A tech product patented by an Arkansas company is helping smaller community banks connect with each other to share the risks of larger loans.
Little Rock-based BankLabs holds the patent for Participate, which company leaders say makes the participation loan process more efficient and automated. The company last year received the only Arkansas-based patent for a loan participation automation product.
“A big part of what we’re doing is ‘democratize loan trading for all those banks that aren’t big,’ so it’s providing a level playing field for the Davids versus the Goliaths,” said Matt Johnner, the company’s Dallas-based president.
Johnner and Mike Montgomery, the company’s Little Rock-based CEO, said Participate allows smaller banks to engage in participation loans, where financial institutions share larger loans with other banks to reduce their risk. Banks have policies governing their lending activities, including a maximum loan amount, a limit on a particular client, and a limit on the percentage of loans in a particular sector such as construction. The originating bank services the loan and has the relationship with the borrower, who typically doesn’t know about the arrangement.
The two said participation loans traditionally have been based on personal relationships within city limits. Smaller banks often don’t have tools, processes or skill sets to participate in certain loans. Transactions are often managed by spreadsheet, FedEx shipments, and back-and-forth attorney interactions.
Participate automates and removes frictions and can operate 24-7. It enables processes to be done digitally so loans can close in a couple of weeks. It automates what portion of the borrower’s payment goes to both the originating bank and the participating bank and tracks the balances. It handles electronic document management, workflow, e-signatures, integration of the participation agreements, and the legal agreements between the two banks. They said the processes eliminate the surprises that occur at the end of a loan. Banks can do smaller loans that weren’t efficient for them, and they can participate in bigger ones they couldn’t previously handle.
Montgomery said many rural banks have less than a 70% loan-to-deposit ratio, which is not an efficient way for banks to operate. Banks only make money when they are lending; deposits are a liability. Banks in markets without commercial borrowers are disadvantaged.
“I think that this makes it easier for the rural and community banks to compete with the great big guys,” he said. “I think they can maintain personal relationships in their markets. But they can kind of drink a little bit from the wealth generated in banks in more populous areas that have commercial real estate. They’d like to have some of that on their balance sheets and vice versa. The guys that are in mid-city would like to have some ag loans, and they don’t know a farmer on the earth.”
Montgomery said BankLabs’s target is to have a network of one or two originating banks in every state with 2-5 downstream banks. He believes the company can reach that goal in 2-3 years.
The company’s overall mission is to help the dwindling number of community-based financial institutions compete with bigger banks using technical products. It tries to find backroom or front-end processes where a technical solution can increase efficiency and add value. Then they can operate it or find a better parent and sell it.
“It’s kind of that kind of a cycle,” Montgomery said. “We’re looking for a problem, see if we can’t solve it, see if we can’t solve it with efficiency, and make sure it monetizes itself on our side or on the back side.”
BankLabs has 21 employees, with about 10 in Arkansas and the rest spread across the country. It expects to hire more as Participate grows in the market.
It was founded by Montgomery, an early player in the Arkansas financial technical services company Systematics that is now known as FIS. The company is now based in Florida but still has a strong Arkansas presence. He also helped start Pinnacle Bank and was an early investor in Delta Trust & Bank.
He said he started BankLabs in 2010 during the banking crisis after seeing how big banks were depressing prices by dumping giant pools of foreclosed assets on the market. At the same time, banks had stacks of folders in their offices. He saw that community banks could benefit if their processes were more automated.
Montgomery in 2015 believed the construction industry was poised for a comeback, so the company created Construct, which connects borrowers, builders and banks.
Construct went to commercial sale in January 2016. Johner said the product eventually grew to 150 customers and was helping manage $70 billion in construction loans associated with roughly 100,000 projects. The company sold the product line to Abrigo this year, sending 15 of its then 35 employees to Abrigo.
Construct started with two clients, one of them Southern Bancorp, an Arkansas-based community development financial institution serving underserved areas and clients.
It has 54 locations and is the only financial institution in seven of its markets and one of two in six of them.
John Olaimey, the company’s president and CEO, said the company was an investor in Construct and is using Participate now. He compared the process for creating new bank relationships through Participate with creating Facebook friends. Banks reach out to each other and get invited to follow. Messages can be sent to a group of banks. He said it has reduced paperwork, spreadsheets and shipping items back and forth. Thousand-page tax returns are being sent through a secure portal rather than an email.
“When two banks do a loan participation today, it’s somewhat clumsy and it also depends upon who you can get access to at what time,” he said. “Participate really allows you to do that when you’re ready to do it and really is all online. It’s all secure. I don’t have to call somebody and say, ‘Hey, can you get me this document? Can you get me that document?’”
Now that BankLabs has sold Construct, it will focus on its Participate product. The company was one of 10 selected for the most recent FIS Fintech Accelerator cohort. That program, which is done in concert with The Venture Center in Little Rock, connects promising financial technical services companies with financial institutions. Montgomery said the company’s involvement led to 70 demonstrations with FIS clients and a small investment by FIS.
He said the company has a couple of other new product ideas.
“We’re a solid company,” he said. “We’re self-sustaining. We’re reasonably well-capitalized. We just went through a full product life cycle where we provide jobs for people. I think this company can have a multi-decade run easily. We provided a 10 times return on invested capital, which is sort of a gold standard, quite frankly. And we’ve got lots of new product ideas and at least one new product that’s already coming out and starting to prove that it can operate efficiently.”