Smarty Pig LLC is to announce today that it has landed a major backer with significant expertise abroad but none in banking. And that may be exactly the point.
The provider of high-yield online savings accounts was set to announce that Red McCombs, the founder of Clear Channel Communications Inc., has taken a "significant equity stake" in the Des Moines company.
Jon Gaskell, a co-founder of Smarty Pig, said that working with McCombs Enterprises Inc. would help his company establish bank partnerships in other countries faster. (Smarty Pig's business model involves finding a single bank partner in every country where it operates.)
"Because of McCombs Enterprises being involved, and the people that they bring to the table, and the experience that they have, and the contacts that they have all over the world, we're able to escalate the discussions that we're having and also get to the right people quite a bit faster," Gaskell said.
Gaskell would not say how much money McCombs' San Antonio holding company had invested in Smarty Pig, or how big a stake it had acquired. In an interview McCombs said he did not acquire a majority stake, and that the investment was not as important as the marketing expertise his company will bring to Smarty Pig.
"Our financial stake, I think, is really the least of what we bring to this equation," McCombs said. "We have people in our McCombs Partners group that are very, very good at marketing, at accessing the right people for the right jobs."
Smarty Pig, he said, "really didn't have any need for capital."
McCombs plans to increase Smarty Pig's current head count of 15 as part of its effort to expand abroad.
Smarty Pig operates a Web site that markets high-yield savings accounts and provides social networking features that let users share information about their balances and savings goals.
West Bank, a unit of West Bancorp Inc. of West Des Moines, handles the accounts that Smarty Pig offers in the United States. (West Bank said it had an 18% stake when Smarty Pig launched last summer, though that will be diluted by McCombs' investment.)
Smarty Pig also operates in Australia through a partnership with New Zealand Banking Group Ltd.
Gaskell would not say which countries he planned to target for Smarty Pig's next expansion.
Mark Schwanhausser, a research analyst for Javelin Strategy and Research, said Smarty Pig is confined by its strategy.
It "seems kind of limited in that you can only go one bank per country," he said, so the only way for it to grow is to partner with banks in other countries. "That's a tough business model," he said. "You can't sell Smarty Pig seven places in the United States, because of the conflicts with the banks."
Gaskell said Smarty Pig's growth in the United States has been ahead of its expectations; it reached $100 million in core deposits this month, a figure it had initially predicted it would not reach until yearend.
However, this growth has increased costs for West Bank. The banking company reported $31 million in Smarty Pig deposits at the end of the first quarter, and it said 71% of that amount came during that quarter. "Deposit operations expense increased due to costs associated with the Smarty Pig savings," West Bank said at the time.
West Bank cut the rate it offered on Smarty Pig accounts this week to 2.75% from the 3.05%.
Tom Stanberry, West Bancorp's chairman, president and chief executive, said this is the second time he has cut the interest rates on Smarty Pig accounts. He said certificates of deposit, not other savings accounts, are the better comparison for the Smarty Pig accounts.
Smarty Pig customers specify the length of their savings goals when they sign up for accounts, and "I've been surprised by the length of the goals and very pleasantly surprised that people are sticking to them and saving," he said. Smarty Pig's average goal rate is more than four years.
Gaskell pointed out that West Bank is capable of offering even higher rates than those on Smarty Pig accounts, such as the 3.25% the bank currently offers for its 42-month certificate of deposit.
"It's also worth noting that due to our technology, the cost of servicing Smarty Pig accounts for our bank partners is substantially less than many other types of products they offer," Gaskell said by e-mail. "These factors allow Smarty Pig to remain very competitive from an interest rate perspective. However, our bank partners constantly monitor interest rates and reserve the right to make modifications."
McCombs said the rate cut did not concern him, though he said that he views Smarty Pig's high rates as a key part of its business model and that the company's systems reduced expenses.
"The technology in it is so beautiful that they can serve 5 million customers with the same kind of security and the same kind of benefits to the customer as they can serve 5,000," McCombs said. "And there's hardly any other entity I know that can do that."