Jeff For Banks

To Branch or Not To Branch: Here Is The Answer

During periods of uncertainty lies opportunity. Vernon Hill, legendary leader of the former Commerce Bank in Cherry Hill, New Jersey, took advantage of the last time bankers were contemplating the future of branching by beating them over the head with his high profile and rapidly expanding branches. Can another Commerce Bank eat our lunch this time around?
Only if you develop a decade long strategic plan that maps the decline in branch prominence. If you are a shorter term strategist, and you want to grow, then branching remains on the table because it remains high in importance when customers are asked why they bank where they do. Even if they do not frequent their local branch, they tend to bank where a branch is nearby.
But what kind of branch? The Financial Brand did a showcase piece on innovative branch designs. I don’t know which one is best, if any, but do know that the answer to proper design lies in your target customers as identified by your strategy. So, the branch question, be it design, location, and staffing, should be driven by the type of customers you are targeting, as identified in your strategy. If you haven’t identified your target customers in your strategy, read no further and go do it.
But for those that know who they are targeting, the branching decision should be built on analytics. Branches represent such a significant expense, and average deposit size to achieve desired profitability has gotten so large, that we can no longer decide to branch at a location that is convenient to one of your directors.
Here are what I believe to be the critical pieces of information in determining where to branch:
1. Where are your customers now? Banks often have concentrations of customers that are in towns where they have no branches. This could be a significant starting base to grow your branch. I attended a banking conference recently where the presenter said your best source of new customers are the neighbors of your existing ones. If you have a solid foundation of households within a geography, that is a great start for a successful branch. Note I’m not suggesting branching just to bank existing customers, as that would erode overall profitability. But existing customers are the seedlings for new customers. So identify where your customers are.
2. Are there enough opportunities to bank your target customers in the new market? If you specialize in banking doctors and dentists and there are paltry few in the new market, I’m lost why you would consider going there. The exception may be that your niche rests on the loan side of the business, and funding those loans evolves from a more general strategy to generate funding. But if you can’t dominate your niche in a certain geography, consider going somewhere where you can.
3. Is the market growing? Household and business growth demographics are pretty easy to obtain, either through government sources or systems such as your MCIF. Deposit growth and market share, and number of branches in a market (see tables) are available via the FDIC website. Are deposits increasing? Are competitors struggling? Are average deposits per branch increasing and of sufficient size to achieve your desired level of profitability?  
4. Are bankers available to staff the branch? In nearly every strategic planning session I attend Senior Managements place great emphasis on successful strategy execution on their people. There is no substitute to having the type of staff with the greatest likelihood of successfully executing your bank’s strategy in your new market. You want to fail? Put no emphasis on branch staffing. You’ll fail. I guarantee it.

5. Is a reasonable site available. I’m a realist. You can set your branch up for failure if you don’t find a reasonable site. The term reasonable is in the eye of the beholder, but if you are tucked in the middle of a dying strip mall, that may not bode well for your visibility and your brand. Find a location where your people can succeed.
6. Can you de-branch painlessly? This is a new question for your branch analysis. There will come a time when your contemplated branch, and other branches in your network, will be unnecessary. Customers will be accustomed to banking online and/or via mobile, advice and problem solving can happen via the phone or in-person visits to the customer, and the psychological attachment to the branch will be gone. Can you close shop without incurring significant expense? 
I don’t think branching is dead. But I do think that the need for marquis, high cost branches is waning, and smaller and more tech savvy branches will emerge as the norm. I also think staff per branch will decline, but capabilities per staffer will increase. The importance of getting your next branch decision right is critical to successful execution of your strategy. Don’t let your director bully you into putting one near his/her house.
How do you think branching decisions should be made?
~ Jeff