The Intersection of Leadership and Profitability

By Al Dominick, CEO of DirectorCorps — parent co. to Bank Director & FinXTech

Quickly

  • Key takeaways from one of my favorite summer banking events, Crowe Horwath’s Bank Leadership and Profitability Improvement Conference.

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This morning, on the first of my two flights from Washington National to Monterey, California, I learned that Walmart customers might soon be able to get installment loans for big-ticket items through Affirm, a San Francisco-based FinTech I first wrote about in 2014 (For Banks, the Sky IS Falling).  Per the Wall Street Journal, the companies reportedly are nearing an agreement on a pilot program.  This potential partnership caught my eye as I prepared for today and tomorrow’s conference.  Indeed, relationships like these make clear that when it comes to growth and efficiency, the digital distribution of financial goods and services is a significant issue for the banking industry.

This idea took further shape when I walked into the conference center at the Inn at Spanish Bay.  Immediately upon entering the room, I found John Epperson, a partner at Crowe and Jay Tuli, senior vice president retail banking and residential lending at Leader Bank, sharing their opinions on partnership strategies involving banks and FinTechs.  From the stage, they touched on increasing net interest margins via improved pricing strategies on commercial loans, approaches to streamline mortgage application processes, ideas to reduce staff counts for loan administration processes and how to improve customer experiences through online rent payment solutions.

Their perspectives lined up with those we recently shared on BankDirector.com.  To wit, “many banks have realized advantages of bank-FinTech partnerships, including access to assets and customers.  Since most community banks serve discreet markets, even a relatively simple loan purchase arrangement can unlock new customer relationships and diversify geographic concentrations of credit.  Further, a FinTech partnership can help a bank serve its legacy customers; for instance, by enabling the bank to offer small dollar loans to commercial customers that the bank might not otherwise be able to efficiently originate on its own.”

Of all the difficult issues that bank leadership must deal with, I am inclined to place technology at the top of the list.  Banks have long been reliant on technology to run their operations, but in recent years, technology has become a primary driver of retail and small business banking strategy.  John and Jay simply reinforced this belief.

In addition to their thoughts on collaboration, this afternoon’s sessions focused on ‘Liquidity and Balance Sheet Management,’ ‘Fiscal Policy During Regulatory Uncertainty’ and ‘Managing Your Brand in a Digital World.’  While I took note of a number of issues, three points really stood out:

  • Yes, banks can make money while managing decreasing margins and a flat yield curve.
  • Asset growth without earnings growth is a concern for many because of loan pricing.
  • How a CFO sets a target(s) for interest rate risk may start with an “it depends” type response — but gets nuanced quickly thereafter.

Finally, I’m not holding my breath on the industry receiving regulatory relief any time soon.  I get the sense many here aren’t either.  But it would be nice to see some business people brought in to run various agencies and I’m looking forward to the perspectives of tomorrow’s first guest speaker, Congressman John Ratcliffe.

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My thanks to Crowe Horwath, Stifel, Keefe Bruyette & Woods + Luse Gorman for putting together this year’s Bank Leadership and Profitability Improvement Conference at The Inn at Spanish Bay in Pebble Beach, California.  I’ll check in with additional takeaways based on tomorrow’s presentations.

Creating Better Banking Experiences

Earlier this week, we published our quarterly print issue of Bank Director magazine.  If you haven’t seen it, our talented editor, Naomi Snyder, shines a light on the “tech bets” being made by Fifth Third, a $142 billion asset institution.  Having worked for an IT firm, I appreciate the three questions their President & CEO, Greg Carmichael, asks his team to consider before investing in new technologies:

  1. Does it improve the bank’s ability to serve customers?
  2. Does it drive efficiency?
  3. Does it create a better experience for customers?

As he shares, “not every problem needs to be solved with technology… But when technology is a solution, what technology do you select? Is it cost efficient? How do you get it in as quickly as possible?  You have to maintain it going forward, and hold management accountable for the business outcomes that result if the technology is deployed correctly.”

“The challenges are how to grow the franchise and reposition the franchise to serve our customers in the way they want to be served, which is more of a digital infrastructure.”

-Greg Carmichael, President & CEO, Fifth Third Bank

While Fifth Third plans to invest some $60M this year in technology, Naomi notes that the bank doesn’t have an R&D lab with a staff separated from the rest of the bank and dedicated to inventing things (like its competitor U.S. Bancorp).  Nor does Fifth Third have the reputation of being highly innovative, like a BBVA.  Nonetheless, the regional bank, headquartered in Cincinnati, has a laser focus on developing practical solutions to everyday problems.

So to build on this issue’s cover story — and the efforts we’re making with our FinXTech platform — let me offer my take on who I consider standouts in the payments, lending and retail space today.  Those addressing “everyday problems” may find inspiration from the work being done and/or want to explore partnership opportunities.

