This served a purpose early on, especially when those banks were formed. However, as a bank grows and evolves, it’s important to bring in new perspectives. It’s no secret that the majority of community bank revenue models are derived from the net interest margin. Fee revenue is virtually obsolete relative to the overall operating income for most of these institutions.
So how does a bank make up for this shortfall of diversified revenue streams? Management teams and their bank boards need to take a serious look at their digital strategy and internal infrastructure. If they do not assimilate to the changes occurring in what I call this vortex of technology, they’re going to get left behind.
Fixing this starts with succession planning for the institution. We have a lot of community banks where the management teams are close to or at retirement age. Many of these leaders do not want to make necessary changes because of the threat of internal disruption, time commitment, costs and maintaining a short-term horizon. Boards are similar. Most bank boards are tired. I feel boards in general have done an exceptional job getting their arms around compliance and safety and soundness issues in the last 10 years. However, they’ve taken their eye off of the ball when it comes to marketing, digital strategy and technology initiatives. I remember hearing about a Bank Director survey a few years ago in which board members were polled and asked how many of them used their cell phones to transact. It was staggering to learn that nearly half of the respondents didn’t use their bank’s mobile channel. How are these board members supposed to understand technology trends and its impact on the financial sector and their own banks?
BD: What can directors do to become more comfortable with technology?
Get educated beyond compliance training. Attend Bank Director conferences, ask questions, talk to folks involved in financial technology, follow automation. Pay attention to what’s trending. Get connected to social media. Join LinkedIn and gain perspective on what’s going on in the United States and abroad pertaining to technology in the financial sector. See what other people are doing outside of your own market.
Change up the boardroom. Board appointment should be strategic in nature and no longer be about bringing your childhood friend or local jeweler down the street on your board. Bring in a fresh perspective. Evaluate board terms and board limits. A board that is a strategic asset to its bank should consist of expertise in marketing, cybersecurity, digital/e-commerce, financial and risk. Each of these appointments should be from outside your institution. Do not be opposed to bringing in someone younger in their 30s or 40s. By bringing in somebody younger, you bring in someone who is engaged in social media. Social media is where it’s at. We have banks that are interacting and partnering with Facebook. Bank of America just started letting customers transact through a universal login with Facebook where their customers can pay their mortgage payments, they can transfer money between accounts, they can do a variety of things through Facebook. The remainder of your director appointments should be former or current CEOs who provide a macro-level mindset to the ongoing challenges facing the institution.
BD: What are some of the barriers to innovation, particularly in the community bank space, around financial technology?
Lack of understanding the competitive landscape (it’s no longer just the community bank down the street), time, cost and willingness to embark upon a digital transformation. It’s a lot of heavy lifting for management, and oftentimes the board does not understand the complexities and costs associated with this endeavor. Many banks do not fully understand the technology contracts they have in place with their core providers and other technology vendors. Those contracts have them locked in for a duration of time, typically three to seven years. That is the number one barrier to making any changes. It is costly to exit existing contracts.
Many community banks are under utilizing the capability of their existing vendors. At Mechanics Bank, we went through and evaluated every vendor contract. We cut $3.5 million dollars out of our budget in a single calendar year through renegotiating, exiting and forming new relationships with vendors. We found we were paying for services we did not need and paying for services we weren’t using but should be using. This is the first step in embarking upon a new digital strategy.
I highly encourage bank boards to have a refresher course on how a bank operates using a bank simulation model. Each board member picks a role of CEO, CFO, senior credit officer, etc. and has to manage a bank’s funding, pricing, growth, capital requirements, loan loss provisions and so on. This is not only a great team-building exercise and will provide for a greater appreciation of the day-to-day management team of the bank, it will also set a solid foundation for discussing what is needed in the way of technology innovation to run the bank going forward.
Evaluate what you have, get educated on what’s trending, then decide what you need. Do not be the retailer that gets eaten alive by Amazon Prime. Be proactive instead of reactive to the changing needs of your customer base.
BD: Are the major cores an impediment to innovation?
I wouldn’t say impediment. There is no doubt that the big three core technology providers have a stronghold. But they are looking to innovate as well. Their biggest attribute is size and scale. Their biggest downfall is they are a slow-moving ship coming in and out of port. The long and the short of it is, you’re not going to get rid of your core provider. I feel it’s become increasingly important to be better partners with your core. When banks push for some kind of innovation, the cores typically say they’re planning on doing that two years from now. That is when the banks get irritated and push for needing it now but do not want to have to pay for a custom project. That is the frustrating part for the bankers, but the bankers need to help the core understand their needs. I am a firm believer in more outsourcing and in banks becoming nimble. This takes time but is achievable and necessary in this day and age.
BD: When we think about the technology challenges that banks face today and how the board should engage in finding solutions, does it really boil down to a people issue?
Yes, it is that simple. There are a lot of community banks that just refuse to think that financial technology innovation is impacting them. CEOs and directors need to have an open mind and be willing to learn something new. If you understand your digital strategy, you understand your technology strategy and you understand what’s going on around you—guess what, all of the sudden your board is engaged, and it’s going to make your company perform better.