NetBank's alliance with Ameritrade Holding Corp. marks the continuation of a strategy that has helped the Internet bank more than triple its customer accounts since the middle of 1999.
NetBank, based in Atlanta, and Ameritrade of Omaha have agreed to offer reciprocating services to their clienteles. Under the pact announced Tuesday, NetBank will offer its banking services to Ameritrade's more than one million customers and Ameritrade, through its subsidiary Amerivest Inc., will offer brokerage services to NetBank customers. The alliance gives both companies easy access to the other's customer base, said D.R. Grimes, NetBank's chief executive officer. "I think this is the perfect partnership for us," he said. "I want banking customers, Ameritrade wants investment customers."
NetBank, which reported 110,000 customer accounts on July 20 - up from 37,206 on Jun 30, 1999 - had forged a similar alliance in May with insurance.com, a Fidelity Investments affiliate, to provide cobranded insurance services, and a content-sharing alliance with MSN MoneyCentral.com, a financial information Web site.
Mr. Grimes said NetBank has no need to open its own brokerage, and would rather capitalize on Ameritrade's expertise and existing brand name. "Ameritrade is one of the best known names in the brokerage business," he said.
"With technology advancing as rapidly as it is, [technology firms] need to remain focused on the business we do very well," instead of branching out. That is why, he said, partnerships such as this one are ideal.
For his part, Ameritrade chief executive Tom Lewis said in a statement that the alliance would both strengthen its offerings to its customers and provide a new source for brokerage clients. In addition, he said "Ameritrade's partnership with NetBank is another example of our 'focused and deep' business strategy providing high quality services through best-in-class alliances."
Those alliances include a May deal that gives it access to the credit card customers of MBNA America Bank, and made MBNA the exclusive provider of credit card services to Ameritrade's customers.
Each new Ameritrade applicant will have the opportunity to apply for a NetBank checking account without entering any more information. As an incentive, approved applicants will be paid a bonus when they open a NetBank account. In a separate marketing effort, Ameritrade's existing customers will be offered a similar incentive.
In addition, NetBank customers will be offered discount brokerage services through Amerivest with no fees for account setup or maintenance. Idle cash from their brokerage accounts will be transferred automatically to their interest-bearing NetBank checking accounts.
"We have always had an interest in working with anybody" who could bring "a lot of customers, or prospective customers, that matched the kind of demographics that NetBank customers have," Mr. Grimes said, citing use of the Internet and high balances as two features of its customer base. "And brokerage sites have always been a great source of customers to us," he added.
"We expect that these customers will come in at lower acquisition costs, which will help our acquisition costs get as low as possible," he said. Since NetBank is committed to profitable growth, he said, acquiring customers at low costs is a major goal of the company.
Mr. Grimes was unwilling to predict how many of Ameritrade's customers would also apply for a NetBank account.
The deal will include cobranding of the two sites, and the interaction between the two will be as seamless as possible within regulatory controls.
The NetBank customers who are interested in operating a brokerage account from within their NetBank account will now use Ameritrade's services, and will be able to easily transfer money between accounts.
For NetBank, "this could prove to be a lower cost acquisition channel," said Jeffrey T. Runnfeldt, an analyst at Dain Rauscher Wessels in San Francisco, who follows the online bank.
"I'm not too sure how tightly integrated the two services would be," he said, which would affect whether offering Ameritrade's brokerage services would provide a competitive advantage in addition to more clients.
He said he thinks NetBank is primarily looking at the deal as a way to attract people to its growing, but still small, customer base.
NetBank added 22,000 accounts in the last quarter, 27% over the previous quarter, bringing the total to 104,000 at the end of the quarter, Mr. Runnfeldt said. However the potential market for online banks is not huge, he said.
We've always considered it kind of a niche play," he said. "Given the lack of physical distribution, there's only a small segment of the population that we believe will be attracted to the institution, relative to Wells Fargo, or B of A, or Citibank."
"But that's not to say they can't sustain a decent growth rate," he added.