Push, Push… Push, Push

Last October, I journeyed to Austin, Texas, to watch my first Formula One race. Like many, Netflix’s wildly popular Formula 1: Drive to Survive drew me in. That series dramatically increased the popularity of the sport in the United States, with plenty of drama on track — and off. 

Inevitably, the show takes viewers inside a showdown between two cars jostling for points, separated by mere milliseconds.

While being out front has its advantages, so too does drafting your competition. Personally, I love watching/hearing a team’s crew nonchalantly imploring its driver to “push, push… push, push” over the radio. This call to click the push-to-pass mechanism on a race car —which provides a temporary jolt of speed — typically results in the hunter becoming the hunted.

So yes, speed, competition and risk-taking is on my mind as we prepare to host Bank Director’s Experience FinXTech event May 5 and 6 in the same city as the Circuit of The Americas (aka COTA).

Much like Formula One brings some of the most ambitious and creative teams together for a race, Experience FinXTech attracts some of the most inspiring minds from the deeply competitive financial services space.

Now in its seventh year, the event connects a hugely influential audience of U.S. bank leaders with technology partners at the forefront of growth and innovation. Today, as banks continue to transition towards virtual or digital strategies, fintechs become partners rather than just competitors in the race to succeed. 

We’ll look not only at fintechs offering efficiencies for banks, but at fintechs offering growth and improved performance as well. As fintech guru Chris Skinner recently noted, “If you only look at technology as a cost reduction process, you never get the market opportunities. If you look at technology as a market opportunity, you get the cost savings naturally as a by-product.

We’ll consider investor appetites, debate the pros and cons of decentralized finance and share experiences in peer exchanges. 

Throughout, we’ll help participants gauge technology companies at a time when new competitors continue to target financial services.   

Most Formula One races are won on the margins, with dedicated teams working tirelessly to improve performance. So too are the banks that excel — many of them with dedicated teams working with exceptional partners.


*I am delighted to return to Texas and see so many of my former friends and colleagues at Bank Director. Heck, I’ll tease Naomi Snyder (the editor-in-chief), that I found a way to use my original title for this piece I authored for BankDirector.com.

In addition, I’ll be on stage, rep’ing the team as a member of the company’s board of directors (and as a minority owner), perhaps in boots, maybe without a tie… Saying hello to so many friends from across the industry — like the team at Nymbus who graciously hosted me and some incredibly awesome folks in our industry last October at F1’s COTA race… and yes, flying the skull & crossbones for the team at Cornerstone Advisors.

This is an awesome annual event, and one worth following on social media if you’re unable to join in person. Check out @Fin_X_Tech on Twitter to keep tabs on the provocative conversations that inevitable take place.

How Would You Define DeFi?

If I’d asked 100 different people at this week’s Acquire or Be Acquired to define DeFi, I’d bet $10,000 worth of ETH I’d get 100 different responses.

As I shared in yesterday morning’s remarks, decentralized finance is a complex area, with interest and usage growing exponentially over the past two years. Many aspects of financial services will be reinvented in a decentralized way — with numerous vendors working on new concepts. Given the current state of bank technology (coupled with a complex regulatory environment), financial markets are riddled with inefficiencies that new companies want to exploit.

Ours is a huge market being transformed by DeFi. But by no means the only industry being impacted. So as we wrap up our time in the Arizona desert, let me re-share one of my slides that shows changes taking place today.

Given the various investments taking place, and developments being announced, I encourage those 1,403 who joined us here to:

— Learn about smart contracts — and how these potentially replace banks and third parties in executing transactions.

— Tackle questions like “what are the benefits of incorporating blockchain technology into my services — and what are the inherent risks?”

— Focus on this year’s “wallet wars;” whereby wallet providers like Kraken, Crypto.com, MetaMask, etc. up their customer experiences to compete for clients.

Talking DeFi at #AOBA22

This year’s event made good on my early prediction that diversification, differentiation and decentralization would be major themes. To the third one, we are just scratching the surface in terms of what’s now — and what’s next.

What To Expect at the 2022 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference

When Robert Iger joined The Walt Disney Co. as its new CEO in 2005, the company’s storied history of animation had floundered for a decade.

So Iger turned to a competitor whose animation outpaced Disney’s own and proposed a deal. 

The relationship between Pixar Animation Studios and Disney had been strained, and Iger was nervous when he called Pixar’s CEO, Steve Jobs.

The two sat down in front of a white board at Pixar’s headquarters and began listing the pros and cons of the deal. The pros had 3 items. The cons had 20, as the now-retired Iger tells it in his this Masterclass online. 

“I said ‘This probably isn’t going to happen,’’’ Iger remembers. “He said, ‘Why do you say that?’”

Jobs could see that the pros had greater weight to them, despite the long list of the cons.

Ultimately, Disney did buy Pixar for more than $7 billion in 2006, improving its standing, animation and financial success. In the end, Iger says he “didn’t think it was anything but a risk worth taking.” 


