If you asked Mike Fitzgerald last January whether State Bank and Trust planned to develop an iPad app for commercial clients anytime soon, he would have said "no."
Yet the $2.5 billion-asset unit of State Bank Financial in Atlanta did just that just a few months later. The company was able to sign off on the unexpected expense because of a fluid approach to budgeting for new technology.
Fitzgerald, the bank's chief revenue and deposit officer, says State has a spending plan like most other businesses, but it reassesses the plan as trends unfold or as customer needs change.
"I can't overstate how important flexibility is in the budget," Fitzgerald says. "We listen to clients and get ahead of what we think is the demand curve in our marketplace by being very flexible in the way we apply those resources during the year."
The iPad app serves as a good example for Fitzgerald. It is a cash-management solution for commercial clients on the go. State prioritized it over other plans because the need arose.
"We have a commercial client who is far more mobile and far more demanding of multiple points of access to the company than I think we had anticipated," Fitzgerald says.
State's approach is radically different than the way most banks have operated in the past, but things are changing so fast on the technology front that Fitzgerald says a fixed strategy just doesn't work anymore.
"In this industry, we have written business plans forever," Fitzgerald says, "and we've said, 'Gosh darn it, we're going to do those things because we said we're going to do them; we worked really hard on those plans.'"
Being nimble is far more important now.
Lately, there has been "a proliferation of innovation budgets" at community banks, says Paul Wiggins, a solutions specialist at technology provider Jack Henry & Associates. The funds are not earmarked for specific projects, instead giving banks the option to pursue whatever might pop up after annual planning is over.
It is an approach that consulting firm McKinsey & Co. is recommending as well. Firms across all industries must start allowing for critical decisions to be made on the fly, McKinsey advises. Business that do this will capture business from laggards who operate as if the future is still reasonably predictable.
Collaboration is the key for such discretionary budgeting to succeed, Fitzgerald says. People in different departments of a bank must work together to implement whatever makes the most sense for clients, rather than spar over the money for new initiatives, as they might have done in the past.
Ultimately, there is no other choice, Fitzgerald says. Customers are demanding the latest technology, regardless of whether they bank with a small institution or a big one.
"To be proactive means that throughout the year you need that strategic collaboration among management that allows you to have the courage to change, and deviate from the business plan, to capitalize on market opportunity," Fitzgerald says.