United they stand

A year ago, in an unusual move, five Akron-area bank presidents agreed to lay down their swords long enough to meet over lunch every other month to discuss the issues they share.

The group is called the Community Bank Exchange (or COBE), and consists of the presidents of Home Savings Bank in Kent, Morgan Bank in Hudson, Cuyahoga Falls Savings Bank, Valley Savings Bank in Cuyahoga Falls and Portage Community Bank.

“The premise of our get-togethers is simple,” says Howard Boyle, president and CEO of Home Savings Bank. ‘Community banks have a great deal in common, even though we may service different markets.”

Because community banks share so many goals and philosophies, members of COBE don’t view other members as their competition, says Richard Coe, president and CEO of Portage Community Bank. “We don’t really look at ourselves as competitors. We think of our competitors as the Key Banks, the big banks.”

In fact, the bank presidents who founded COBE say they welcome other community banks as members.

In mid-November, the group made its first public announcement, telling the community the presidents had agreed to waive ATM fees for their customers when they use one of the 11 ATMs the group of banks operates.

“As far as we can determine, we are the only banks in an area stretching from Lake Erie to Stark County to make this commitment to our customers,” says William Dougherty, president and CEO of Morgan Bank in Hudson.

According to a survey conducted for the American Bankers Association last March, 43 percent of the banking public pays from $2 to $10 a month in ATM fees. In Ohio, the cost of ATM surcharges is among the highest in the country, with the average bank customer paying $3.49 in fees per transaction.

In addition to losing that revenue, the five member banks had to spread the word about the no-surcharge zone, including training associates, inserting statements in customer mailings, placing signage on their ATM machines and buying advertising space in local newspapers.

Waiving ATM fees was chosen as the group’s first public initiative as a response to the difficult economic times many customers are facing. Privately, the group has taken initiatives such as partnering with each other to make loans that exceed one bank’s lending limits, says Coe.

By partnering in this way, the banks share both the risk and the profit.

Combined, the five member banks hold about $385 million in assets. Connie Swenson ([email protected]) is editor of SBN Magazine.