I read Iger’s memoir, “The Ride of a Lifetime,’’ in 2021, just as I began planning the agenda for our annual Acquire or Be Acquired Conference in Phoenix. Widely regarded as the premier event for the financial industry’s CEOs, boards and leadership teams, we are preparing to welcome nearly 1,400 to the Arizona desert this weekend.  His story resonated, and not just because of the Disney/Pixar transaction.

I thought about that line of risks worth taking… and was reminded of the leadership traits Iger prizes; specifically, optimism, courage and curiosity.

Many of this year’s registered attendees wrestle with the same issues Iger confronted at Disney. They represent important brands in their markets that must respond to the monumental changes in customer expectations. They must attract and retain talent and to grow in the face of challenges. 


While some look to 2022 with a sense of apprehension — thanks to Covid variant uncertainty, inflation, supply chain bottlenecks and potential regulatory changes — I feel quite the pep in my step this January.

I celebrate the opportunity with our team to return, in-person, to the JW Marriott Desert Ridge. With so many registered to join us Jan. 30 through Feb. 1, I know I am not alone in my excitement to be with people again in real life.

So what’s in store for those joining us? Conversations around:

  • Capital allocation.
  • Balancing short-term profitability versus long term value creation.
  • Managing excess liquidity and shrinking margins. 
  • Re-thinking hiring models and succession planning. 
  • Becoming more competitive and efficient.

Naturally, we discuss the various growth opportunities available to participants. We talk about recent merger transactions, market reactions and integration hurdles. We hear about the importance of marrying bank strategy with technology investment. We explore what’s going on in Washington with respect to regulation, and we acknowledge the pressure to grow earnings and the need to diversify the business.

As the convergence of traditional banking and fintech continues to accelerate, we again offer FinXTech sessions dedicated to delivering growth. We unpack concepts like banking as a service, stablecoins, Web3, embedded finance and open banking.


Acquire or Be Acquired has long been a meeting ground for those that take the creation of franchise value very seriously — a topic even more nuanced in today’s increasingly digital world. The risk takers will be with us, which is great company to keep. Indeed, “there’s no way you can achieve great gains without taking great chances,’’ Iger says. “Success is boundless.”


To follow along with this year’s event, I invite you to bookmark this blog, visit BankDirector.com and search #AOBA22 on LinkedIn and Twitter.

Meet the Team Hosting Acquire or Be Acquired

398 banks.

865 bankers.

279 President/CEOs… 54 CEOs… 45 Chairman/CEOs…

1,335 registered attendees (*so far!)

Yes, it is almost time to return to the JW Marriott Desert Ridge in Phoenix, Arizona for Acquire or Be Acquired. In advance, I invite you to “meet” the Bank Director | FinXTech team that’s been working for months on this great event taking place January 30 – February 1.

Creating Options

Earlier this week, I welcomed officers and directors from across the United States to Nashville, TN. From a stage (and not a Zoom), I asked them:

What are your options as we head into the Fall? No, not your personal ability to buy or sell an asset or security.  Rather, the options you, as a leaders of your bank, see for the institution you are a part of today?

Strategically speaking, this is a fundamental issue for those in a leadership position to address.

Sure, there are topics that will dominate boardroom discussions — such as diversifying earnings streams and differentiating the bank’s reputation relative to others.

But let me ask you: who are your competitors? By extension, who are the peer groups that you should be basing your performance against?  Once answering these, what options do you know are available, right now, that can put space between your bank and their business?  Further, what options do you need to create in order to stay both relevant, and competitive in the months ahead?

Creating “optionality” is a concept that continues to rattle around in my mind. Indeed, it ties into the concept of franchise value and is one that members of a bank’s board need to prioritize. It opens conversations around delivery methods and channels, business relationships and partnerships — and yes, growth opportunities (be it organic or through acquisition).

As we talked about in Nashville, banks are under enormous pressure to prepare for an unknown future. Ahead of this year’s exclusive in-person event, I came up with three basic questions I find timely and relevant. Take a read and let me know if you agree.

The SouthState Podcast: My Take On Banking, Leadership and FinTech

Last week, I had the pleasure of spending a few minutes with Tom Fitzgerald and Caleb Stevens on their Community Bank Podcast. Produced by SouthState’s Correspondent Division, the two dedicate their pod to helping community bankers grow themselves, their team — and their profits. For about 23 minutes, the three of us explored:

  • The hallmarks of a great business leaders;
  • The biggest trends I’ve observed in banking over the last 5 years;
  • The role of community banks (less than 1B in assets);
  • Who’s gaining traction in the bank technology space; and
  • How I feel about curiosity & empathy.

Oh yes, and I botched my ice cream analogy early on. As someone with a sweet tooth, I meant to reference Baskin & Robbins‘ 31 flavors of ice cream while talking leadership characteristics. As a child in Needham, MA, the idea that I’d have to choose between chocolate, coffee, oreo, cookie dough, etc posed a real challenge — especially as we’d go as a post-dentist treat! So when Caleb asks me about key facets of leadership in banking today, please understand my Covid-brain took me back to those fun childhood memories… which is how I wound up bellyflopping on the analogy!!

