For most bankers, compliance still means a list of chores on a piece of paper in a dusty binder.
The many separate tasks are so different that it rarely makes financial sense for banks to automate the process beyond moving these lists to spreadsheets, or perhaps programming a calendar alert.
A start-up vendor aims to change that, however, with a variety of "nagware" applications that remind bankers when it's time to do something — review the latest payments software policies, for example, or back up their servers or submit suspicious activity reports.
"What we hear from people all the time is, 'Just tell me what I need to do,' " said Andy Greenawalt, the founder and chief executive of Continuity Control.
For an individual bank, "it's impossible to justify investing in automating those things," he said. "But as an upstream provider, it makes all the sense in the world to do it for them."
His New Haven, Conn., company began offering its compliance tools in October and now has 40 available in its online "App Store." Banks pay a monthly fee of $99, $199 or $299 for to-do lists and reminders e-mailed to designated employees.
Jeanne Capachin, the research director for corporate banking at IDC Financial Insights in Framingham, Mass., said that Continuity Control has taken an original approach to an area largely ignored in the past.
The company is "actually thinking about processes in a bank that can be improved," she said, but "there is no value in a bank trying to improve its compliance systems" on its own.
"It just seems like a really simple idea," but nobody she was aware of has done it before. "Their competitor is just the way things have always been done before."
And this means banks could be very receptive to this approach now, because the way things are done now is becoming a financial burden. The regulatory reform that the president signed into law July 21 "could be a real motivator," she said.
Greenawalt said his tools can significantly reduce the financial burden of compliance at a time when the workload is getting heavier and more complex. Many industry watchers have predicted that ever-increasing compliance costs could drive some small banks out of business, he noted, adding that his approach could help them survive.
"If I was a banker, and my choices were merge or die, I'd be looking really hard for option three because those two choices suck," he said.
Costs aside, automated reminders could help avoid honest mistakes that get banks in trouble with regulators, Greenawalt said.
"When examiners find something, it's something that slipped through the cracks," he said.
Continuity Control has 30 clients using its apps, and Greenawalt said they have told him that the automated to-do lists have cut the effort needed to manage compliance tasks by as much as 70%.
"This takes manual processes away from staff people," said Rachael Peterson, the chief financial officer at Bridgewater Bank.
The $350 million-asset community bank in Bloomington, Minn., has 25 employees, and six to eight of them are responsible for various compliance tasks. Peterson said the electronic reminders are a cost-saver because they free her and other people from keeping track of what needs to get done.
"I love getting the daily to-dos," she said. "You just click on the e-mail to indicate that you've completed the review."
Bridgewater is using several Continuity Control applications to manage its remote deposit system, review Bank Secrecy Act policies and keep track of security procedures.
The electronic reminders are more convenient than trying to keep track of everything on her own, she said. "I'm not taking time to send out reminder e-mails or set it up on a calendar."
The $93 million-asset Atlantic Community Bank in Bluffton, S.C., was an early user. It began testing Continuity Control's network management application last August. "It's definitely made my life easier," said Darren Magee, Atlantic's information and security manager.
Magee said he gets regular notices, often daily, reminding him to check his system logs, back up data, check the security cameras and handle many other minor — but necessary — tasks.
"It's in our policies that I need to be doing these things," Magee said. In the past, he kept track of many of these responsibilities with a sheet of paper on a clipboard. Now that he is getting electronic reminders, "I don't have to keep going through a book and saying, 'Oh yeah, I've got to do this.' "
Continuity Control manages all the applications. When users sign up, they explain who at the bank is responsible for various compliance tasks and share other relevant information.
For the vendor management application, banks supply details about their contracts with suppliers, for example, and the loan collections application asks for information about borrowers and chargeoffs. Continuity Control uses all this information to compile its to-do lists.
It also plays host to forums on its website where community bankers can compare notes on compliance requirements and other matters. Greenawalt said about 1,500 people from roughly 1,000 banks have registered.
The company's long-term goal is to become a middleman that sells applications developed by other companies; of the 40 apps available now, 15 were written by other vendors, and some are modified versions of more complex compliance applications that the vendors sell directly to banks. Continuity Control retains 30% to 50% of the revenue from third-party developers' apps.