NASHVILLE — How can banks remain relevant?

That is an emerging theme at this year's American Bankers Association conference. It was certainly on the mind of many attendees, who expressed concerns about the upcoming elections, fintech disruption and regulatory burden.

The changing landscape of banking was a featured discussion point during the first day's morning assembly. Sessions throughout the day revisited the concept of relevancy, providing bankers with instruction on how to improve returns, hire the right employees and develop strategies to stay independent.

"I think we continue to face the challenge of relevancy," said Jill Castilla, president and chief executive of Citizens Bank of Edmond in Oklahoma. While banks have the wherewithal to be innovative, many are finding it challenging to dedicate enough resources due to regulatory burden.

Castilla said the phony account scandal at Wells Fargo, like any headline-grabbing banking debacle, threatens to create more headaches and distractions for the industry. "That will keep us from being able to really focus as much on the relevancy issue," she said.

Fintech is a big concern for Jeff Plagge, president and chief executive of Northwest Financial in Arnolds Park, Iowa, and a former association chairman.

"The whole technology game, and how customers want to do business, is accelerating so quickly," Plagge said. "For the community banking industry, the bigger fight is to stay current with all of that."

Other attendees discussed next month's elections, with doubts aplenty regardless of the eventual victor.

"If Hillary [Clinton] wins, maybe Elizabeth Warren takes an active role" in shaping policy, said H. McCall Wilson Jr., president and chief executive at Bank of Fayette County in Collierville, Tenn. "If Donald Trump wins, nobody knows what he's going to do. … I think the uncertainty is what makes people nervous."

"Politics is always a concern," added Curt Everson, president of the South Dakota Bankers Association. "I think political uncertainty is kind of an enemy to business, generally."

Bankers continue to express concern about improving profitability in an era of rising regulatory costs. In addition, low interest rates are pinching smaller banks that rely heavily on income from their balance sheets.

"Having to find ways to cope with [compliance] is a challenge and a concern," said Pat Thorpe, president and chief executive of BankGloucester in Massachusetts. "It drives the cost to operate the bank up, which means you've got to find new ways to increase revenues."

Still, attendees are finding reasons to remain hopeful in the face of uncertainty.

"I'm very positive and optimistic about where our industry is going," Castilla said. "There's so much innovation. Just from talking to entrepreneurs at this convention, there are a lot of resources being put into innovating financial technology."

Having frank conversations on topics such as fintech and operational improvements certainly helps.

"It's pretty exciting to see just how elevated those issues are at this conference," Plagge said. "It's exactly the right stuff at the right time."

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