People who spend a lot of time riding around in recreational vehicles - don't call them "trailers" or "motor homes" - are not generally considered the type of big-spending customers whom banks would naturally court.
But one boutique bank has shaped its central strategy around the nomadic lifestyles of RV owners. Affinity Bank of Ventura, Calif., offers what it calls on-the-road banking services.
Many of Affinity's customers don't stay in one place long enough to forge ties to a local bank, so they mail their deposits to Affinity. They do most of their banking by telephone or through the automated teller machine networks affiliated with the bank.
The bank - born of the curious marriage of a failed California thrift to a company that sells merchandise and membership services to RV owners - is emblematic of the unusual institutions - which American Banker is calling "the New Bankers" - emerging as nonbank companies seek ways into financial services.
Affinity Group Inc. runs the Good Sam Club, the country's largest organization for RV owners. Good Sam's one million members own 10% of the recreational vehicles in the United States. The company also sells RV accessories, publishes RV magazines, and offers RV travel services.
In 1996, Affinity Group, which is 95% held by its chairman, Stephen Adams, acquired San Francisco Savings and Loan, a failed thrift that had served the city's Chinese-American community and had another branch in Ventura. The idea was to tap into its Good Sam Club membership to build a customer base and draw in deposits.
To lead the bank Affinity Group hired Michael McGuire, who had been president of La Cumbre Savings Bank of California for eight years until it was sold in 1995.
Mr. McGuire proved an equally good match for Affinity. He moved the bank's headquarters to Ventura, where he lives, and began its RV banking business through telephone sales, Good Sam membership lists, and ads in Affinity Group magazines.
The bank has since opened 4,500 accounts from Good Sam members, who supplied $100 million of its $246 million in deposits. The bank offers all of its customers certificates of deposit, debit cards, and money market accounts - products that are popular among the largely retired RV set.
This year the Office of Thrift Supervision approved Affinity's application to convert its state charter to a national one. The state charter had restricted it to California, but as of June it was free to offer banking services to Good Sam members nationwide.
Affinity, whose assets total $306 million, now maintains branches in Kissimmee, Fla., Tacoma, Wash., and Valencia, Calif., in addition to those in San Francisco and Ventura.
Many of its customers are retirees who would rather buy a certificate of deposit with a decent interest rate than invest in a high-yield mutual fund.
"This is an older generation," said Annette Borysiewicz, Affinity Bank's senior vice president and savings officer. "A lot of these people want to live off the interests they receive from CDs instead of playing off the stock market, where you don't know if you'll win or if you'll lose."
The bank employs some quirky marketing strategies. In July, when Affinity Group sponsored a powwow for 11,000 recreational vehicle owners in northwest Wyoming, Affinity Bank sent representatives to sell certificates of deposit and checking accounts."This is our customer base," Mr. McGuire said. "It's what's unique, not our strategy for customer relations."
Affinity has positioned itself as a convenient bank for people who don't mind relying primarily on automated teller machines, the U.S. Postal Service, and the telephone. It takes pride in having very friendly customer service representatives who are sympathetic to its customers' eccentricities.
"If they want to speak with the same representative every time they call, they can," Ms. Borysiewicz said. "That's what we like. It's homey, old-fashioned."
Affinity has been rewarded for its efforts with a customer retention rate hovering around 80%. It will introduce Internet banking this year, Mr. McGuire said, but its emphasis will still be on branchless banking with an old-fashioned edge. "Our intention is still to serve customers with real people," he said.
But Affinity is under no illusions that its RV customers are locked in. Financial institutions of all sizes have gone into branchless banking, and, as Ms. Borysiewicz said, "Once a customer gets comfortable with us, they sometimes feel comfortable taking their money to those places." (One overlapping customer base is that of AAA, the automobile club. AAA, which offers online banking through the Origins service of Marshall & Ilsley Corp. of Milwaukee, markets financial services to its 37 million members.)
Affinity Bank relies on Good Sam for access to club members, but says that its high interest rates are what turn them into bank customers. For example, a one-year CD of $10,000 accrues 6.55% interest and carries an annual yield of 6.75%. When you add Affinity's special CD bonus to Good Sam members the annual yield jumps to 7%, rivaling the rates of large national banks.
Longtime Good Sam member Ira Bates, of Winterport, Maine, said that after "shopping around quite a bit" at community and national banks, he and his wife chose Affinity for their CDs. He said he is "extremely pleased" with the returns he is getting, and that he plans to move all his assets to Affinity Bank.
Though Mr. Bates resides mainly in Winterport, he said he does not feel the pull to bank nearby. "There are no more local banks," he said. His wife, he said, had banked with FleetBoston Financial Corp., but FleetBoston "is no longer a local bank," he said, "so what's the difference, really? I don't know the people there."
He said that Mr. McGuire had recently given him and other Good Sam members a personal tour of the Ventura offices. "I'm sure we'll move our assets," Mr. Bates added. "We know who these people are."
The bricks and mortar have been good for more than just tours. Residents of San Francisco and Ventura have already made considerable deposits to the bank's branches there. Between May 1999 and May 2000, deposits increased to more than $14 million at the Ventura branch, and to more than $11 million at the San Francisco branch.
Although the bank's main purpose is to serve Good Sam members, it is still eager to attract local customers to the branches. "We decided that as long as we were there, why not?" Mr. McGuire said.
Affinity Bank invests its deposits in what it says are conservative real estate financings. According to Gerald Rich, Affinity's chief financial officer, the bank puts its money primarily in loans collateralized by multifamily and commercial properties. In another homespun touch, pictures of these properties appear on the Affinity Bank Web site.
Mr. Rich stressed the importance of finding "a niche where you have some expertise" -and one that is not a hot commodity at larger banks.
The key to Affinity Bank's future, he said, will be its continued ability to draw customers from the Good Sam Club. Recently, the bank has stepped up its marketing efforts, using a more focused advertising campaign in the club's monthly magazine.
"They're making specific offers to members of the club now, not just slapping on the logo like they used to," said Jay Helland, who is in charge of marketing at Good Sam Club.