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Jo Ann Barefoot explores how to create fair and inclusive consumer financial services through innovative ideas for industry and regulators

Innovation and Community Banks: Eastern Bank CEO Bob Rivers

Barefoot Innovation Podcast

Innovation and Community Banks: Eastern Bank CEO Bob Rivers

Matthew Van Buskirk

Rivers Photo.png

One of my goals for Barefoot Innovation is to amplify the voice of America’s community banks about the future of financial innovation and regulation. Today’s guest is perfect for this. He is Bob Rivers, CEO of Eastern Bank in Boston. At age 200, Eastern is the oldest and largest mutually-owned bank in the United States. At the same time, it is one of the most “young” and nimble community banks in adopting new technology.

Mutual savings banks were once common, especially in New England. Most have converted to stock ownership, but Bob points to Eastern’s mutual structure as a key advantage in its strategy, which includes a strong focus on social mission. He explains the bank’s roots in Salem, Massachusetts, serving people who had no bank, and describes how it evolved to emphasize empowering marginalized customers, including women. He also tells the story of his own rise to leading Eastern, from a start 36 years ago that included cleaning bank branches at night. It’s a classic community banking story, for both Eastern and its leader.

What mainly drew me to Eastern’s offices, though, on a cold day in Boston last February, was its reputation for innovation. When people talk about community banks and the technology change that’s transforming banking, Eastern’s name always comes up.

In this episode, Bob describes how their innovation strategy began six years ago, when he invited Eastern’s Chief Technology Officer, Don Westermann, out for “walkabouts” in Kendall Square, a Boston neighborhood noted for innovation. Bob and Don just introduced themselves, cold, to tech firms, hoping “to understand the mindset of the disruptive innovator” -- their goals and approaches, and also how to reach their networks. Two years into that process, they met PerkStreet Financial, which Bob describes as similar to Simple (we’ve done two shows with Simple CEO Josh Reich, who just stepped down this month -- they are here and here, still great listening.)  In Boston, PerkStreet was giving up (actually as a result of regulatory changes), when Bob met its CEO Dan O’Malley, and they went into business together. The resulting Eastern Labs set out to digitize the lending application process for small businesses, including on SBA loans. Three years later, Eastern spun off that enterprise as Numerated Growth Technologies -- whose website describes it as “Built For Banks, Incubated Inside A Bank.” Now Eastern has opened a new Lab 2.0 with plans for additional tech solutions.

In our conversation, Bob gives a road map for how a community bank can undertake this kind of innovation -- how to position it, structure it, staff it, fund it, and run it; how much capital it needs; how to price the services; how much to integrate the innovation team with the bank versus leave it independent; and how to use tech-world concepts like agile design and minimum viable products, or MVP’s. He also explains how an initiative like this can radically transform a small bank’s ability to attract tech talent, and how it can remake the bank’s culture, itself.

Bob also has views on how regulation factors into innovation. Notably, Eastern recruited Steve Antonakes, former Deputy Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau and former Massachusetts Commissioner of Banks, to lead its enterprise risk function. Bob has a range of insights into what regulators are doing right, along with suggestions.

This bank has cracked the code on one of the most critical challenges facing community institutions, namely how to partner with innovators to leverage the respective strengths and weaknesses of each. As he says, fintech startups used to see themselves as replacing lumbering old banks, but most now hope instead to work with them, because these two groups need each other. Few banks of any size can innovate the way startups can. Yes, banks have always innovated, but today’s changes, coming so fast, driven by trends erupting in the wider tech world, are simply not in basic banking DNA. Few banks can build a world-class, digitally-native user experience. Few can afford and attract the data scientists for new-generation risk analytics.  Conversely, though, very few fintechs can readily get the building blocks needed to scale up, like rapid, affordable customer acquisition, or accessing stable, low-cost funding, or deeply understanding financial products, markets and regulations -- all of which are strengths every bank can bring to the table. And the good news for community banks, specifically, is that they also have natural advantages over large banks, despite having less sophisticated technology, precisely because they’re small. They can be nimble. They don’t have to turn the proverbial battleship. They can chart and follow a new course, as Eastern is doing.