Baseball’s Best… and FinTech Relationships?

The premier slugger and center-fielder for the Los Angeles Angels is an eight-time All-Star and three-time American League MVP — winning the award in 2014, 2016, and 2019 while finishing second in the 2012, 2013, 2015 and 2018 votes.

According to ESPN, he’s the best player going into this new season, based on his record for nearly a decade.

So, how did Mike Trout fall to the 25th pick in the Major League Baseball draft in 2009?

*And yes, I am still a die-hard RedSox fan… hello Big Papi!

Sure, there were some can’t-miss prospects alongside him. The Washington Nationals pegged Stephen Strasburg to be their ace — and selected him with the first pick. He’s no slouch himself — 112 wins, three All-Star games and a World Series title later, the organization has no regrets.

But back in 2009, 24 names were called before Mike Trout, this once in a generation player, heard his. Many of them never reached the majors, let alone Trout’s level.

Professional sports’ drafts are all about taking risks, dreaming big and building for a franchise’s future. These decisions ultimately impact wins, losses and financial futures of organizations for years to come.

For those charged with improving their teams, technology and delivery models, the implications of Mike Trout’s draft should give you pause. With so many technology companies stealing headlines these days, the question about “who’s next” in the financial technology space parallels what baseball teams go through each year.

Ask yourself: How do you and your colleagues look at what’s available? How do you evaluate a future potential fit? How do you commit to another business that can propel you forward, or leave you lamenting what could have been?

So much of a bank’s future depends on its leadership team’s ambition and appetite to take chances today. Inevitably, I find business leaders returning to two basic questions when it comes to a new potential business relationship:

  1. How can I drive new revenue with their support?
  2. How do I become more efficient with their help?

A baseball appears to have two seams; in reality, they’re 216 individual stitches. Similarly for banks, multiple small decisions add up to a big picture.

Just as baseball teams need to be realistic in terms of allocating capital, so do financial institutions when considering their tech spend. No financial services company can choose a relationship that guarantees success.

Like any good general manager, a banking leader needs to prioritize what’s the right fit for the team. Some banks and credit unions may modernize back-office technology, which has the potential to improve efficiency, reduce errors and free up resources for growth. Others may look at solutions that improve customer experiences or drive sales.

Regardless of where you are in your current approach to technology, you need courage to take the first step — and the discipline to take the next. While your team might miss on a Mike Trout, take comfort that there is more than one way to build a team.

Doing your own homework on who’s out there might just net you an MVP.

Inspired By Banking’s Modernization Efforts

 “Trying to cut your way out of falling profit and revenue is like trying to lift a bucket by standing inside it and pulling up on the handles. It feels like progress but it’s a lot of wasted energy to go nowhere.”  

One of the biggest changes, ever, is going on in the financial sector. So I talked with Greg Carmichael, the chairman and CEO of Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bancorp, about staying relevant and competitive. As the business of banking undergoes significant technological transformation, I found his views on legacy system modernization particularly compelling:

In my experience, many banks are rooted in legacy technology — and just starting out on their multi-year digital / delivery transformation. So as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired program on BankDirector.com, we explore this issue in the context of growth options and opportunities. To access this premium content — which includes my full conversation with Greg — register or log-in here.

A Conversation with Richard Davis About Listening, Learning and Leading

One sentence on LinkedIn sparked today’s post.

Yes, a comment shared by a fellow W&L alum, Melissa Sawyer, inspired me. She noted:

Much attention is being paid to the well-orchestrated CEO transitions at Merck and Amazon this week, which reinforce the important role that thoughtful succession planning and good governance play in corporate America.

A partner in the law firm of Sullivan & Cromwell, I interviewed Melissa as part of our Looking Ahead series in 2019. Since meeting her, I continue to find her perspectives on governance and regulatory issues timely — and spot on.

So when I saw her take on Kenneth Frazier’s and Jeff Bezos’ career decisions this morning, my mind immediately went to a conversation I had with the former CEO of U.S. Bank about his well orchestrated succession plan.

Filmed in advance of our exclusive Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquiredcontent pop-up,” Richard Davis provided valuable insight into sharing intelligence to build others up. He also explained the steps he took to position his successor, Andy Cecere, for success. Rather than edit my conversation down to just that clip, here is the full conversation between Richard (now President & CEO, Make-A-Wish Foundation of America), and me.

We start by talking about culture, purposes and values (1:21). Next, how industry leaders can inspire the societies and communities they serve (5:06). We talked about laying the foundation for a well received transition (8:20) before exploring the equation IQ+EQ+CQ (12:22). Finally, how companies become places that employees want to work for (15:49).

