Sunday, August 25, 2013

Are Your Customers & Prospects Lovers, Haters, or Swingers?

I recently attended the Pacific Coast Bankers’ School at the University of Washington as an observer. Instead of observing, I went to learn from the many quality industry professionals and college professors that make up the faculty. One was Michael Swenson, a Ford Professor of Marketing at Brigham Young University. 

During his class, he discussed a case where the American Plastics Council (APC, now the Plastics Division of the American Chemistry Council) was trying to get people to feel better about using plastic. It seemed to me that the advertising campaign that ensued was specifically designed to get you to respond “plastic” when confronted by the pimply teenager at the supermarket checkout line that mumbles “paper or plastic”.

After spending millions, the APC was getting no traction. In fact, public opinion of plastics was getting slightly worse. That must have been an uncomfortable conference call.

So the APC brought in some fresh blood to figure out what to do. I can’t recall the agency they hired. But their approach was to divide their constituents into three groups: lovers, haters, and swingers. I think Professor Swenson called them the love group, hate group, and swing group, but I like my names better.

My first thought was, how could somebody “love” plastic? Not that there is anything wrong with that. But the context was that plastic had some positive influence in this group’s lives, such as the local little league switching from a chain link to a plastic-based fence just before their son Timmy (or Justin in modern day) plowed into the fence shagging a deep shot to left. So you get the picture where this group’s heads were (see video).

The hate group generally was of the tree hugging variety... plastic clogs landfills, never biodegrades, kills Flipper, etc. Swingers were indifferent. You may add a funny line now.

Based on the results of the study, you would think the APC would go about changing the hearts and minds of the haters. It’s human nature to try to get those that don’t like us to like us. But you would be wrong. Instead, the APC set to work on the swing group.

Here is where the big learning moment came for me. Instead of parading swingers into a room to do a focus group [insert joke here], the APC brought in the lovers to learn why they felt the way they did about plastic.
They took what they learned from the love group, and began a campaign to change the hearts and minds of the swing group through the eyes of the love group. And it worked.

Aha! *insert light bulb on top of head*

~ Jeff

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Much Maligned Banking Business Model: Lean and Mean

Does your financial institution pursue a relationship driven strategy? If so, you would be in the majority for community FIs. If not, you are much maligned.

In my last post I identified five things I don't understand. One was "Our Money Is No Different Than the Bank Down the Street". I discussed my confusion as to how bankers could believe this and still pursue a more expensive relationship driven strategy. Instead, why don't you get lean and mean?.

I discussed this with bankers I met at the Pacific Coast Bankers School, where I am currently serving as a Faculty Fellow. As an aside, I'm still not sure what that means, except I go to class to form an opinion about the school and its subject matter. But I digress.

The bankers here did not have an appreciation for the business model of a California bank, who shall remain nameless, that sports a near 1.50% ROA, and trades at over 3x tangible book and 18x earnings. The model, is designed to be highly efficient, having an efficiency ratio in the mid 40's and an expense ratio (non-interest expense/AA) at about 2.3%. In other words, this bank is cheap.

If my experience is any gauge, most community FIs choose a more expensive business model, the relationship driven model. This strategy typically delivers a higher net interest margin, because customers won't dump you at the slightest price variation, and is more expensive as the FI invests heavily in relationship managers and high touch service.

But what does the market think of the two models?

I took a look at publicly traded FIs between $1B-$10B in assets, that had ROA's greater than 1%. I controlled for fee income businesses, as high fee income FIs skew the ratios significantly. So the FIs had to generate less than 30% of total revenue in fees. The criteria delivered 61 FIs. I then split them up into top and bottom quartiles based on the expense ratio. The results are in the table below.

Although community FIs choose the higher expense ratio, higher net interest margin strategy, the markets currently reward the more efficient FIs with higher trading multiples. 

This does not make Porter's "low-cost" model superior, as it calls into question the sustainability versus the "differentiation" strategy, especially for community FIs that lack the scale of our largest banks. But I think it's time to get off of our high horse and recognize, as Michael Porter did, that the low cost model is an option.

Any thoughts on low cost versus differentiation?

~ Jeff 

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Five Things I Don't Understand

Some people see far more gray areas than I do. When common sense, reason, and facts support one direction, I am confused why we don't move in that direction.

If I listed everything I don't understand, you would be reading a long, long time. So I will limit myself to five things that recently confused me, and are relevant to banking.

1. Vision Doesn't Matter

I hear this a lot and a recent quote from General Colin Powell convinced me to put this on top. At a recent speaking engagement, he was reported to have said "If you want to make sure to keep moving forward, have a destination." I can't think of many, if any, renowned strategists that believe vision doesn't matter.

But I can't think of many financial institutions with a vision that clearly identifies a hoped for future. Most vision statements read like they came out of a Dilbert cartoon.

