Finding a common ground

Isaiah Ortega, Copper France, and Anne Benigsen

Despite possessing varying backgrounds, these community banks share similar approaches to innovating their technology and customer experiences.

By Colleen Morrison

Community banks are as diverse as the communities they serve, so when it comes to innovation, it’s no surprise they have differing priorities. And with the financial services landscape shifting so rapidly, more than ever community banks are working to calibrate offerings to stay ahead of their customers’ needs.

Quick Stat


of community banks rate fintech partnerships as important to their organization.

Source: Cornerstone Advisors

“What worked well 20 years ago are not the same things that work today,” says Anne Benigsen, senior vice president and chief information and security officer at $455 million-asset Bankers’ Bank of the West in Denver, Colo. “In the end, the more services and new products we offer, the more we lift up communities as a whole.”

Benigsen recently connected with customers Copper France, president and CEO of $187 million-asset Bank of Commerce in Rawlins, Wyo., and Isaiah Ortega, chief information officer of $380 million-asset Centinel Bank in Taos, N.M., to discuss their individual innovation philosophies and experiences.

Innovation is not one size fits all…

Isaiah Ortega: About 18 months ago, our bank undertook an internal and external, customer-facing technology gap analysis. We looked at where we have gaps and where things are not working well … then, we prioritized the list of projects based on those with the most challenge and went looking for partners. We found powerful players doing things on their infrastructure as software-as-a-service that we couldn’t do ourselves.

Copper France: Innovation is about being the eyes and ears of the community, but it’s not just about “How can this be better for the customer?” It has to be about employees as well. If we want to attract and retain quality help, the employee’s experience has to carry equal weight to the customer’s. For example, when we were vetting vendors for online account opening technology, we focused on ensuring we were not creating additional work for staff.

Anne Benigsen: I agree. When I look at technology, I am really looking at two things: Does it consolidate things we do? Or does it meet an entirely new need? It’s like both Isaiah and Copper said: We have to ask, “Where are the gaps?”

…and must include the core provider.

France: Another consideration is how the core fits into things. For the products we’ve evaluated, core integration is a high priority and an expectation.

Ortega: We really are looking at the cores to create open banking for us, using APIs and integration in an interwoven way that makes it easy for both customers and bankers to operate in today’s landscape.

France: Right, and core providers do seem to be opening up to fintech integration. They recognize that it has to happen for them to stay relevant. Similarly, fintechs or providers have to realize that their products must integrate when necessary, and they need to be relevant cost-wise. They should keep in mind they have clients at small banks in rural America, and their pricing model has to reflect that.

Community banks and technology providers must also stay apprised of how industry developments affect current and future needs.

France: We’ve got to listen and look at the market, and ask ourselves, “Is this the next internet and mobile banking?” Cryptocurrency, for example. What role does it play in community banking?

Ortega: Agreed. We have to keep a close eye on those major shifts, like virtual currency, faster payments systems and others. I’m seeing the industry move, for example with FedNow, and that conversation should be happening at a fintech level.

Benigsen: That’s what’s valuable about the [ICBA ThinkTECH] Accelerator. It lets fintechs know what community banks need. ICBA acts as a hub, sharing information on everything from cryptocurrency to FedNow to ISO 2022 changes.

The innovation journey continues

For more information about the ICBA ThinkTECH Accelerator program and to view product demos from the 2022 Accelerator cohort, visit

Colleen Morrison is a writer in Maryland.