#AOBA21

*Another dot to connect? Our Editor-at-Large, Jack Milligan, talked with the Senior Chairman of Melissa’s law firm, Rodgin Cohen, as part of this digital program. The two explored the heightened cybersecurity threats facing banks today, his outlook for bank M&A in 2021 and how regulation could change under the Biden Administration. For those with access to Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired’s exclusive digital content, take a look at An Interview with Rodgin Cohen.

Inspired By The Joshua Tree

WASHINGTON, DC — It turns out, Bono knew something about banking. 

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 had 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.

Think of this as a new pop-up website, one that disappears after a few glorious weeks. Available exclusively on BankDirector.com, this on-demand package consists of timely short-form videos, CEO interviews, live “ask me anything”-type sessions and proprietary research. Topics range from building value to doing a deal, enhancing culture to addressing competition — 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 Joshua Tree songs are relevant to bank leadership teams. 

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, Bryan Jordan, the CEO of First Horizon National Corp., about mergers of equals.

c/o Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired

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.

Here’s To The Optimists

Fad diets, self-care recommendations and admonishments to “turn the page.”

We all know what’s coming up in our news feeds. But before we give into these New Year’s cliches, let’s take a minute to appreciate how so many were able to pivot in such unexpected ways.

Knowing that one can successfully change should serve many well in this new year.

While resilience — and perseverance — took center stage in 2020, I find culture, technology and growth showed up in new ways as well.

CULTURE, REVEALED

During the darkest of economic times, I was amazed by examples of creativity, commitment and collaboration to roll out the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program. When social issues exploded, proud to see industry leaders stand tall against racism, prejudice, discrimination and bigotry. With work-from-home pressures challenging the concepts of teamwork and camaraderie, delighted by how banks embraced new and novel ways to communicate.

TECHNOLOGY, FIRST

Seeing business leaders share their intelligence and experiences to help build others’ confidence stands out. So, too, does how few shied away from technology, which clearly accelerated the transformation of the financial sector. The rush to digital this spring forced banking leaders to assess their capabilities — and embrace new tools and strategies to “do something more.” As the financial sectors’ technology integration continues, this mindset of finding answers — rather than merely identifying barriers — should benefit quite a few.

GROWTH, POSSIBLE

Many banks considered JPMorgan Chase & Co, Bank of America Corp. and Citigroup as their biggest challenges and competitors entering 2020. Now, I’d wager Venmo, Square and Chime command as much attention. However, competition typically brings out the best in executives; with mergers and acquisitions activity poised to resume and new fintech relationships taking root, growing one’s bank is still possible.

##

So here’s to the optimists. Leaders are defined by their actions, and many deserve to take a well-earned bow for making their colleagues’ and clients’ lives better. While we leave a year marked by incredible unemployment, economic uncertainties and political scars, I’ve found a negative mindset never leads to a happy life. Rather than lament all that went sideways this year, I choose to commemorate the unexpected positives. As I do, I extend my best to you and yours.

With appreciation,

Al

*This reflection also appears in Bank Director’s newsletter, The Slant. A new addition to our editorial suite of products in 2020, I invite you to sign up for this free Saturday newsletter here.

How A Cat Named Jackson Ties Into the Biggest Tech IPO in 15 Years

As we wind down the year, I’m taking a look back on the biggest tech IPO of 2020.

WASHINGTON, DC — I first ventured into nCino‘s Wilmington, NC headquarters when the pioneer in cloud banking and digital transformation solutions employed less than ten people. Today, that number exceeds 1,000. Since that first flight into ILM, I have met a number of their senior team, enjoyed myself at their annual nSight conferences and heard how cloud-based companies like theirs appeal to bank executives and their boards.

Their employment growth parallels the success of their business, one that transitioned from a private company to a public one this summer. As you can see, their IPO (code-named “Project Jackson”) made it on the cover of Bank Director magazine this summer.

I was delighted that our editorial team chose both the story name, and cover art, based on the inspiration behind “Project Jackson.” In addition, proud that we shed light on a much bigger story; namely, how the Covid-19 pandemic impacts the process of going public.

As an early New Years gift, I took this out from behind the BankDirector.com paywall and share the unabridged article, authored by John Maxfield, below.

Project Jackson

Nobody at nCino slept well the night of July 13, 2020. The company, a pioneer of cloud-based services for financial institutions, was going public the next day. Never before had the spotlight shone so intensely on the rapidly growing technology company based in Wilmington, North Carolina. It was a moment of truth. Its leadership team and employees had spent almost a decade building the company — now investors would judge it over the course of a single day. Going public is always a gamble, but never more so than in a global pandemic.

Dory Weiss woke up early the next morning. The 41-year-old vice president of engineering at nCino was scrambling to upload photos onto a mobile app. The app would broadcast images taken by nCino employees onto Nasdaq’s seven-story monitor in Times Square. What better way to mark the occasion, Weiss thought, than a picture of her cats with an nCino-themed pinata that a colleague gave her for Cinco de Mayo? There was only one problem. “Getting cats to do anything you want them to do is a fool’s errand,” Weiss laments. “So there was this laughably bad photograph of the cats and my partner, Katie, trying to stage them.”

