Chief Architect

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

Illustration by Jeffrey Smith

Linda Echard designed and built ICBA Bancard, community banking’s payments powerhouse

By Kelly Pike

If asked to give a single word to best describe Linda Echard, who is retiring this month as president and CEO of ICBA Bancard, most community bankers would say “visionary.”

Peers praise her exhaustive knowledge of the payments system and the belief that better, more efficient solutions for community banks are always possible. Long before others, she understood the significance of emerging payment opportunities for community banks. She provided early and essential farsighted leadership that helped build one of the nation’s largest and most adaptive payments programs.

For these reasons, Echard is celebrated for her foresight and acumen—which recognized the need more than three decades ago for the creation of ICBA Bancard, ICBA’s payments services subsidiary for community banks.

Today, Bancard provides community banks with equitable access to payments products and services, ranging from credit-card and debit-card options, and ATM and merchant-processing solutions. She is the primary founding architect who helped design and then build the ICBA service company into an industrywide powerhouse. More than three decades after it was founded by ICBA and its members and on the eve of Echard’s retirement this month, Bancard boasts almost $6.5 billion in annual sales, generating an estimated $175 million in revenue for 2,426 banks participating in the company’s programs.

“Literally every single community bank in the U.S. has benefited from Linda’s work,” says Noah Wilcox, Bancard’s current chairman, referring to the role Bancard has played in improving community bank access to affordable payments products and contributing to a war chest that helps ICBA to effectively advocate for community banks.

“If everybody stopped and thought about the upstream effect for community banks in terms of what that income generation has allowed ICBA to do for community banks as an industry,” adds Wilcox, chairman and CEO of $231 million-asset Grand Rapids State Bank in Grand Rapids, Minn., “there’d be a New Orleans-style marching parade from New York to San Francisco.”

ICBA President and CEO Cam Fine agrees that Echard’s often behind-the-scenes dedication to the best interests of the nation’s community banks could easily go little noticed. “Linda has been extremely effective looking ahead and anticipating major product and market changes for community banks and the entire financial services industry,” Fine says. “Time and again she has been an indispensable leader in keeping community banks relevant and in the forefront of industry pivotal innovations and transformation.”

1985

  • ICBA forms ICBA Bancard, the association’s first service subsidiary
  • Provides credit card and merchant processing services

1986

  • Bancard joins Visa and MasterCard as principal members
  • Provides travel accident insurance

1987

  • Holds its first conference in St. Louis
  • Grows to 272 banks issuing 218,000 cards
  • Provides loyalty program (travel rebates)
  • Offers business-to-consumer marketing campaigns

1988

  • Services more than 500 banks issuing 450,000 cards
  • Becomes sponsoring member of PLUS and CIRRUS networks
  • Starts Credit Account Protection program

1989

  • Offers fraud-loss protection

1990

  • Serves more than 1,000 banks issuing 960,000 cards and 30,000 merchants

1991

  • Offers fraud-loss protection through self-insuring program

1992

  • Joins Interlink and Maestro
  • Starts Main Street agent bank program

1993

  • Serves 1.6 million cards

1994

  • Offers electronic banking (MasterBanking)

1995

  • Starts ATM and debit- card program

1998

  • TCM Bank starts as limited-purpose credit-card bank

1999

  • Introduces eBanking function

2000

  • Adds neural network fraud protection

2001

  • Introduces online account statements

2002

  • Offers Automated Card Expert portfolio analysis system

2005

  • Offers remote-deposit capture

2006

  • TCM Bank serves more than 500 banks

2007

  • Real-time neural network fraud monitoring is introduced

2008

  • Handles $12 billion in sales in credit, debit and merchant transactions
  • Launches retail branch promotion, Visa 365

2009

  • Introduces Preferred Growth Agreement to foster card-issuing growth

2010

  • Launches retail branch campaign, Job Well Done

2012

  • Eliminates exclusivity restrictions on debit program

2013

  • Participates and sponsors ICBA’s Community Bank Days nationwide
  • Helps community banks with Target data breach

2014

  • Launches no-liability merchant services program

2015

  • Pays banks nearly $700,000 to offset EMV implementation and marketing
  • Generates $6.5 trillion in credit-card and debit-card sales
  • Processes 1.64 trillion credit-card and debit- card transactions
  • Maintains 7.4 million credit-card and debit- card accounts
  • Generates $387 million in credit-card and debit-card revenue for community banks
  • Pays $556,000 in royalties to supporting community bank state associations

Providing a service

Understanding today’s tremendous success of the Bancard program, however, requires some historical context.

In 1985, just before ICBA Bancard was established, less than 1 percent of community banks were direct issuers of credit cards due to the cost and risk. Yet customer demand for credit cards was rapidly growing, pushing more community banks to form agent relationships with the biggest money-center banks and nonbanks that competed against those same community banks to provide credit cards and other financial services to consumers. Community banks would make a few dollars from those agent relationships, but those agent relationships jeopardized their best customers through the cross marketing by those correspondents.

ICBA’s leadership of community bankers, including several serving on ICBA’s Bank Services Committee, originally considered endorsing a large bank’s credit-card program to allow community banks to provide credit cards under stronger safeguards that would protect community banks from cross-marketing tactics. That was the membership-service model used by ICBA’s then highly successful traveler’s checks program, which made ICBA and its members North America’s largest sellers of traveler’s checks by 1990.