I think smarmy vision statements are the reason I often hear bankers and their consultants say vision doesn't matter. If you can't point to your hoped for future, communicate it and inspire your team, then maybe your bank doesn't matter. Could this be the reason for the incredibly shrinking number of financial institutions? I only wish those consultants saying vision doesn't matter would go away instead.

2. Our Money Is No Different Than the Bank Down the Street

If you believe this, then price is your only differentiator and the only way to achieve an advantage over your competitors is efficiency. Look to Oritani Financial Corp. as an example of this. But believing that you sell a commodity and pursuing a "relationship" strategy confuses me. Building a high quality staff of employees empowered with building customer relationships is more expensive than building efficient processes, using efficient systems, with a small number of high deposit branches needed to be a price leader. 

If you believe you sell greenbacks, dump the relationship platitude and get efficient.

3. We Need Experienced Bankers

Back in 2010 I wrote that our drive for experienced bankers limited banking's talent pool. Specifically, I was writing about hiring veterans. The corporate world is chock full of leaders brought in with little experience and taking those corporations to extraordinary levels. Think of Southwest Airlines Herb Kelleher, or IBM's Lou Gerstner. In banking, I identified the top 5 total return financial institutions. One was BofI Holdings Inc., whose CEO was a former consultant. Go figure.

Look through the long list of bank failures since 2008. Most were run by experienced bankers. So excuse me if I'm at a loss as to our fascination with finding more of them.

4. Finding Joy in Other's Failures

So, if you read my bio, you know I'm a Yankees fan and I'm fielding lots of questions about how I feel about Arod. Personally, I don't know Arod. Based on my limited knowledge of him, I don't think I would like him. He comes off as an extreme narcissist. But I refuse to boo the guy, or take joy in his downfall from baseball royalty. Perhaps when I reach perfection, I would be more comfortable taking pleasure in watching others fail. But I don't see that happening in my lifetime.

Failure is not testimony to your intelligence. It is testimony to your effort, and wisdom.

5. Employees Don't Match Your Strategy

Strategy shifts faster than culture. If you are moving your financial institution away from being transaction focused to relationship focused, yet leave the transaction focused people in place, you are setting yourself up for failure. How often do I hear from bank leaders that they are having difficulty getting their employees to do what they need them to do in our new banking world? 


What is confounding you?

~ Jeff

Friday, August 02, 2013

Deposit Fees: Here Comes the Judge

This week, a US District Judge issued a snarky rebuke of the Federal Reserve's 24 cents per debit card transaction cap, sometimes known in the common sense world as price fixing. Judge Richard Leon opined that a seven to twelve cent cap would be more in line with Dodd-Frank's Durbin Amendment. 

How do I feel about the Durbin Amendment in general and how it likely came about can be discerned from a previous post. But fundamental to the Amendment, and Judge Leon's ruling, is a misunderstanding of how banks make money.

Checking accounts are not cheap to originate and maintain. Banks expend a tremendous amount of energy wrestling what they perceive as profitable customers from other financial institutions. Additionally, once they find a willing customer, they must comply with a myriad of laws and regulations to prevent fraud, money laundering, fairness (whatever that means), or any other potential financial crime our government deems worthy of bank policing.

According to my firm's profitability peer group database, it costs financial institutions, on average, $420 annually to originate and maintain a retail, non-interest bearing checking account. How do banks cover this cost?

Fees. And Spread.

Deposit fees have been on the decline for some time now (see chart). Part is because of changes to regulation, including Dodd-Frank and the dreaded Durbin Amendment. But some is also customer behavior modification. Although the overwhelming customer response to automatic overdraft coverage was positive (customers preferred their checks to be covered rather than bounced), the fees served the additional purpose of changing customer behavior.

It should be noted that the 13 basis point decline in deposit fees equates to $2.2 million in annual revenue to the average financial institution ($1.7 billion in deposits, on average). How does a bank make that up? If they did it on personnel cuts, the average bank would have to reduce staff by 44 employees. But reality lies somewhere in a combination of cost savings, revenue enhancements, and reduced profits.

Back to the checking account and its $420 annual cost. According to my firm's peer database, each retail DDA account averages $25 in fees per year. That means the checking account must generate $395 in spread to break even. Pick a spread number... say 3%? The checking account would have to carry an average balance of $13,167 to cover its costs. That's to break even!

My point to Messrs. Chris Dodd, Barney Frank, Dick Durbin,and Richard Leon is you don't know squat about how businesses make money. Why don't you analyze a McDonald's value meal, where all the margin is made on the Coke. Price fix the Coke, and the price of the burger or fries will go up. So be it in the checking account. Think about that the next time in the drive thru buddy.

Any thoughts on Judge Leon's genius comment that the fixed price on a debit interchange fee should be seven to twelve cents?

~ Jeff