Bringing Small-Town Charm to the Internet’s Big City

Online banks don’t have to feel distant and impersonal. IncredibleBank adds a personal touch to the ones and zeroes

By Elizabeth Judd

An internet-only financial institution with the look and feel of a community bank sounds like an oxymoron. And yet IncredibleBank, the digital incarnation of River Valley Bank in Wausau, Wis.,is bringing community-bank friendliness and service to a subsidiary that exists exclusively online.

Launched in 2009 and now with $130 million in deposits, IncredibleBank is the brainchild of Todd Nagel, president and CEO of River Valley Bank, which has 15 branches in Wisconsin and northern Michigan. “We’re in small towns and rural communities and we wanted to have a national presence,” says Nagel. “That’s how we came up with IncredibleBank, which is an internet-only-driven strategy.”

Ever evolving
Nagel’s original plan for IncredibleBank, which offers deposit accounts, money markets, and CDs, was “to pick up a little market share from each state, not to be a dominant player.” Today, though, the bank is venturing into new areas. It unveiled a mobile app with check-capture and payment functionalities and has even begun issuing loans. As its ambitions have grown, so have its deposits, which doubled in size over the past year.

Differentiating yourself online can be a challenge, but Nagel is convinced that IncredibleBank’s main advantage is its customer service and establishing what he calls “a national community bank model.” “We reach out digitally to our customers and give them advice and educate them about our other products,” he says.

Ellen Rock-Reineck, marketing and public relations director, agrees: “Customers are tired of the big banks and just being a number. If we can bring that community bank feel to a national level in an internet-only bank and humanize the whole experience, that’s really what we’re trying to do.”
Because regulatory approvals came slowly, it took about a year and a half to launch IncredibleBank, which is regulated by the FDIC and by the State of Wisconsin Department of Financial Institutions.

Regulatory hurdles notwithstanding, the entry costs for launching an internet-only bank were modest. “Our initial risk was really a lot of sweat equity, programming time, and our own HR costs,” Nagel explains.

Instead of a lavish marketing budget, IncredibleBank offered appealing rate premiums so that sophisticated customers would seek out the bank. Rock-Reineck also emphasizes that the bank has had terrific press; shortly after it opened, it was named one of the “least evil banks” by CNN and was written up by Kiplinger’s Personal Finance.

IncredibleBank has customers in all 50 states, and the average assets maintained by online customers are about four times greater than at River Valley, says Nagel.

Although IncredibleBank focuses on the customer experience, it doesn’t have a large staff. In fact, Nagel works with Jack Henry & Associates as software provider and has two employees dedicated to the internet-only enterprise.

What the future holds
EVP and chief operations officer Kathy Strasser says IncredibleBank will soon offer a business deposit account as the next step in its plan to become a full-service bank for its customers, many of whom are small-business owners.

“Our initial risk was really a lot of sweat equity, programming time, and our own HR costs.”
—Todd Nagel, IncredibleBank

Earlier this year, IncredibleBank began issuing loans to luxury motor-coach buyers. Rock-Reineck notes that it completed its first motor-coach loan in April 2016 and has done more than $50 million in these loans so far this year, “blowing our goal of $20 million in loans out of the water.”

Here, too, success lies in delivering the type of outstanding customer service for which community banks are famous.

“You hear about ‘Wisconsin nice.’ There’s a lot of truth to that,” says Strasser. “The people we employ care, and it comes through in the service we deliver to our customers.

“For a lot of internet-only banks, it’s hard to find a phone number and it’s hard to figure out how to resolve a problem. When you call us, we pick up the phone.”

Ready to dip your toe into digital waters?

Here are some things to consider before you do.

  • Focus on what you know. When it came to issuing loans through IncredibleBank, Todd Nagel, president and CEO of parent bank River Valley Bank, began with the luxury motor-coach market because vehicles are expensive—some cost nearly $2 million—and as a motor-coach owner himself, he knew the market well.
  • Find a catchy name. Nagel recalls that his employees made it a practice to say, “Have an incredible day,” and that saying morphed into IncredibleBank’s name.
  • Explore social media. IncredibleBank initially overlooked blogs, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn, only to find its customers were singing the bank’s praises there. Nagel advises taking social media seriously, because “it’s the new word of mouth.”
  • Be proactive with regulators. Nagel personally traveled to Washington, D.C., to meet with regulators, given that state and district regulators were not quick to learn the intricacies of internet banking.
  • Elizabeth Judd is a freelance writer in Maryland.