But Echard, a Visa payments veteran, envisioned a different idea. Recognizing credit cards, and later debit cards, as a valuable profit center for community banks, she encouraged an entirely new solution that Bancard provided—one where community banks maintained total control and security of their customer relationships.

“Linda was the catalyst for it all. No one else could have done it,” recalls Chuck Doyle, chairman of Texas First Bank, a $950 million-asset community bank in Texas City, Texas, who played an early instrumental role in organizing and launching the Bancard program as an ICBA Executive Committee member. “She explained to the association board the importance of making a commitment to build Bancard and have our own payments system.”

Echard also had the know-how to get the job done, says Gary Teagno, president and CEO of ICBA Services Network, the holding company that oversees ICBA’s five member service companies and more than 40 Preferred Service Provider product and service programs. From the conception of ICBA Bancard, Echard understood all the pieces of the puzzle, from processors and vendors to capital to contract negotiations. Further, she knew how to listen to community bankers’ concerns and explain to hesitant banks that offering credit cards offered opportunities far beyond any potential risk of doing so.

“She taught us that it wasn’t an option,” Doyle recalls. “It was something we had to do.”

Once community bank executives understood the potential of the ICBA Bancard program, they came rushing to it, recalls Teagno. By its fifth anniversary in 1991, the company had 1,000 community banks issuing more than one million credit cards that processed more than $1 billion in sales. By 1993, the year Echard was recognized by American Banker as one of the Top 10 Leaders of the bank-card industry, Bancard had allowed community banks to issue more than 1.6 million cards that were on their way to handling more than $2 billion in sales for consumers.     

A strong advocate

Part of Echard’s success stems from her persistence and a “contagiously cool” temperament, which makes her an ideal negotiator, says Wilcox, who worked with her on various initiatives, including four challenging contract renewals. While the Bancard board of directors comprising community bankers gave a lot of input, Echard was ultimately responsible for implementing the company’s biggest wins, he says.

“As you get into these very difficult and nuanced negotiations with huge companies with gigantic legal departments that generally succeed in pushing people around, Linda is able to counteract almost every argument that would bring something negative to the contract,” Wilcox adds.

“Linda was the catalyst for it all. No one else could have done it.”
—Chuck Doyle, Texas First Bank

The result has been many more product opportunities for community banks available at much more affordable prices. Echard’s hard work helped end exclusivity agreements for credit and debit earlier this decade. That pivotal change gave community banks greater marketing power and options by freeing Bancard to work with what are today three payment processing partners: FIS in Jacksonville, Fla., Fiserv Inc. in Brookfield, Wis., and Vantiv Inc. in Cincinnati, Ohio.
On numerous occasions, Echard also served as an overall advocate for community banks, testifying on Capitol Hill several times when legislation threatened the competitiveness of community bank offerings.

Yet despite her banking and payments knowledge, Echard does just as much listening as talking. From loyalty and marketing programs to Internet banking and remote deposit to comprehensive portfolio analysis tools, she has been instrumental in shepherding advances toward helping community banks manage their portfolios and stay on top of industry trends. Community banker input has led the way for many of Bancard’s advances, from starting its acclaimed proprietary Fraud Loss Protection Program in 2010 to forming its no-liability merchant services program in 2014.

One of the most significant changes to the company’s credit-card program occurred in 1998 with the founding of TCM Bank, ICBA’s $200 million-asset limited-purpose credit-card bank in Tampa, Fla. Echard and Bancard’s board of directors kept hearing that community banks wanted the benefits of issuing individually branded cards without shouldering risk of a credit-card portfolio. Some banks were tempted to sell their existing credit-card portfolios altogether, and their only option was to sell their portfolios to a competing institution.

“Literally every single community bank in the U.S. has benefited from Linda’s work.”
—Noah Wilcox, Grand Rapids State Bank

Now TCM Bank gives community banks a safe place to sell their portfolios to an agent that won’t issue cards itself.
The reason TCM Bank and Bancard continue to grow, says Doyle, is the people Echard has brought in to lead them. More than just hiring smart people, she’s also mentored, promoted and encouraged many to succeed, says Teagno. Many employees have stayed with Bancard for 10, 20 and even 25 years.

In this way, as the company’s chief executive, Echard helped shape Bancard to reflect the community banks it serves, emphasizing long-term relationships and personalized service. When Wilcox’s longtime card services manager abruptly left his bank five years ago, he knew it would be difficult to find a replacement with card and merchant services experience in his rural market. He reached out to Echard for help, and by the end of the day she found someone willing to run the bank’s program for a few months until Wilcox could find a permanent replacement. Later, Bancard staffers found someone to train the new staff person.

“She makes it look effortless,” Wilcox says of Echard’s ability to quickly find and implement solutions. “She really pulled my bacon out of the fire when it was burning.”

As with any visionary, Echard has had the wisdom to not just plan for today but to see and prepare for tomorrow. She is leaving Bancard ready to continue to grow to meet the evolving needs of the nation’s community banks. The company boasts excellent long-term relationships and contracts with various payments services providers.

Meanwhile, Bancard’s in-house staff experts and its community banker board of directors are following in Echard’s footsteps by continuing to explore emerging payments models and solutions, including Apple Pay and Google Wallet, looking for the next big opportunity for community banks. Like Echard, they understand that the only way community banks will remain relevant to the payments system is if banks retain control and invent their own solutions.
After all, they learned from the best.


Kelly Pike is a writer in Virginia.

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