Similar scenes were unfolding in hundreds of homes across Wilmington and around the world. Over 900 nCino employees in 12 countries uploaded more than 6,000 photos that morning. They then spent hours watching a livestream of Nasdaq’s giant monitor as it cycled through the images.

Weiss arrived at nCino’s headquarters around 8 a.m. Hundreds of her colleagues would have done the same, but for the social-distancing restrictions enacted to slow the spread of Covid-19. The few dozen who showed up that morning planted themselves in a pair of common areas on the second and third floors, with the rest patched in remotely.

Everyone was watching CNBC.

“There’s an IPO today,” announced David Faber, co-anchor of CNBC’s morning show, Squawk on the Street. “nCino, N-C-N-O. Cloud software for financial institutions — fintech.”

“I want that,” co-anchor and Mad Money host Jim Cramer responded. “What is it? nCino?”

“Yeah. N-C-N-O,” Faber repeated.

“Done. I want 10%.”

After pricing at $31 per share the night before, nCino’s stock opened for trading at $71 two minutes before noon. People erupted into cheers. By the end of the day, nCino’s stock closed at $91.59, good for a 195% surge on its first day as a public company. Only one other technology company in the past 20 years — China’s search engine giant, Baidu, which debuted in 2005 — performed better.

Had this been the height of the tech bubble in early 2000, no one would have been surprised. But this was two weeks after the close of the worst economic quarter in the United States since the Great Depression. Nearly a third of economic output had vanished. Four months earlier, 6.9 million people filed for unemployment benefits in a single week. How did nCino’s share price nearly triple in this environment? And how did its executives, employees and advisors navigate the intricacies of filing an initial public offering — from securing regulatory approval, to enticing investors, to actually listing on the exchange — when they couldn’t meet with each other, let alone investors, in person?

The story of nCino’s IPO — code-named “Project Jackson,” after CEO Pierre Naudé’s cat, which was named after the nCino employee, Reid Jackson, whose car it was found under one day in the company’s parking lot — is compelling on its own. Yet, it also sheds light on a bigger story about how the process of going public may have been permanently altered by the Covid-19 pandemic.

The journey to become a publicly traded company started for nCino at a meeting on the 27th floor of Bank of America Corp.’s building in midtown Manhattan on Sept. 24, 2019. The nation’s second largest bank by assets was acting as its lead underwriter; it’s also an nCino client. “We sat down, talked about the company and mapped out the process, working backward from when we wanted to go public,” recalls Jonathan Rowe, chief marketing officer of nCino.

The original plan was to debut in late May. That way, nCino could benefit from the results of its latest fiscal year, which would close on Jan. 31, yet still beat the summer lull when traders and portfolio managers flee New York City for places like the Hamptons.

The biggest undertaking at that stage was drafting the S-1, the document submitted to the Securities and Exchange Commission for an IPO. In nCino’s case, its S-1 ran 322 pages, densely packed with legalese, risk factors, an explanation of the business and financial statements for the preceding three years. “Drafting the S-1 is an incredibly involved process,” says nCino’s chief corporate development and legal officer, Greg Orenstein, who took the lead on the process. “Essentially, we are describing over eight years’ worth of work, product development, innovation and customer success in one document for investors to use to decide whether to invest in our company.” Hours were spent parsing the simplest terms, like how to distinguish between banks that were customers of nCino, and customers of those banks — nCino has “customers,” it decided; its bank customers have “clients.”

Everything proceeded like clockwork in the two months after nCino confidentially filed its S-1 on the Thursday before Christmas 2019. Its IPO working group responded to questions and addressed requested edits to the document from the SEC. Its financial team closed the books on the 2020 fiscal year. And its executives and advisors began preparing the presentation they would use on its roadshow, a grueling two weeks spent flying around the country pitching the company’s stock to institutional investors.

Then Covid-19 struck.

“We were moving along as the virus spread around the country, then the markets started getting hit,” recalls David Rudow, nCino’s chief financial officer. “The speed at which the stock market declined was very concerning. To me, it’s like, ‘The market is discounting some really bad news.’”

By mid-March, the stock market was in freefall. The S&P 500 dropped 9.5% on March 12 — the sixth worst drop in the history of the index. Four days later, it tumbled 12% — the biggest single-day decline since Black Monday on Oct. 19, 1987. All told, the S&P 500 had lost 38% of its value by then. Meanwhile, the Chicago Board Options Exchange’s Volatility Index, or VIX, a measure of expected future stock market volatility, spiked by a factor of five — exceeded in recent years only in the immediate wake of Lehman Brothers’ bankruptcy in 2008.

“The arrival of the pandemic and market volatility was really an opportunity to sit back and try to figure out what was going to happen,” says Martin Wellington, managing partner at Sidley Austin’s office in Palo Alto, California, who served as nCino’s outside counsel in the IPO process. “I’ve done IPOs and lots of other capital markets transactions in the midst of market volatility, but the thing that made this fundamentally different was the inability to have physical interactions with people.”

