EDITOR’S NOTE: In the fall of 2020, Newsweek magazine pointed its lens at the banking industry to assess the product-and-service offerings at America’s banks. Partnering with LendingTree, the magazine analyzed a host of metrics — from account offering to fee structures, from the frequency of consumer complaints to the bank’s responsiveness, from the availability of digital offerings to their ease of use — in order to identify stand-out institutions that people might want to consider doing business with. BankBeat isolated the Best Small Banks in our readership area, and reached out to the smallest ones to learn the story behind the metrics.
In an era when mobile banking implies transactions conducted via smartphone, Security First Bank, Lincoln, Neb., continues to deliver critical banking services to underserved communities through a branch on wheels.
The bank launched the Badlands Express in 1998 to serve customers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. The fully-outfitted mobile branch makes four runs per week from its Nebraska-based garage into the sprawling Pine Ridge, located in South Dakota. “State lines don’t mean much in that part of the country,” said Marnie Herrmann, senior executive vice president and chief banking officer.
In the smartphone era, a mobile branch remains relevant, Herrmann said. “The digital divide is real. While smart phone use is ubiquitous, not everyone can conduct all their banking on the phone.”
Mobile check deposit requires a level of broadband that cannot be counted upon in swaths of the Great Plains. Transportation can be a barrier on the reservation. There’s also the human factor. “People like to go to the bank and deal with a banker, especially for a more complex transaction,” Herrmann said.
The Badlands Express sets up in four villages each week, using wifi connectivity through hookups at designated utility poles. The bank provides consumer and commercial banking services, including to tribal schools, hospitals and the government. Across the nearly 3,500-square-mile reservation, only one other financial institution, a credit union, provides any financial services.
“We have a truly unique footprint,” Herrmann said. The bank operates in 18 communities in Nebraska and two in South Dakota. In eight of its 18 Nebraska communities, Security First is the only bank in town. “We are in some teeny tiny communities,” she said. Merriman (pop. 154) and Cody (pop. 205), both in Nebraska are examples. And while the bank has a presence in the urban hubs of Lincoln, Neb., and Rapid City, S.D., small-town banking is its hallmark.
The $1.3 billion, closely-held community bank is a booster for local schools and athletic programs through its custom debit card program. Twenty-two schools have their own branded debit cards — The Cody-Kilgore Cowboys, the Hay Springs Hawks, the Chadron Cardinals, the Wounded Knee Warriors to name a few.
“A lot of these schools didn’t have professionally created digital logos when we started,” Herrmann said. Many logos had been hand-drawn by students, or co-opted from university programs. One school, in fact, was using major league baseball’s St. Louis Cardinals logo for its program. The bank’s marketing team created high-quality, unique artwork for each athletic program and gave the schools the artwork for use with other marketing initiatives, in addition to the debit cards. “As a community bank, we wanted to do that for them,” Herrmann said.
When the bank was reached by Newsweek to learn they’d been selected as a “Best Small Bank” in America, Herrmann said there was surprise and excitement followed by nonchalance. “A lot of us said, ‘well, yeah; of course we are’.”