Director of Strategic Initiatives
In this article
We spoke to some of the executives at Wintrust Community Bank to learn more about their involvement with their communities and how community banks have evolved over the years.
April is community bank month, a time to recognize the commitment and dedication that banks have to their communities. COVID-19 has had a significant impact on small businesses and caused great uncertainties across the United States. Consequently, the role that community banks play in their cities and towns has never been greater.
The team at Fintel Connect has had the privilege of collaborating with forward-thinking community banks that are committed to driving progress through innovation. We are pleased to showcase their stories through a series of interviews explaining the role that these banks play in their local economies, particularly in the current pandemic.
We spoke with three leaders from Wintrust Community Banks and its separately-chartered banks:
- Jenny Olsen, Vice President, Head of Retail Banking of State Bank of the Lakes
- Sarah Grooms, Program Director – Digital Transformation of Wintrust Community Banks, and;
- Nancy Kuzma, Vice President, Business Banking of Old Plank Trail Community Bank.
FC: What role does your bank play in your community and the local economy? What role do you think community banks play in the broader national economy?
NK: Wintrust plays an important role in the communities in Southeast Wisconsin, Chicagoland, and Northwest Indiana. Our Bank is structured as 15 separately-chartered banks, tailored to the communities each charter serves. Bank staff is hired from the community, so they are familiar with the particulars of their area and are invested in promoting and growing their local economy. Our employees are engaged in and volunteer for local organizations. We work with businesses of all sizes located in all regions of these communities. We provide loans from $500 overdraft protection lines to multi-million dollar working capital lines of credit and commercial real estate loans.
As a community bank, we listen to the needs of our customers to better serve them. We develop deep relationships and become their trusted advisor. Wintrust’s role in the local economy is to invest in our community, both through donations and affordable loans.
SG: Community banks have always been the backbone of any community. We play in spaces larger banks do not and we have niche areas such as agricultural services. We provide extensive support to our communities (large and small) in both hours of volunteerism and dollars–from food drives and board service to community room space and support for local schools and teams.
JO: Wintrust was established for the local community. Our CEO and Founder, Ed Wehmer started Wintrust with the vision of being an alternative to big banks; that focus remains today. As we have grown through acquisition, the banks we have acquired retained their local branding, management, and community focus. Central to our unique identity is our ability to support the community that supports us. Our staff and leadership live in the towns they work in, they sit on our chamber boards, service clubs, economic committees, and numerous local non-profits. We maintain relationships with the schools our children attend and are vested in their success.
Prior to the start of the pandemic, we were teaching full-day financial literacy programs to the special needs transition program at our local high school. These students and their families are our friends and customers and it’s our privilege to pass along our knowledge and equip them for financial success. Local banks are looked upon by the community as vibrant contributors to the area they serve–I mean you can’t sell Girl Scout Cookies in the lobbies of online banks!
Our role in the local community and the broader national economy was on display during the pandemic and the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program (PPP). We actively called our customers asking if we could help them. We educated our retail staff on the PPP program so that customers who didn’t have a commercial lending relationship still had someone they knew personally who could help them. We paid special attention to the underserved communities who typically don’t have a banker they can call at a moment’s notice.
As of January 2021, Wintrust has funded more than $4.80 billion PPP loans for 14,000+ local businesses. Our average loan size was $62,800, showing our focus was on the small businesses who suffered the most during this pandemic. A community bank is an integral part of the community in all aspects. Our staff and our resources exist for the community’s benefit.
Our goal is to be at the forefront of this fusion of digital and relationship banking so that we can create a truly unique and outstanding experience for our clients.
Jenny Olsen, Vice President, Head of Retail Banking, State Bank of the Lakes
FC: In what ways has community banking changed compared with when you started working in this industry? What are some key differences in today’s community bank versus that of 5-10 years ago?
JO: I started as a teller almost 18 years ago. At the time we had a double-stacked drive-up lane that could service 10 cars at a time. On Fridays, those lanes would be full with customers needing to deposit their paychecks and get cash for the weekend. Now, we are down to five lanes. Many of our customers have direct deposit and use their debit cards for everything.
What hasn’t changed is that these customers still need to talk to a live person who knows them the minute there’s a problem. A decade ago, when the branch was much busier, we were more transactional-focused, handling the customer requests as they came in and solving their problems when they arose. With electronic banking, we do not have as many customers filling our drive-ups and lobbies. But when they need to speak with a person, their needs are more complex and urgent.
I tell my Relationship Bankers that most times they will only have one in-person opportunity with customers and we have to make it count. Our account-opening interaction needs to be robust because– with all the electronic banking options out there–we may never see that customer inside the bank again. This shift in customer behavior has allowed us to be more proactive in our approach to customer service, educating our customers before their needs and problems arise.
This shift away from in-person banking over the last five to 10 years has allowed us time to provide a more personal and customized approach to each of our customers. I see our staff really leaning into that new role and taking pleasure in being more high touch with our customer base.
