“Define your strategy and keep it as your north star.”

Recently recognized as one of ICBA’s “40 Under 40,” Grace Pace is a noted innovator and changemaker at Quontic Bank.

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Grace Pace is a star on the rise. Recently recognized as one of ICBA’s “40 Under 40,” she’s a noted innovator and changemaker at Quontic, the only all-digital CDFI bank in the United States. We sat down with Grace to talk about digital strategy, cryptocurrency, and what’s next in the world of community banking.

Tell us about Quontic. Why is it different?

Before Quontic, I’d always worked at larger, more traditional banks, so coming here was a bit of a leap of faith for me. But it’s been such a great experience. One of our core values is “try it on”—basically, if we think something is cool and on point with our overarching goals, let’s give it a try. Nothing’s really off the table. And that enables us to make bold decisions about the technology we’re using to prepare us for the future.

How do you see customer expectations changing? How are you responding to that?

We try to listen. And that’s why we feel so strongly about online account opening. I mean, that’s our front door, right? That’s the first thing a prospective customer is going to see, so it needs to be smooth, quick, and easy to use. The quality of the interface is so important. You can have the most slick products in the world, but they won’t do you any good if people can’t or won’t use them.

Sometimes people talk about relationship banking and digital banking as if they’re two different things. At MANTL, we believe that digital channels can help build and reinforce relationships. What’s your take on that?

I think it’s OK to acknowledge a shift in how banking works. Instead of trying to make old banking concepts work in the digital world, it’s OK to say that things might be different now. Most people don’t need to walk into a branch to open a checking account.

Similarly, with the proper focus on customer service and user experience, it’s also possible to build actual relationships with digital customers. Plus digital channels come with AI, chat, and other tools that can enable self-service—and that, too, becomes an integral part of “relationship” banking. There’s plenty of straightforward offerings that aren’t rocket science, so let’s make it quick and easy, right? If you want to talk to us, we’re available—but we’re not going to make it into something bigger than it needs to be.

How much of that is generational? Do you see different expectations or preferences depending on the age of your customers?

You know, the popular thing to say is that it’s just the millennials who want to be online. But I think we’re underestimating the technological aptitude of other generations. In a previous role, when we created our national digital-only brand, I could have sworn it was going to be all the younger people signing up. But our core audience was more like 40-to 60-year-olds, and at Quontic that trend continues.

What does hold true is that older generations tend to carry larger balances, while younger ones tend to be more transactional. Consumer preferences do vary somewhat by product, not just age, but digital banking appears to be moving toward ubiquity. As long as it’s easy to use, and as long as the information is where it needs it to be, most people are totally fine with a new way of doing things.

Your Bitcoin Rewards Checking account was the first of its kind, and it’s been a huge success. But when it comes to crypto, there seems to be a real disconnect between consumer expectations and bankers’ willingness to meet those expectations. In a recent study by Cornerstone Advisors, 79 percent of financial institutions expressed no interest in offering cryptocurrency investing to their customers, while 60 percent of crypto owners said they’d gladly invest in cryptocurrencies through their bank. How do you account for that gap?

Banks are historically slow adopters, and there can be good reasons for that. In many cases, they’re trying to figure out what’s a fad and what might stick around. It takes a lot of time and resources to develop these products and platforms and there are sometimes regulatory implications as well, so you always have to ask yourself: should I invest in this? Will it last? Is it worth it?

Here at Quontic, we decided to put ourselves out there—in a very measured and safe manner, of course. And we were able to find this middle ground where we could participate in this crypto world without jeopardizing the security and regulations of a bank. We formed a partnership with NYDIG where they hold the crypto asset, so we’re not touching the crypto reward. And that’s how we’re enabling customers to invest in new and interesting ways while still maintaining the security and general function of the bank. Our bitcoin offering helped put us on the map, and it’s given us more opportunities to keep thinking outside the box.

What advice would you give to a community bank that’s just starting down the digital path?

Beware of shiny objects. There’s so much out there right now that you can grab and add to your digital arsenal, but it’s super-important to figure out who you are first. Define your strategy and keep it as your north star. It’s also important to find platforms that are partners—not just vendors. The digital space is changing so quickly, and you want a partner who will work with you on that evolution. You might need to pivot really quickly or create a custom solution, and if your vendor isn’t willing to be flexible and work with you and share best practices, then you’re on your own.

What role has MANTL played in your digital journey?

MANTL has been a great partner for us. You think outside the box, too. When we came to you with our idea for the Bitcoin Rewards Checking account, you didn’t blink. Your team was like, yeah—let’s do this. You’re super-responsive that way. And it just makes my job a lot easier when I know that someone’s always got my back.

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