First Option Bank’s sporty debit cards embed educational giving into each transaction. Its CEO tells us how the program sets the bank apart.

By William Atkinson

For some community banks, check cards are an afterthought. For others, they are considered an important source of revenue, as well as a way to increase the customer base. One bank that falls into the latter category is First Option Bank in Osawatomie, Kan.

“To some people, a bank is a bank is a bank,” says Blake Heid, president and CEO of the $300 million-asset community bank. “We wanted to find a way to differentiate ourselves.”

One way the bank does this is with its check card program. While looking for ways to encourage more customers to use their cards more often, the bank familiarized itself with a number of programs that had achieved some success.

However, Heid and his team wanted to try something different. “We decided that we wanted to do something altruistic,” he says. “We realized that the ‘giving’ side isn’t done as much.” With that in mind, First Option created the School Logo Check Card Program in 2007.

“With this program, we give a portion of the income from the interchange income back to schools,” Heid explains.

The bank has branches in five communities, each of which has its own school system. Customers in each community can select a card representing their school, with a few choices for the school logo or image on the card.

The bank promotes the program at each school, and because the schools receive the revenue, they also promote the program internally to teachers and parents. “We visit each school to give presentations, and the PTOs also promote us,” says Heid.

Getting the word out
In terms of publicity, the bank benefits from occasional articles in the local papers highlighting the checks they present to the schools.

“We also have a corporate truck that has the logos and card information on it, and we bring it to high school sporting events and community parades,” he says.

Once a year at each school, the bank promotes the program at the halftime of a football or basketball game, preferably one in which teams from two of the five schools are playing. “That way, we reach people from both communities,” says Heid.

At these events, the bank presents checks to the school, provides running totals for the year and also announces totals for all of the six schools, adding to the competitive spirit. Before, during and after games, bank representatives hand out mini basketballs and footballs and pass out the game programs that include an ad or flyer with the school logo check card information.

The program has been gaining popularity. “When we first started, checks to each school averaged between $10,000 and $15,000 a year,” says Heid. “Last year, we presented a check to one school for over $53,000.” And, as of February 2017, the bank had presented checks totaling almost $1,100,000 to all of the schools. “We don’t tell the schools how to use the money,” he says. “They decide.”

Instant results
To further encourage the use of check cards, the bank initiated another program in 2009: the Instant Issue Check Card Program.

“Previously, when customers ordered cards, they had to wait maybe 10 days to receive the cards,” says Heid. “We decided that we wanted our cards to be live when customers activate their accounts and walk out the door.”

This is not only more convenient for the customers, the bank also begins earning interchange faster. “Customers can walk out and use it for gas and groceries right away, so the income production for the bank starts that same day,” he says.
The program also makes it easier for customers to change banks. “Customers like to use their cards on a regular basis, so we didn’t want them not switching to our bank because they couldn’t have active cards right away,” he says.

Customers can get replacement cards on the spot if they are stolen or damaged. “One customer used his card to chip ice off his car,” says Heid. “They can walk into any one of our five locations, and we can print them off a new card right away.”

The bank uses Datacard as the card issuer. “We are currently still using basic card stock,” says Heid. “We have not switched to EMV for debit cards, but we have already on the credit card side.”

William Atkinson is a writer in Illinois.