Q&A: ICBA member relations experts Brandy Smallbrock and Michael Lahr

Two of ICBA’s member relations staff members explain how they live out the association’s mission to help community banks flourish.

Interview by Andrea Lahouze

With more than two decades of experience serving community banks between them, Brandy Smallbrock and Michael Lahr, both based in Minnesota, are passionate about helping community banks grow using solutions from ICBA and its corporate members. As vice president, Northwest region, Smallbrock splits her time evenly between phone calls and in-person visits. As assistant vice president of member relations, Lahr assists ICBA’s entire network of community bank members. We asked them about their work, lesser-known ICBA membership benefits and their steadfast dedication to the success of the industry.

IB: How does the ICBA member relations team help community banks thrive?

Michael Lahr: For me, it’s a matter of helping our members connect the dots. We offer so many member benefits, products and services that it’s almost impossible for a banker to know them all. I help members find membership solutions that benefit their bank as well as their customers and employees. In the end, we want community banks to flourish so they can continue to build and strengthen communities and keep the main streets of America running.

Brandy Smallbrock: ICBA has more than 30 preferred service providers that offer ICBA member banks discounts on their products and services. I enjoy helping them find solutions that will help them save money and promote their bank.

IB: Is there one service that you wish more member banks knew about, or that you feel is underutilized?

Lahr: At the moment, I’m focusing on new members, so I remind them of all the new member benefits that they have. They have free online training for up to a year; they have a $500 education voucher that can be used toward any Community Banker University product or service—a whole list of items. Calling longtime member banks, it’s a similar thing in that we are always looking for a more efficient and cost-effective way to do things, including our compliance and education solutions. I really enjoy it.

Smallbrock: Something our member banks don’t fully utilize is our social media monitoring solution. It’s a great exclusive benefit of ICBA membership. With our solution, a community bank can monitor their brand, their voice and their reputation across social media channels with ease. Our social media monitor helps our members stay attuned to both positive and negative comments, allowing them to respond in a timely manner. It’s pretty impressive. When I was at a bank recently, they told me they investigated a similar solution with another provider and it was thousands of dollars a month. At last count, about a third of our membership is using this exclusive benefit.

IB: What “success story” would you share from your personal experience in helping these member banks?

Lahr: I started with ICBA in 2000 and our focus was grassroots advocacy and member engagement.
I remember calling a bank in the Midwest for a renewal, and I was told, “Yes, we will renew; we have to renew. If it wasn’t for ICBA, policy makers and legislators wouldn’t know we even existed.” I will never forget that comment. It’s the same for all community banks, regardless of their size. ICBA is very effective at differentiating community banks from megabanks with Congress, regulators and even the media. In April 2018, the President of the United States invited 100 community bankers to the White House for that very reason: to hear community bankers’ perspective.

Smallbrock: Recently, I was talking to a bank about joining ICBA, and they were talking to us about some of the new solutions they were looking at bringing on. A vendor they were considering was one of our Preferred Service Providers. By joining ICBA, they were able to save tens of thousands of dollars on their new service, which made their ICBA membership a positive investment.

IB: What is the most rewarding work that you do for community banks?

Smallbrock: I really love to hear a community banker’s story. It’s so interesting to learn what they’re doing in their community and about their history—it makes me very proud to be part of their story. I hear so often, “If it wasn’t for ICBA, we wouldn’t have the resources to do all that’s being done in Washington, D.C., with Congress and regulators. We have to focus on running our bank and know that ICBA has our back.” I love hearing that and I love hearing what they’re doing in their communities.

Lahr: I have to agree with that, too. To me, it’s personally rewarding just to hear their stories and understand their experience. I learn from them, and that helps with the very next call I make. We have an opportunity to be in their shoes and offer solutions to make their jobs easier, and their banks more profitable.

IB: In what ways do you gauge success in the work that you do?

Lahr: I feel successful when our members are successful. That’s our mission, to create and promote an environment where community banks flourish.

Smallbrock: We both absolutely love what we do. Sometimes, I pinch myself and ask, “Am I really getting paid to do this?” It’s so much fun. Yes, there’s some stress with it, but we just love what we do and who we work for: ICBA and community banks.

IB: What is one thing you wish more community banks would do to help themselves be more successful?

Lahr: I wish our members would call us more often and consider us part of their due-diligence process whenever they’re making decisions about products, services, training or anything, really. We’re here to provide information, help with the process, recommend solutions or even facilitate engagement with one of our subject matter experts.

Smallbrock: [I like to see them] being their own advocate and …sharing their successes, whether it’s with Independent Banker, on social media or in another way. We like to see that, and we like to share that as well.

Andrea Lahouze is deputy editor of Independent Banker.