By Karen Kroll
A community bank based in Wausau, Wisconsin is a top SBA lender, boasts a robust and national online presence, and has staked out a leading position the niche area of high-end motorhome lending. It employs staff at each location who’ve been trained to deal with clients who have dementia. Perhaps not surprisingly, it’s growing at about ten percent annually.
The success of these initiatives bears out the assertion of Todd Nagel, CEO with the $1.35 financial institution, that “community banking isn’t dead.” At the same time, he notes, community banks need to leverage the changes underway in the financial services sector. Here’s how Nagel and his team are accomplishing that.
In 2007, Nagel, then COO with River Valley Bank, noticed the explosive growth of several online-only banks. “I thought, ‘well, if these guys can launch a website and go get some cash, why can’t a little Wisconsin bank?’”
At the time, however, aside from a few high-profile ventures, very few financial institutions had launched dedicated, online banks. Nagel and his team had to educate both local and federal regulators. It wasn’t until 2009 that they launched incrediblebank.com, as a division of River Valley Bank.
The wait was worth it. “It exceeded expectations right away,” Nagel says.
Then came the downturn. For several years, Nagel and his team focused on keeping the core business at River Valley Bank up and running. As a result, they weren’t able to give incrediblebank.com much attention.
Beefing up lending.
That changed as the economy improved. In about 2014, Nagel vowed to diversify away from commercial real estate, which had led to losses for River Valley during the downturn.
Nagel’s personal interest in motorhomes helped him move toward this goal. In 2005, he took his family to Yellowstone National Park in a recently-purchased motorhome, and “fell in love with the motorhome lifestyle,” he says. As Nagel talked to motorhome dealers, he learned they often couldn’t get financing for motorhomes over about $400,000. IncredibleBank.com began offering motorhome loans with a guaranteed 48-hour turnaround on applications.
In 2018, in another move to diversify, Nagel recruited several experienced SBA lenders to build on the existing SBA team. For the last quarter of 2018, River Valley was among the 25 most active SBA 7(a) lenders in the U.S.
To market its loan products, River Valley has established a strong referral network, Nagel says. In addition, its loan officers travel the country, attending trade shows and other conferences.
Bringing the banks together.
Armed with the new lines of business, incrediblebank.com began growing at a faster rate than River Valley. It’s captured deposit customers in all 50 states—on the lending side, it has customers in 42 states.
Employees were increasingly pulled between the two entities. In 2016, management developed a strategic plan to merge them. After all, the banks offer the same products. The breakdowns between consumer and business accounts are roughly similar.
Incredible Bank would be the surviving brand for a simple reason: five other banks in Wisconsin have “river” in their name.
The dual-brand campaign launched in early April 2019 with a video and a letter from Nagel to all customers. Both of these communications let customers know that in the fall, the bank will be changing its name to Incredible Bank. All reiterate that it’s the same ownership.
Most responses have been positive. To the few that have been negative, Nagel says the bank will do a better job telling its story. “We don’t want to have one customer leave us or be upset because we’re changing our name,” he adds.
Keeping an eye on future growth.
Nagel’s goal is to continue boosting Incredible Bank’s bottom line by at least 10 percent annually. He also continues to look for ways to diversify its revenue stream.
While online banking is growing, “our golden goose is still the community markets,” Nagel says. At the same time, community banks that want to survive—presumably, all do—will have to do fewer things, and do them well, he adds. For instance, Incredible Bank has cut its lending for investments in original equipment manufacturer (OEM) equipment, as most manufacturers offer their own financing, he adds.
Community banks also need to be tech-savvy. Nagel notes that reductions in the cost of technology are leveling the playing field between banks of all sizes.
At the same time, community banks need to maintain their customer focus. At Incredible Bank, employees answer the phones—no aggravating, endless voicemail loops—and listen to customers’ concerns.
To help customers suffering from dementia, River Valley Bank instituted an extensive training program. One or two employees at each branch knows how to work with these customers. Essentially, they provide more handholding and work at a slower pace throughout each transaction, Nagel says. When authorized, they’ll also communicate with the customer’s family members or caregivers.
By keeping customers front and center, while also embracing technology, community banks can go head-to-head with the big banks, Nagel says. If they do that, he thinks their future looks pretty bright.
Karen M. Kroll is a business and financial services writer and content marketer based in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org.