Payments + Transfer

When one thinks about payments — and the movement of  value via cash, credit card, check and other transactions — some big names come to mind: Apple Pay, Chase Pay, Square, Paypal, etc.  But don’t sleep on these companies:

Lending

In the lending sector, a lot of people continue to talk about LendingClub’s travails, scoff at SoFi’s change of heart from anti-bank to pro-partnerships and follow Prosper’s efforts to shore up its business.  Within the lending space, these companies also deserve time and attention:

  • Affirm, a digital lender that provides installment financing;
  • Orchard, a technology and infrastructure provider for marketplace lending;
  • Lendio for small business loans;
  • Even, a new kind of financial app that turns variable pay into a steady, reliable income; and
  • Earnest,  a technology-enabled lender that enables one to consolidate and refinance  student loans.

Retail banking

Considering the core functions of retail banking remain the establishment of deposits and making of loans, those pushing the envelope in a way consumers desire include:

  • Ally Bank, known for its “No Branches = Great Rates” tag line;
  • Atom Bank, one of the first Challenger Banks in the UK;
  • Tandem, a new digital bank in the UK;
  • Moven, a pioneer in smart phone banking; and
  • Simple, part of the BBVA family that is reinventing online banking.

While these banks are pushing forward, many legacy institutions will be challenged to meet the expectations of their customers.  They will need to assess the additional risks, costs and supervisory concerns associated with providing new financial services and products.  Accordingly, I’m not alone in believing that financial institutions need to invest in services “for life’s needs” through collaboration and partnerships with companies like those shared in today’s post.

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I realize there are a number of companies “doing it right” in these three sectors – and this simply highlights some of the players that standout to me.  Feel free to comment below on others that I might highlight in future posts.

For Banks, the Sky IS Falling

The first in a five part series on emerging threats to banks from non-financial companies.

For bank executives and board members, competition takes many forms.  Not only are banks burdened with regulation, capital requirements and stress testing, they now have the added pressure of competition from non-financial institutions.  In case you haven’t been paying attention, companies such as Paypal, as well as traditional consumer brands such as Walmart, are aggressively chipping away at banks’ customer base and threatening many financial institutions’ core businesses.  So today’s piece tees up my next four columns by acknowledging the changes taking place within — and immediately outside — our $14 trillion industry.

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The race is on…

A few months ago, at Bank Director’s annual Growth Conference in New Orleans, I polled an audience of CEOs, Chairmen and board members and found the vast majority (a whopping 91%) have real concerns about non-banks entering financial services.  These bankers aren’t alone in their concerns about competition from unregulated entities.  Just days after polling this audience, Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JPMorgan Chase, warned an audience of investors that he sees Google and Facebook specifically as potential competition for the banking giant.  As he notes, both offer services, such as P2P, that could chip away at income sources for banks.

…and its not pride coming up the backstretch

As Emily McCormick wrote, Facebook is already a licensed money transmitter, enabling the social media giant to process payments to application developers for virtual products. Likewise, the retail behemoth Wal-Mart launched Bluebird in partnership with American Express late in 2012 so users can direct deposit their paychecks, make bill payments, withdraw cash from ATMs and write checks.  This makes the results of a recent TD Bank survey about millennials banking online and on their mobile devices more frequently than in a branch so relevant.  Specifically, 90% of survey respondents said they use online or mobile tools for their everyday banking activities, such as checking balances or paying bills, and 57% said they are using mobile banking more frequently than they were last year.

Along the lines of “what is the industry losing”: eventually you’re going to have a generation that has learned how to live without a bank.  That’s a very sky-is-falling, long-term consequence of not adapting.  But there’s also an opportunity for retail banks to do more than simply allow the same types of services digitally that were once only available in-person.  Banks could actually expand what banking means to consumers by offering online services that go beyond their legacy business model.

What I am hearing

Of course, non-banks can, conceptually, expand what banking means to consumers by offering online services that go beyond legacy business models too.  However, the sheer complexity of entering this market is one reason why we have yet to see a startup that truly rebuilds the banking industry brick by brick.  At least, that is the perspective shared by Max Levchin, founder and CEO of online payments startup Affirm, a company with the goal of bringing simplicity, transparency, and fair pricing to consumer credit.  As the co-founder and former CTO of PayPal, Levchin is one of the pioneers within the payments industry.   In a recent piece in Wired magazine (The Next Big Thing You Missed: Startup’s Plan to Remake Banks and Replace Credit Cards Just Might Work), he notes

I don’t know if I want to own a bank. But I do want to lend money in a transparent way, and I want to create an institution people love… I want to be the community bank equivalent for the 21st century, where people say: ‘I trust my banker. He’s a good guy who’s looking out for me.’

Coopetition anyone?

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To comment on this piece, click on the grey circle with the white plus sign on the bottom right.  Next up, a look at PayPal, a the e-commerce business that is “eating the banking industry’s lunch.”