By late March, Rudow says, it became a foregone conclusion. “We said, ‘You know what? We’re just going to hold off.’”

The decision to delay the IPO fell to nCino’s CEO, Naudé, a distinguished-looking South African who’s built like a rugby player and speaks with an Afrikaans accent.

Sharing the stage with Frank Sorrentino (CEO of ConnectOne Bank) and Pierre Naudé at Experience FinXTech

The 61-year-old executive grew up as one of five children of a well-to-do farmer in Worcester, South Africa. From an early age, he fit the psychological profile of an entrepreneur, exhibiting a restless disdain for authority and an appetite for competition. “I always struggled with authority over me, people trying to tell me what to do,” he says. Despite this, Naudé served an obligatory year in the South African military after graduating from high school. He spent three months in basic training and two months in guerrilla warfare training before returning to his hometown for the last seven months to effectively serve as a beat cop. “Nothing ever happened,” he says. “If I think back, still to this day, I think we were as useless as you possibly could get.”

A turning point came after Naudé finished his military service. “I sat back and said, ‘What am I going to do now?’” he recalls. “I literally did not have a plan.” So he applied for a job at a bank — Boland Bank, the equivalent of a regional bank in the United States. He spent the next few months learning how to program, and then the following eight years doing just that. One of Boland’s claims to fame during Naudé’s time at the bank, and a project he was intimately involved in, was stringing together the first ATM network in South Africa. “We wrote lots of code, wrote the core, wrote teller systems, wrote deposit systems, a loan system, et cetera,” Naudé says.

After traveling to the United States to train and scout technology for Boland, Naudé immigrated with his wife and infant daughter to America in 1987. He moved first to Philadelphia, where he worked as a consultant. He then moved to Iowa, working while going to school at Upper Iowa University, before a former colleague from Boland recruited him to work at S1 Corp., a software development company near Atlanta. It was at S1, which specialized in payment processing and financial services software, that Naudé made the connections that later brought him to nCino.

Naudé is a popular leader by all accounts. “Why do I always tear up when this man talks,” commented an nCino employee in an internal chat log provided to the author from a company “all-hands” meeting in April 2020. “For those of you who are starting on your career paths and are fortunate enough to be part of the nCino family,” wrote another, “embrace it and appreciate it. There is no other company that even comes close in culture to what we have here.”

This is intentional. “The thing I want to make sure you understand is that we have never paid a consultant to come and tell us about culture and values and those things,” Naudé says. “I think the benefit of being 30 years old, coming to America, starting at the bottom again, and working for a variety of managers — that experience gave me a deep understanding of the value of people. And so when we started the company, literally after about six months, we probably had 20 people, I thought, ‘Well, it’s probably time to get our values together.’ So I drew them up. They’re the same values that drive us today.”

Among Naudé’s colleagues at nCino, Orenstein probably knows him best. “I’ve been fortunate to know Pierre for 15 years and I consider him a dear friend,” says Orenstein, who had previously worked with Naudé at S1. “Pierre is just Pierre. There’s no pretending to be someone he’s not. He’s just an extremely transparent person, and as you spend time with him, you pick up on that.”

While Naudé decided in early March to delay nCino’s IPO, the project’s working group of executives, legal advisors and investment bankers continued laboring behind the scenes. It was never a matter of if nCino would go public, only a matter of when. One question looming over them was whether it was even possible to pull off an IPO in a pandemic, given that they wouldn’t be able to meet prospective investors in person.

It was proposed in early April that they start testing the waters with investors over video-conferencing platforms like Zoom Video Communications and BlueJeans by Verizon. The initial reaction, Wellington recalls, was, “We’ll never do that. Let’s just wait for this to pass, and then in May, when we can get back together with people, we’ll go around and do the usual testing-the-waters meetings.” Within weeks, however, their perspective had shifted. “We were like, ‘Okay, we’re doing this virtually,’” says Wellington, who advises regularly on IPOs. “The bankers were saying, ‘Yeah, we’ve done one or two, and it seems to work pretty well. But of course, we’ll wait for this to pass before we can do the roadshow, because no one would ever invest in an IPO without being able to meet the management team in person.’”

After the federal government declared the Covid-19 pandemic a national emergency on March 12, the IPO market froze. Not a single company went public for the rest of the month, compared to nine IPOs over the same period in 2019. The market started thawing in April, with new listings slowly trickling out. The pace picked up in May, with seven IPOs in the first week alone. But the breakthrough moment came on May 21.

That day, shares of direct-to-consumer insurance company SelectQuote climbed 35% on its first day of trading. That opened the floodgates. Thirty-seven companies went public in June, nearly a dozen more than in June 2019. Among those was ZoomInfo Technologies, which closed 62% higher in its debut. Far from being an IPO apocalypse, 2020 had become a bonanza.

“We thought in late March and early April that you would never get an IPO done in this market,” Wellington says. “But not only were IPOs getting done, the receptivity to them was surprising, frankly.”

