Rebranding Community Banking with Technology

The definition of community banking has moved well beyond asset size and branch location over the years, but has it evolved in the eyes of account holders as well? For many, “community bank” still brings to mind a black and white picture of George Bailey and the Bailey Bros. Building and Loan from It’s a Wonderful Life. We in the banking world know this outdated picture of community banking is no longer accurate, as today’s community banks offer the same modern conveniences as larger institutions but do so in a far more personal way.

However, what can be done to rebrand community banking to add color to the Baby Boomer image of community institutions and also appeal to younger customers who have never even heard of George Bailey? More importantly, how does a community institution rebrand without jeopardizing the timeless principles that have always set it apart from larger bank competitors?

Some lessons can be gleaned from the experience of First Bank of Georgia, a $500 million Augusta, Ga.-based bank recently named by American Banker as a Top 200 Community Bank and Thrift.

Technology Access

If you ask First Bank of Georgia’s vice chairman Patrick G. Blanchard the biggest difference between starting his first bank in the late 1960’s and opening one today, he will give a fairly obvious answer: technology. However, innovation in banking technology isn’t all that he’s talking about. It’s the access community banks have to this technology that has made the biggest difference.

“Early in my career, we didn’t have the technology to compete with the large regional banks of the day,” Blanchard says. “Today, we have access to that technology because of the affordability of advancements and because of the cost savings associated with implementing them. The quality of today’s technology allows us to improve operations efficiency and actually see measurable return on investment (ROI) from implementation.”

As a result, First Bank can tout big bank-like technology and complementary products such as mobile banking and remote deposit capture. At the same time, its smaller size and focus on customer service gives the community bank the ability to maximize this technology more effectively than larger competitors, according to Blanchard.

“As a community bank, we don’t have as many hoops to jump through as some of these mega banks,” Blanchard says. “We can be flexible in implementing technology practices and making customer decisions right away without waiting on long approval processes made in another city. This is a huge benefit to smaller institutions like ours. Instead of technology advancement being a hindrance to customer interaction, we are able to leverage it to make quick lending decisions and build lasting relationships with customers who are increasingly doing most of their banking outside of a branch.”

Fear of technology interfering in customer relationships may be hindering many community institutions from fully embracing recent advancements, Blanchard adds. As he puts it, “there are plenty of senior community bank executives who aren’t progressive and are from an age that wants banking to stay as it was.”

Overcoming this nostalgia of yester-year’s banking environment has made First Bank rethink its hiring practices and internal training procedures to hone employee technology expertise. Traditionally, the bank looked for seasoned bankers with knowledge of banking rules, regulations and the community; now, technology expertise is prominent among the hiring requirements.

“We try to hire from a mix of technology and community banking experience,” Blanchard says. “Our goal is to have a management team of highly skilled bankers who understand the technical aspect of banking. We usually like our branch managers to be folks who have been onboard for a while and who know our community banking philosophies, with most of these outside recruits coming from other community banks, where they have had a more diverse style of training and experiences. The mega banks, on the other hand, appear to be training personnel for single-purpose duties and responsibilities.”

“Fortunately, we independent community banks also have the value of training programs from professional organizations like BAI and our state associations to help us diversify both our hiring and training practices,” Blanchard adds. Along these lines, First Bank has implemented an aggressive training program to help employees find the perfect mix between traditional community banking values and modern practices. The bank has two employees dedicated specifically to technical training and a third dedicated to customer service aspects. These in-house trainers work hand-in-hand with the Community Bankers Association of Georgia (CBA) on implementing education initiatives that keep employees up-to-date on relevant industry information and trends.

Though community banking has always been synonymous with small business, embracing these advancements in technology through training and other avenues is helping First Bank attract retail consumers as well as new local business accounts. Once the technology draws these families in, exceptional customer service is keeping them with the bank, according to Blanchard.

“We have an unbelievably loyal customer base that has seen us go to battle for them, and we are now expanding that base through these new outlets,” he says. “In return, we are seeing far more business from consumers who are making the switch from the big banks.”

Ms. Brown recently retired as president and CEO of the Community Bankers Association of Georgia after 25 years of service. She can be reached at [email protected].