The Little Bank That Could

September 23rd, 2016

strategy-9-23-16.pngSoon after Josh Rowland’s family bought Lead Bank in Garden City, Kansas, in 2005, the small financial institution felt the full impact of the financial crisis. The loan portfolio was in bad shape. Several employees lost their jobs. The entire experience lead to a lot of soul searching.

“It was really existential,’’ Vice Chairman Rowland says. “What do we survive for? What’s the point of a community bank? The situation was that dire. We had to really decide whether we should give it up.”

After much discussion, the family decided to hire Bill Bryant as the chief executive officer to help clean up the bank, now with $164 million in assets, and really focus on its niche: small business owners. A lot of community banks say they are serving small business owners, but Lead Bank decided to go a step further. In 2011, it launched a business advisory division for the purpose of coaching small business owners on cash flows, provide part-time or interim chief financial officers, and advice on strategic planning and even mergers and acquisitions. Rowland says a lot of small businesses could use advisory services, especially if they can’t afford to hire a full-time CFO. Lead Business Advisors has senior managing director Patrick Chesterman, a former energy executive for a large propane company and Jacquie Ward, a trainee analyst. The bank overall made a profit of $500,000 in the first six months of the year and saw assets grow 30 percent in the last year and a half, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data.

But the investment in advisory services is not a quick payback. Rowland says the division is not profitable yet. The challenges include marketing the program to a business community more accustomed to relying on trusted accountants or lawyers for such advice. Banks naturally have a lot of financial information and expertise, but they fail to provide it to their clients. “We ought to be figuring out every possible way to deliver that kind of financial expertise to Main Street business,” he says.

The tactic is an unusual one for community banks, which might have a wealth management division but not a business advisory division per se. And it’s expensive. Baker Boyer, a $571 million bank in Walla Walla, Washington, has been offering business advisory services as part of its wealth management division for years. But it has taken some 15 years to restructure the bank to offer such services, says Mark Kajita, president and chief executive officer. The average personnel expense per employee for the bank is roughly $80,000 annually with six lawyers on staff and the bank’s efficiency ratio is 73 percent, higher than the peer average of 66 percent.

However, the bank made $2.5 million in profits during the first half of 2016, with half of that coming from the wealth and business advisory division. Kajita says what made it possible was the fact that the bank is family owned and can invest in the long term without worrying about reporting quarterly financial results to pubic shareholders.

Community banks of that size have a real need to create a niche,’’ says Jim McAlpin, a partner at Bryan Cave in Atlanta who advises banks. “Historically, community banks have been focused on the small businesses of America, and to offer services to those small businesses is a great strategy.”

Joel Pruis, a senior director at Cornerstone Advisors in Phoenix, says banks have done themselves a disservice by relinquishing advisory services to CPAs and attorneys. “In terms of empowering lenders, in terms of providing more advice, we definitely need more of that,’’ he says. “Bankers need to be seen as a resource and an expert in the financial arena instead of just application takers.”

For Rowland, rethinking the role of the community bank is fundamental to its survival. “I don’t know how we expect to keep doing the same things and expect different results,’’ he says. People don’t feel their bank is adding any value for them, he says. “If that’s our industry’s problem that we haven’t given them an experience, that’s our fault,’’ Rowland says. “We have taught them over years and years that our services are so cheap, they ought to be free.”

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Naomi Snyder is the editor for Bank Directoran information resource for directors and officers of financial companies. You can follow her on Twitter at twitter.com/naomisnyder or get connected on LinkedIn.