The Federal Reserve is largely to thank for this. By March 15, it had cut the federal funds rate to 0%. That same day, it announced a round of quantitative easing, an unconventional monetary policy tool first deployed in the financial crisis of 2008-09 that floods capital markets with liquidity in order to drive down long-term interest rates. Over the next two and a half months, the Fed purchased $2.8 trillion worth of government bonds and other long-term securities. This lowered bond yields and triggered a deluge of capital into equities — especially technology stocks. Throughout the following four months, despite a steep drop in economic activity and sharp increase in unemployment, the S&P 500 recovered most of its lost ground, led by the likes of Amazon.com, Microsoft Corp. and Apple.

These events coincided with auspicious developments within nCino, too. On May 18, it completed its first-quarter review, capturing the company’s success with the Paycheck Protection Program, a loan program administered by the Small Business Administration designed to help small businesses survive the pandemic. All told, banks originated over $50 billion in PPP loans using nCino’s cloud-based Bank Operating System. New customers purchased its software; existing customers subscribed to new services. The coronavirus crisis had become a proving ground for nCino.

The moment was ripe, nCino’s executives concluded. They decided to pull the trigger after Memorial Day. The company would go public in mid-July.

We wanted to be one of the companies that helped open the IPO market,” Rowe explains. “We’ve always seen ourselves as a leader in cloud banking, so we brought that same mentality to the IPO process — not only from the perspective of the financial services industry, but for the economy overall.”

The success of nCino through the early stages of the Covid-19 pandemic wouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone who had followed the company. Amongst its founding software benefits, as it incubated within Live Oak Bancshares in 2010, was facilitating remote work.

The Wilmington-based bank specialized in originating SBA loans to veterinarians, which minimized credit risk because the loans were backed by the government. But to generate enough scale to earn a respectable profit, the strategy had to expand nationwide. In lieu of branches, Live Oak bought a pair of corporate jets — “branches in the sky” — to shuttle loan officers around the country winning business. There was just one catch. To make the vision a reality, the bank needed software that enabled its loan officers to remotely complete loan files from end to end.

Of the millions of lines of code embedded in nCino’s software, Nathan Snell wrote the first one. Even on a video conference call, the 34-year-old chief innovation officer of nCino emits the peculiar breed of confidence that’s born from a union of acute intelligence and knowing success from a young age. As the son of an engineer, Snell grew up surrounded by technology in Santa Cruz, California. His earliest memory is of using a soldering iron to build computers. He taught himself how to program and, at age 11, convinced a popular talk radio host in San Francisco to hire him to design her website.

Snell eventually made his way to Live Oak in 2010, after graduating from the University of North Carolina Wilmington and getting to know the bank’s founder and CEO, James “Chip” Mahan, and president, Neil Underwood. “I wasn’t actually sure if I wanted to join them fully, so I did some consulting to start,” Snell says. “About a week in, I was looking at how they were operating and was like, ‘Wow, there’s a lot of opportunity here.’ I spent a lot of time with Chip and Neil, and they were both just phenomenal. As a budding entrepreneur, I was like, ‘Wow, it would be amazing to be able to work directly with these guys and learn from them.’ So I shuttered what I was doing and joined them full-time.”

In doing so, Snell became nCino’s first employee.

From its earliest days, nCino had grand ambitions. Naudé hung a sign in its makeshift office space declaring it the global headquarters of the worldwide leader in cloud banking. “Every day you walked in and you’re like, ‘Wow, we’re the worldwide leader with only 10 people,’” recounts Rowe, who joined the company eight years ago as one of its earliest employees.

The year 2012 proved to be a seminal one for nCino. After other banks expressed interest in Live Oak’s software, nCino, a play on the Spanish word for “oak,” was spun out as a separate company. By the end of that year, the newly independent company had raised $9 million in capital, hired more employees and signed on 25 customers. It followed that in 2013 by raising $10 million from Wellington Management Co., a prominent institutional investor in the banking space, and hosting its first user conference, nSight, which long-tenured employees look back on as the company’s coming-out party. Over the next five years, nCino would grow to 130 customers and 270 employees.

Originally, nCino focused on the smaller institutions that populate the financial services industry — community and regional banks as well as credit unions. But that changed in late 2014, when SunTrust Banks, a $205 billion bank at the time, became its first enterprise banking client. (SunTrust has since merged with BB&T Corp. to form Truist Financial Corp., the sixth largest commercial bank in the United States. It remains an nCino customer.)

SunTrust was spending north of $20 million a year to digitize its commercial lending system. That’s when Pam Kilday, head of operations for its wholesale bank, came across nCino. “I thought, ‘This is exactly what I’m trying to build for not only commercial loans, but all of business banking,’” Kilday recalls. “We decided to investigate the feasibility of bringing nCino in, doing kind of a co-development, which flew in the face of everything we had been doing. At first, just about everybody wanted to fire me.”

(A year after retiring from SunTrust in 2018, Kilday joined nCino’s board of directors.)

