When Bankers Think Like Entrepreneurs

By Kate Young

Here’s a story you don’t hear every day.

A freshly minted college grad with dreams of becoming the next Zuckerberg turns to her local bank for advice on launching her new business. The advice is helpful—and the business starts to gain a foothold, but she takes a left turn. Within months, she finds herself working for the bank, on a wild ride that rapidly transforms it from a $500 million community bank to a $6 billion force that continues to grow and spread across New Jersey, New York City and the Hudson Valley.

The tale sounds far-fetched until you learn that the bank is ConnectOne, and the entrepreneur is Siya Vansia. Of course, Vansia would tell it slightly differently.

When she and her business partner first met with the business development officer at the bank (then called North Jersey Community Bank before its 2013 name change), she was impressed. “I thought, ‘this isn’t what I expected from a bank,’” she recalls. “But we got on with our business.” So when a banker contacted her a few months later with a potential job opportunity at the bank, she was as hesitant as she was surprised. This was 2010—an era of job scarcity—and she went in for the interview.

Two things she did not realize at the time: First, the job was to be as an administrative assistant to Frank Sorrentino, the bank’s founder, chairman and CEO. And second, working with Sorrentino would be a game changer.

Because the bank did not yet have a dedicated marketing department, it was up to Vansia to take on projects like focus groups, events and social media. Before she knew it, “the job had become a career,” and she spun it off to head up the bank’s burgeoning marketing department.

Since then, Vansia says, the bank has “had a lot of changes, a lot of challenges—and I like to think we’ve gone through a lot of versions.” Has working at the bank dimmed her entrepreneurial mindset? Not at all. If anything, it’s only heightened it.

A culture of change

How did ConnectOne Bank acquire its ability to adapt to a rapidly changing environment? Vansia quickly points to the bank’s culture. But she’s careful with the term. It’s one thing to incorporate the concept of nimbleness into a statement of mission or values, after all, and quite another thing to act on it.

In some ways, younger banks like ConnectOne might have the advantage here. Founded in 2005, Sorrentino conceived ConnectOne as the solution to the banking problems he had faced in his earlier career as a developer and builder—problems rooted in poor service and inconsistent relationships. The bank’s focus has always been on finding better ways to do things. And that has led to rapid organic growth, that was only further bolstered by two mergers and acquisitions over four years.

As a result, every employee at every level has faced change as a routine part of the job. And everyone is expected to become comfortable with it.

In meetings and discussion groups, Vansia says, bank leaders are challenged to describe how their efforts will support the bank when it’s three times its current size. “It’s the 3X rule,” she explains. “Whatever we’re doing now—that might not be sustainable when the bank reaches a certain size.” And employees are held accountable for preparing for the inevitable change.

“We’ve all worked within that mindset,” Vansia says, and as a result, she regularly adjusts the way she runs her department. “With every new situation you’re in, there’s an upside and a downside. You need to understand that you’ll have to deal with the unanticipated.”

Looking to the future

Asked to describe how she thinks banking will be different in 10 years, Vansia demurs. “Ten years is such a long time,” she says. And while change is inevitable, it can also move in unpredictable directions. “I pulled up a 2015 blog about banking in 2020, and fintech was such a scary animal. We’ve come such a long way since then.”

Vansia points to the surge in bank/fintech partnerships that have developed over the past two years, and speculates that the next logical step would be for banks to build their technical talent and knowledge base in-house. “Banks will no longer be places people go to, but rather, will be something they do. There are so many examples of this type of change in everything we do.”

“Banks may begin to look like technology companies in the next ten years, developing our own software, programming and user experiences,” she muses. “Bringing technical ability in-house will transform the capabilities of banks—and open avenues to allow them to build the best possible solutions for their clientele.”

Still, though, she insists there’s no technology that can replace a strong culture. “We’re in the experience business,” she says. “Checking accounts across competitors are generally not different or unique. We’re selling an experience…we’re financing people’s future and dreams. What we do and why we do it always have to be part of the conversation, whether it’s in the office, online or through a digital channel.”

Diversity of thought

Vansia also maintains that the conversation must be open to new ideas from all parts of the company—and that requires diversity of thought.

Is it possible to achieve such a thing without diversity in the workforce?

Vansia acknowledges that a lack of diversity in banking has been a hot-button issue for a long time. But she also warns against putting the cart before the horse. The first step, she insists, is for the bank to become comfortable with a wide variety of viewpoints.

At ConnectOne, she says, Sorrentino relies on what he calls the “dynamic tension” created by the different personalities of those who report directly to him. “Everyone has a different vantage point,” she explains. “Every vantage point will be able to see the blind spot that the others didn’t see.”

Once a company becomes a welcoming place for diversity of thought, she believes, “then, naturally, you’ll have different kinds of people at the table—whether it’s a bank or not.” She’s quick to admit, though, that the answers may seem easy for banks located in areas like New York City, where the pool of potential bankers represents a nearly infinite variety of backgrounds. “But we should all be looking for someone who has a unique viewpoint,” she says. “Boards don’t need to be filled solely with accountants and lawyers.”

Earning a seat at the strategic table

As the individual who launched ConnectOne’s inaugural marketing program, Vansia has a vested interest in seeing marketing elevated to a strategic role across the industry. But the onus for making that happen, she says, is on the marketers themselves. They will need to build the skills required to track data, hone it, and turn it into strategic insights. They will need to address brand at a deeper level. And they will need to think in terms of the 3X rule.

If marketing does not take ownership of those duties, she says, some other department will. She adds, “I don’t want to live in a world where IT would own the brand, but that’s still a possibility.” Industry-wide, marketing needs to “work to build a brand that speaks to who we are—one that consumers relate to, and that aligns with their beliefs.”

In the meantime, her work at ConnectOne has confirmed that the challenge of entrepreneurship lives on, even in banking. “I’ve had the opportunity to work at a company that actually believes in what it says and does what it says,” adds Vansia. “We believe in our value system, believe in change—and we behave like a startup.”