When WSFS decided to get ahead of the mobile-money curve, the community bank in Wilmington, Del., thought big.
It has formed a strategic alliance with the fintech startup ZenBanx that makes WSFS the first U.S. adopter of a novel product: a digital-only account that lets customers park their money in as many as five currencies and make domestic and international transfers and foreign currency exchange.
The $4.9 billion-asset WSFS expects to begin offering the new multicurrency savings account by late summer after first testing it among employees and their friends and families. It views the partnership as a way to offer a mobile-money product from inside of the bank's regulated walls and to get closer to edgier creative thinkers who are familiar with banking.
"You need to understand both innovation and the banking business to have the product work well in the way we want it to work well," said Mark Turner, the president and chief executive of WSFS Bank.
And ZenBanx, which is based in WSFS's hometown of Wilmington, was founded by someone who fit the bill: Arkadi Kuhlmann, who previously pioneered direct banking at ING Direct in the U.S. and in Canada.
The alliance, which has been in the works for about 18 months, comes as banks of all sizes seek ways to compete in digital banking. Eastern Bank in Boston has launched an innovation lab, while Citigroup has been hosting mobile challenges around the around to solicit new digital ideas.
Turner sees the partnership as equal parts offering a modern digital payments product and adding an R&D arm into his traditional bank, which has limited resources. The startup, after all, employs a group of innovators who "come up with stuff we couldn't even think about," Turner said. "We don't have the time and the resources.
"They will help us go where the market goes."
ZenBanx has 90 employees in three offices Toronto, Redwood City, Calif., and Wilmington to dream up the future of banking.
The partnership will give WSFS access to people, technology and systems to help it avoid the pitfalls of know-your-customer, anti-money-laundering and other rules. They may provide guidance on the use of biometrics and location analytics, for example.
"All of these factors will help WSFS continue to grow as an organization and better meet the needs of their customers and the communities they serve," Kuhlmann said.
The bank has already been introduced to two technology providers that work with ZenBanx Jumio and Regulatory Data Corp. that can help it verify customers' identities.
Such connections are "rubbing off on us in ways we could not get by reading about it in the paper or sending someone to a conference," Turner said.
The bank has also been updating regulators on what could be a cutting-edge digital product for the U.S. market.
"Regulators' input is invaluable and critical to the venture's success," Turner said.
The ZenBanx Set
The ZenBanx account is designed for frequent travelers, foreign students studying in the U.S., foreign professionals or recent immigrants who may want more tailored payment options than, say, Western Union or PayPal.
Of the 309.4 million United States residents, 40 million are foreign born with 11.3 million of those born in Asia, according to data ZenBanx compiled. The initial account marketing will be targeted in California and the Northeast Corridor where 75% of Asian U.S. residents live.
The companies expect to hit 37,500 account openings in year one with half the accounts opened by Asian residents in the U.S. and foreign students.
To appeal to the demographic, the app comes laced with features that are unusual for a mobile banking app. Beyond letting people store money in up to five currencies and send money internationally, notable features include: letting consumers use the camera to input data from driver's licenses instead of typing in the data and letting a customer send money along with a note and a picture. The attention to the customer's experience points to a growing trend even among banks: pay attention to design.
"With the advent of mobile and apps like Facebook and Instagram and Vine and Vimeo, it's not just about [doing] things quickly," Turner said. Rather, he sees digital transactions as another place to insert character and personality to spice up the experience for the device most people own: the smartphone.
The ZenBanx relationship is not exclusive, but WSFS wanted it that way.
"They are innovators," Turner said. "We did not want to limit their potential. Their success, and therefore our success, would be limited if [we] made an exclusive relationship in the U.S. or in other countries."
Certainly, ZenBanx has global ambitions for its technology, which is already available in the Canadian market. It said it is in preliminary discussions to enter Hong Kong, India and Thailand.
"I may be a dreamer but I'm confident that the next five years will see multiple ZenBanx opening in the countries of our currencies," Kuhlmann said in a recent news interview.