The technology wasn’t the only thing that attracted SunTrust to nCino, Kilday says — it was also the people. “I thought Pierre was the real deal,” she says. “Everything we saw, every commitment they made to us at that time, they delivered. Whether it was documentation on their security setup, whether it was their contractual agreements with Salesforce at the time. Everything they told me was true. If they could do something, they would say it. If they couldn’t, they would tell me.”

That may sound trite, but it’s a frequent refrain of nCino customers. “Our relationship with nCino developed before I got to know Pierre, though I’ll say he sealed the deal as most CEOs can do when they get into a high-pressure situation,” says Frank Sorrentino III, chairman and CEO of ConnectOne Bancorp, a $7.6 billion bank based in Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey. “But the nCino organization sold the relationship on its own. There’s a great group of people there. They’re committed to building a better mousetrap to help banks provide a level of service that clients will expect in the future.”

By the time nCino publicly filed its S-1 with the SEC on June 22, 2020, it boasted more than 1,100 bank and credit union customers, over 900 employees spread across seven global offices and $138 million in annual revenue.

On July 14, the morning of nCino’s IPO, Rowe woke up at 4 a.m. and walked three blocks to the beach. Nine years earlier, he left a position as a professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington to join the embryonic nCino team. Rowe is a study in contrasts. He masks intensity with levity. He’s an executive at nCino yet takes video calls during the pandemic in the unfinished basement of his house, framed by hastily constructed shelves and insulation falling from the ceiling.

Sitting on the beach that morning waiting for the sunrise, Rowe was more reflective than ecstatic. He had been involved in Project Jackson since the beginning. And now, despite nCino’s decision to go public in a global pandemic, there was little doubt that it would be a success. The evening before, 8 million shares of nCino’s stock, equal to 8.5% of its total outstanding share count, were allocated to institutional investors at $31 per share. The demand for the offering was 49 times oversubscribed. Far from being a hindrance, conducting a virtual roadshow, consisting of more than 50 meetings over five days, proved to be a blessing in disguise. “I didn’t think about it until now,” says Rudow, “but because you’re touching so many more people, it probably helped build the book.”

But Rowe and the marketing team’s work wasn’t done. They mailed over 900 swag boxes to employees, packed with miniature nCino-themed bells to mark the occasion. They repainted and reconfigured Naudé’s office to serve as a makeshift studio for the media interviews he would conduct that day. And along with Nasdaq, they co-hosted an internal broadcast giving nCino employees a behind-the-scenes view of the day’s events, walking them through exactly how a company goes public.

While the stock market opens for trading at 9:30 a.m. EST, it isn’t until later in the morning that newly listed companies on Nasdaq start to actively trade. “We do not open up our IPOs at the same time as the broader market,” explains Joe Brantuk, chief client officer at Nasdaq. “There’s about 8,000 publicly traded companies in the United States and we want to give portfolio managers and traders an opportunity to position their existing holdings at the market open before turning their focus to new listings.”

Instead, Nasdaq reserves a “quotation window” for each new listing on the morning it debuts. This is the on-deck circle, if you will, just before a company’s stock begins trading. During this window, which can last from 10 minutes to multiple hours, Nasdaq’s market makers work with a stock’s underwriters to find an “indicative price” at which there’s a balance between buyers and sellers. If there are too many sellers relative to buyers, the stock could dramatically fall. If there are too many buyers relative to sellers, the reverse will happen. Neither is ideal. To minimize volatility, the goal is to find the price at which approximately 10% of the newly listed shares will trade hands — nCino’s magic number was 800,000 shares.

The quotation window for nCino opened at 10:10 a.m.

At 10:15 a.m., Nasdaq’s market makers were fielding buy orders for 4.7 million shares versus sell orders of 200,000 shares.

At 10:48 a.m., 486,000 shares were paired off at $62.

At 11:00 a.m., 708,000 shares were paired off at $65.

At 11:15 a.m., the threshold had been reached: 931,000 shares paired off at $70.

Still, they kept going.

By 11:40 a.m., 1.5 million shares were paired at $71 — about 20% of the total raise.

At 11:55 a.m., Jay Heller, head of capital markets at Nasdaq, gave the two-minute warning.

At 11:58 a.m., nCino’s stock opened for trading at $71 per share.

By 4 p.m., when the market closed for the day, nCino’s stock stood at $91.59 per share.

There is no single answer to the question of what makes for a successful IPO. The timing must be right. The story must be right. The market dynamics must be right. And, especially in the case of nCino, which went public in a pandemic, you must make the most of a challenging situation.

There is no question that nCino prevailed on all accounts. It is a company that is leading the digital revolution of one of the biggest industries in America. Its culture and story appeal to investors across the board. And its nimble response to the restrictions imposed on the IPO process from the pandemic — from negotiating the inability to meet with investors in person to orchestrating an IPO experience that nearly 1,000 remote employees could participate in — made it, in many ways, bespoke for this moment.

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