This is one big box community bankers consider a gift.
Warehouse club Costco Wholesale (COST) started partnering with banks to offer mortgage services online last year, and it wants to get into auto lending and, perhaps, student loans.
Banks — especially small banks — fear head-on competition with big-box retailers. Wal-Mart Stores (WMT) and Target (TGT) have jumped into financial services with offerings like debit cards, check cashing and mobile wallets.
Costco's partners on mortgages are five community banks and four small mortgage lenders. The lead partner is $669 million-asset First Choice Bank of Lawrenceville, N.J.
Costco has not decided when it will start offering auto loans, or if it will introduce a student-loan service to its 64 million-strong membership base. In either case, Costco will partner with banks or credit unions, said Jay Smith, director of financial services.
In perhaps the most unusual twist to Costco's foray into banking, Costco receives no financial compensation from any of the banks in its mortgage partnership.
"We don't pay anything to Costco," said Bill Blanton, the chairman and chief executive of the $57 million-asset First Century Bancorp, of Gainesville, Ga., one of the lenders in the Costco partnership.
Costco, of Issaquah, Wash., added mortgages as a way to offer an additional service to its members, and the retailer never intended to take a cut of the sales, Smith said.
"We're not a broker of any sort and we don't get paid for the loans. We're not paid per loan, or per lead, or per click," Smith said. "More members are saving and when they save money and see value in membership, they're going to continue to renew."
Costco generated about $1.9 billion in membership fee revenue in its most-recent fiscal year, according to Costco's annual report. Costco posted total revenue of about $89 billion in its last fiscal year.
This is not Costco's first experience with mortgages. In 1998 it offered mortgages through real estate services firm Amerinet Financial Systems. Costco has been involved in other types of financial services for more than a decade. In 2007 it partnered with ShareBuilder of Bellevue, Wash., to offer discounts on 401(k) plan administration fees to some of its customers. ShareBuilder also had a program with Costco to offer reduced trading fees for its online brokerage.
The new Costco mortgage offering is only available to its members, and is only available online. Costco doesn't employ in-store mortgage specialists. Customers can receive quotes from one of 10 lenders participating in the online platform, and customers choose which banks they want to contact them, Smith said.
"You don't have to enter a lot of personal information," Smith said. "Some of our competitors will run FICOs and pull credit scores and credit reports."
The offerings include new purchases and refinancings, as well as mortgage loans for military veterans.
The Costco mortgage partnership has "substantially" increased both volume of loan applications and mortgage originations at First Century, Blanton said.
Another Costco partner, the $649 million-asset Farmers Bank & Trust of Great Bend, Kan., has seen a significant uptick in its business, said Monte Robbins, head of the company's mortgage unit.
"People are starting to realize Costco provides a mortgage platform," said Robbins, president of CapWest Mortgage, a sister company of Farmers Bank & Trust.
Blanton and Robbins declined to provide figures on the number of applications and mortgage originations their banks have received through the Costco partnership. Costco's Smith also declined to provide specific figures.
Randy Hanks, the president and chief executive of First Choice Bank, did not return calls seeking comment.
First Century and CapWest participated in a rigorous due diligence process conducted by Costco before being approved, Blanton and Robbins said. First Century's vetting period lasted about five months, Blanton said.
"[Costco officials] are fanatical about quality, about making sure the customer is taken care of, that they are given the best price," Blanton said.
Other banks in the Costco partnership include $9.5 billion-asset Sterling Financial (STSA) of Spokane, Wash.; $2.2 billion-asset BofI Holding (BOFI) of San Diego; and Wyndham Capital Mortgage of Charlotte, N.C.
Costco will be a formidable presence in consumer finance, said Ken Thomas, a Miami-based consultant who advises banks on retail strategies.
"Costco is trying to provide a broader shopping basket for their customers, where they're going to provide every kind of service you could ever imagine," Thomas said.
Other nonfinancial services companies have jumped into the mortgage business lately. Google (GOOG) launched a mortgage rate advertising platform in 2010 but shut down the project in February because of poor performance.
Costco also provides auto and home insurance, and savings accounts.