Smaller banks see this logic, but most struggle to know where to start. Bob Rivers has the answer. It’s simply, start where you are and just move forward. You don’t need to figure it all out first. Really, you can’t. Instead, start small. Try things. Immerse in rapid learning. Talk to people. I’ll add, go to tech conferences and read tech publications. Do the walkabout!

I recently spoke at a state bankers association conference. On the hotel elevator, coming down to the event before my talk, I chatted with a former bank CEO, now a director. When he learned my speech was on technology, he laughed and said, “I’m too old to learn it!” I told him I was going to try to change his mind about that, because, here’s the reality: banks’ CEO’s must lead this. They don’t have to be techies -- Bob Rivers isn’t. He says he still balances his checkbook with a calculator. But he’s leading his bank into a new digitized financial world, by knowing it needs to change and embracing innovation with boldness and imagination.

More about today’s show

Link to Full Transcript of This Episode

Our podcast episode with John Ryan, CEO of the Conference of State Bank Supervisors, on banks and communities.

My cover story in Texas Banker, with tips for community banks on digital transformation.

More about Bob Rivers

Bob Rivers is Chairman and CEO of Eastern Bank, America’s oldest and largest mutual bank with two centuries of service to the communities it serves. During Bob’s tenure, Eastern has built on its long legacy of community service and philanthropy by developing a robust advocacy platform in support of various social justice and sustainability issues.

In 2014, Bob co-founded Eastern’s innovation venture, Eastern Labs, which earlier this year spun out Numerated Growth Technologies, a new fintech company offering a state-of-the-art small business lending platform.

Bob has also been personally recognized for his work in championing social justice and sustainability issues by organizations and outlets like The Boston Globe, Boston Business Journal, The Partnership, Get Konnected!, Color Magazine, the Massachusetts Immigration & Refugee Advocacy (MIRA), Asian American Civic Association (AACA), Association for Latino Professionals For America (ALPFA), El Planeta, the Massachusetts Transgender Political Coalition, The Theater Offensive and The Ad Club.

Since the podcast was recorded, Eastern Bank has opened a new branch in Roxbury Crossing, the first bank in that community to open in 20 years, reflecting the bank’s work in underserved communities.

More for our listeners

We have many more great shows in the queue. We’ll talk with the CEO of another community institution, Mike Butler of Radius Bank, which is much smaller than Eastern and is pursuing a fascinating innovation strategy.  We’ll have two more episodes recorded this year at LendIt. One is a discussion of new research undertaken jointly by LendUp and Experian, on credit reporting, and the other is with my friend Greg Kidd of Global ID.  We also recorded two episodes at this month’s Comply 2018 conference in New York, with two regtech firms -- Compliance.ai, which offers machine-readable regulatory compliance, and Alloy, which has high-tech solutions for meeting the Know-Your-Customer rules in AML.

Speaking of LendIt, I’m also going to be a guest on Peter Renton’s Lend Academy podcast, and he’ll be on our show as well, so watch for those.

I’m also pleased to say we’ll have several leading members of Congress on the show in the coming weeks. In addition, we’ll record a very special show at the upcoming, global AML tech sprint being run by the UK Financial Conduct Authority in London this week -- which will be, in my view, the most important regtech development in memory...for reasons we’ll talk about. So, stay tuned!

I hope to see you at upcoming events including:

Also, watch for upcoming information on my collaboration with Brett King on his new book on the future of finance -- we’ll have a show and events on that as well.

As always, please remember to review Barefoot Innovation on iTunes, and sign up to get emails that bring you the newest podcast, newsletter, and blog posts, at jsbarefoot.com. Again, follow me on twitter and facebook.  

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