Futurebank '94: Technology expo lures community bankers

Technology expo lures community bankers

David Fettig | Editor

Published July 1, 1994  | July 1994 issue

No speakers. No golf tournaments. No banquets.

While a specially designed, full-sized bank was the main attraction of FutureBank '94—the Independent Community Bankers of Minnesota's (ICBM) recent technology expo—perhaps its most unique feature was its single-minded focus: to bring the latest technology to small bankers.

Typically, when bankers gather to discuss business at such events as state and national conventions, there are scheduled events that compete with the vendors in the exhibition hall. But not at FutureBank '94. There was only one huge exhibition hall, filled with 260 booths that encircled a 6,000 square-foot bank.

Regardless of the lack of extracurricular activities, or perhaps because there weren't any, bankers responded in force: More than 3,500 from 630 banks attended the two-day event in Minneapolis, almost twice as many as originally expected. Most attendees were from the Upper Midwest, although 20 states were represented. Some Minnesota banks sent their entire staffs to the expo.

"Either our timing was good, or else bankers were in the right mood," says Larry Sorenson, ICBM chairman and president of Arlington State Bank, Arlington, Minn. By timing, Sorenson was referring to the current state of banking. With pressures from non-bank competitors, new regulations, liberalized branching laws in most states and the likely passage of a nationwide interstate banking law this year, smaller banks must avail themselves of the latest technological innovations to compete, according to Sorenson. The problem for many of those smaller banks, Sorenson says, is that they feel detached from technological breakthroughs because vendors may not market their products as strongly to smaller, more isolated banks.

The idea for the exhibit came two years ago when Mark Hewitt, president of The Northwoods Bank, Park Rapids, Minn., expressed frustration over the seeming dearth of opportunities for small banks to learn about new technology. Hewitt is an active member of the ICBM, and Allen Olson, the association's president, says the group took Hewitt's concerns seriously.

"Community banks are very insecure about how they are going to compete in the information revolution," Olson says. "They are afraid they're going to miss out." Olson says the technology displayed at the show were not "gee-whiz" products, but "real stuff that, for whatever reason, is not getting out there."

The bank was designed with "real world" specifications, including: $75 million in assets and two branches in neighboring communities, two family members own 51 percent of the bank stock, and the main bank and its branches are located in towns of about 3,400 population. As for technology, the bank applied the latest equipment for cash management and currency handling, security, interactive marketing and merchandising, data processing and banking by phone, as well as other bank functions. There was even an exhibit demonstrating the feasibility for off-site examinations and audits, showing how information could be downloaded to databases in regulators' and auditors' offices.

The response to the exhibition, according to Olson, confirms his conclusions about its importance. Not only did a large number of bankers and their staff attend FutureBank '94, but a post-event survey revealed that about 96 percent said the show met or exceeded their expectations; and just over half said they would definitely or probably make capital improvements in their banks based on products and services demonstrated at the show.

As for exhibitors, who are sometimes frustrated by competing events during traditional banker gatherings, more than 92 percent said the show was excellent or good, and 70 percent expect that FutureBank '94 will generate more business than any show they have ever attended.

Results like that mean the banking world hasn't seen the last of FutureBank. In January 1995, the show will travel to Dallas to be hosted by the Independent Bankers Association of Texas. Once again, the focal point of the show will be the technologically up-to-date bank, which was designed by Jon P. Thorstenson of the Minneapolis-based architecture firm of Hickey, Thorstenson, Grover. Other shows are tentatively planned for Atlanta in October 1995, followed by Philadelphia at an unspecified date.

As for a return to the Upper Midwest, such an event is likely for 1996 at an undetermined site (75 percent of this year's attendees said they would attend another FutureBank show within one to two years).