Associated Bank: Nimble banking in a time of rapid change

Associated Bank

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The Green Bay Packers have banked with Associated Bank for a hundred years. That long standing partnership is due to the bank's commitment to progressive and personal customer experience. But the Green Bay Packers aren't the only Associated Bank fans — for many years, the midwest-headquartered bank has been rated the #1 mortgage lender in Wisconsin.

As CIO, Mike Meinolf is in charge of driving day-to-day IT operations and, at the same time, moving technology strategy forward in a grounded way. “It's not enough for me to build toys that nobody wants to play with,” he says. “It's imperative that any technology strategy enable a line of business to succeed. Sometimes that's products and services; sometimes it's efficiency in the back office."

In a recent fireside chat with Rand Wacker, VP Industry Solutions at Box, Meinolf described how the existing technology stack put Associated Bank in the best possible position to ensure business continuity and serve customers in an agile way as the COVID-19 shutdown unfolded.

Scaling work-life integration way, way up

The transition to remote banking has been gradual. Branches have become less of a transactional place and more of what Meinolf calls a “relationship space.” For Associated Bank, already focused on enabling that transformation, the shutdown forced a quicker shift. In March 2020, it was one of the first institutions of its size to close branch lobbies and encourage as many employees as possible to work from home.

No small feat, if you consider, as Meinolf words it, that “Overnight, we effectively went from over 300 office locations, including branches, to over 3,000 if you count all of our colleagues at home.” Every home is unique when it comes to internet and environmental challenges — pets, kids, life. Meinolf says, “It's no longer about work-life balance; it's work-life integration. We had to start really supporting the logistics of working remotely and problem-solving.” But because Associated Bank already had a lot of cloud-based platforms and applications in place, the bank was able to overcome the initial shock of the shift pretty quickly. 

Standing up a brand-new product under intense pressure

That was internally, but the bank also had to think about serving customers in a nimble way during the pandemic. "Being involved in the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) was very important to us,” says Meinolf. “There's a cultural element of what we bring to the community. We felt that being an active participant in the PPP program was going to help our small business customers weather the storm."

Like a lot of banks tasked with building PPP administration rapidly, Associated Bank initially had build vs. buy conversations. Meinolf’s team ultimately discovered that an internal loan application tool they already had could be customized as an intake mechanism for the PPP process so that applicants wouldn’t be confused by standard language around collateral and other irrelevant terms. 

The ability to leverage Box for this project was huge. Using APIs, the bank was able to innovate relatively simple functionality of document distribution and every other task you might take for granted behind that: the security, the reputation, the consistency of the application. "All eyes were on us to see if we could stand this thing up in short order and really deliver,” Meinolf admits. “It was easy for us to hook into Box as a robust platform.” In the end, the bank processed about 9,000 loans totaling over $1B. 

Best-of-breed enables flexible readiness

As the pandemic made very clear, for Associated Bank, partnering with firms and technologies that allow a quick pivot and adaptation to a changing environment is essential. Working with best-of-breed apps and platforms such as Box enables Meinolf’s team to build self-service products and experiences ambitiously — and quickly. Every modern technology platform they've invested in is able to communicate with other technologies, not pigeonholing them into a particular communication paradigm.

Meinolf doesn’t see branches going away anytime soon, and he doesn’t expect remote work to last forever, either, but as this year has shown everyone, it’s important to be flexible and have the tools a company needs to connect every experience. The days of proprietary solutions are likely over, and it’s now time to invest in ecosystems and platforms. For this reason, says Meinolf, “Technology platforms can't be built for a specific purpose; they have to be able to be used for ways we can't even think of yet.”

Watch the full conversation below: 

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