SG: When I started in banking 20 years ago, there were no smartphones or apps, no remote deposit capture, etc. Very few businesses and even fewer consumers used digital tools to do their banking. The digital revolution has significantly changed the way banking works regardless of bank size, and technology can be the equalizer to ensure that community banks can provide services that are on par with or exceed those of our competitors. That said, we need to work harder to proactively reach out to clients to provide value since we see them less frequently in person today.
NK: When I started working in community banking in the 1980s, there were so many community banks it was difficult to differentiate one bank from the others. Customers had many choices. Because of industry consolidation and acquisition of community banks by large banks over the past decade, there aren’t many true community banks left. Technology has improved dramatically, and as a result, the need to visit a branch to accomplish certain services has been reduced. At Wintrust, we believe in the value of our branches and know that our customers appreciate the opportunity to speak to bankers directly in person about their needs. The other significant change is in lending. In the past, it was much harder to qualify for loans to start a business, especially for small business owners with limited collateral. There are now more available loan options with reasonable qualifications, which makes the dream of owning a business more attainable.
Whether virtually or in person, customers know they can on me for help with solutions when they are struggling financially.
Nancy Kuzma, Vice President, Business Banking, Old Plank Trail Community Bank
FC: How have your customers’ needs changed? What strategies have you employed to be in a position to meet new demands?
JO: I’d argue that our customer’s fundamental needs have not changed–our customers want and need financial peace of mind, and they need to trust the people who manage their money. How we go about meeting that need has changed.
If the pandemic taught us anything, it’s that technology is great but people need people. Our focus is on maintaining the personal connection that customers need while still equipping them to fully bank with our digital offerings. Our approach is more holistic and less compartmentalized. Our Relationship Bankers are equipped to help customers with most of their needs from start to finish. If necessary, they’ll do personalized handoffs to the right person. One key strategy we’re embracing is to provide more holistic training to all staff so that customers don’t have to run to multiple different departments to get their questions answered. Their banker, teller, or lender can lead that relationship and interaction from start to finish in most cases.
SG: I believe we will see the continued streamlining of services and branches and expansion of digital tools and personalization of financial data. Consumers will continue to expect data insights like they receive in other areas of their everyday lives and we are happy to provide the tools they need to better understand their money to achieve their financial goals. As a society, we were already leaning into digital tools for finance pre-pandemic, and COVID has significantly accelerated digital adoption. To stay connected to our clients, we can foresee more in the way of video appointments, intelligent teller machines, and other ways for clients to quickly, personally interact and receive high-value service and advice right when they need it.
NK: My customers’ needs have especially changed in the last year. Customers are coming into the branches less often because they are using digital products. Needs have changed because of the uncertain financial times. I have found myself spending more time helping customers build their credit, emphasizing the importance of credit, and educating them on ways to stay financially healthy, both personally and with their business. I touch base with them often and try to be a trusted advisor. We are doing many more conference calls and webinars to meet with customers. Whether virtually or in person, customers know they can on me for help with solutions when they are struggling financially.
Community banks have always been the backbone of any community. We play in spaces larger banks do not, [serving] niche areas … and [providing] extensive support to our communities.
Sarah Grooms, Program Director – Digital Transformation, Wintrust Community Banks
FC: What will community banking look like in 2025? What do you see as the most exciting opportunities? How do you see things like technology and digitization impacting performance and how you engage with customers?
JO: First, I think is that community banking is going to look younger. Many baby boomers are retiring, and Millennial and Generation X bank employees are jumping into leadership positions and pushing hard to move banking technology forward, and that’s really exciting. Wintrust leadership supports internal upward mobility and people are encouraged to follow their passions in a proactive fashion.
Wintrust is undergoing a significant transformation, implementing a complete suite of best-in-class digital offerings. We’re also advancing on the personal front, opening locations in new markets. Our goal is to be at the forefront of this fusion of digital and relationship banking so that we can create a truly unique and outstanding experience for our clients.
NK: The past year has brought dramatic change, a lot of which may be permanent. Business development, cold calling, meetings and travel all look completely different now. In the next five years, we are likely to incorporate some of the changes that have made us more efficient and more accessible during the pandemic. We will continue to evolve based on the market, the needs of clients, and technology, while maintaining the personal touch. I think the most exciting opportunities are yet to be seen, which makes the future in banking so exciting.
There will be new industries, technology will improve, and new generations of clients with different needs will emerge. We will have to maintain our growth mindset and be innovative with products and services and how we deliver them. My hope is that we maintain our community bank focus on customer service. We will continue to look for ways to give customers a reason to come into the bank.
Our friendly customer service and deep relationships will be critical here. These relationships start at an early age, where we help educate younger customers about the importance of saving for the future. We are with them when they open their first accounts, buy their first homes, save for their children’s education, and save for retirement.
Community banks will continue to be a vital part of our local economies by combining outstanding service with technology and convenience.