When Independent Alliance Banks, Inc. (iAB) completed its merger with First Merchants Bank in July, most customers hardly noticed. According to Will Thatcher, who served as iAB’s executive vice president and now holds the position of regional president for First Merchants, that kind of smooth transition reflects the cultural and operational fit of the two banks. It’s one of the reasons, says Thatcher, that the partnership makes so much sense.
“We share the same commitment of putting the customer first,” Thatcher says, “but together, we just have more tools in our toolkit to better meet the unique needs of each customer.”
First Merchants’ business model allows decisions to be made at the local level so that each of its regional operations can focus on building and maintaining relationships with its customers.
“We want to make sure we take time to understand our customers, know the things that keep them up at night,” explains Thatcher. “We’ve had so many instances where we’ve been able to help a customer reach a specific goal.”
Long-term relationships and local decision-making that helps clients realize their personal financial aspirations are the hallmarks of a community bank. As First Merchants, the bank looks to strengthen the community-focused legacy it built as iAB. It follows a business model based on four key principles that all point back to the customer: balanced growth, responsiveness, community involvement and relationships.
With the partnership, Thatcher says, “I don’t feel stress to be something we’re not. We’re a community bank, and we’ll continue to be present in all the ways we’ve been present before.”
Of course, First Merchants brings much more to the former iAB than simply maintaining the status quo. When the bank first began its search for a partner, its primary focus was finding a bank that could help it quickly address shifts in technology while seamlessly serving its customers. At the same time, adding more resources would also allow the bank to enhance its product offering. From the first meeting, says Thatcher, First Merchants seemed like a perfect fit.
“First Merchants just felt right from the beginning,” explains Thatcher. “They offered iAB the tools and sophistication we needed to grow. Our customers will have a richer experience for it.”
According to Thatcher, First Merchants adds three major practical enhancements to the former iAB. The first, a significant upgrade to the bank’s technology platform, is already well underway. The full system transition is set for completion in mid-November, at which point the former iAB branches will be rebranded as First Merchants.
“The name change will occur when we can accept First Merchants customers into our market,” explains Thatcher.
In addition to its technology platform, First Merchants offers a wider range of products, services, and skill sets. That has Thatcher particularly excited for the future.
“Our customers will now have access to a deeper breadth of consumer products, a more simplified debit card reward system and new treasury management products,” says Thatcher. “And coupled with our new systems, we’ll be better able to distribute them.”
Finally, while iAB’s balance sheet totaled roughly $1 billion, that of First Merchants amounts to more than $9 billion. The increase in scope and scale opens the door to more flexibility for existing customers, as well as the ability to attract others iAB may not have been able to serve before the merger.
“The size of the First Merchants balance sheet allows for larger lending limits, which in turn allows us to serve different types of customers,” says Thatcher. “It increases the level of sophistication of our business.”
With so much going on behind the scenes as the iAB brand transitions into First Merchants, Thatcher knows that its success rests on the bank’s employees – and they have risen to the challenge.
“We have a very skillful group of people who work for us,” says Thatcher.
“They’re terrific. Our customers have been willing to give First Merchants the benefit of the doubt because they see our employees doing it.”
Just as important as helping customers make a smooth transition, First Merchants is helping employees do the same. The four key principles that guide the bank certainly apply to how it treats its employees, as well.
“We want everyone to feel valued and considered,” says Thatcher.
“There is no employee who has less significance because of this merger.”
As management works to help employees feel more secure in the transition, customers feel the effects.
“When our employees feel comfortable in their situation, they are able to communicate more effectively with customers,” explains Thatcher. “At the same time, customers realize that they are still seeing the same faces and that the same people are handling their accounts and answering their questions. Maintaining that familiarity is critically important to us, not just in this transition, but also as a community bank.”
Thatcher recounts that in the midst of the transition, several customers have come to the bank with requests to expand their business, including changing their credit terms. Rather than put those requests on hold, First Merchants has worked to accommodate those needs each time. This has given the employee base confidence in the continued customer-first direction of the bank, which they have then been able to pass along to customers.
It’s a continual process that extends far beyond the merger.
“There’s no timetable for people to feel comfortable,” says Thatcher. “I want to keep re-recruiting our customers and our employees as we move forward.”
When the branding transition is fully completed in November, Thatcher hopes that the only thing people notice is the difference in signage. His goal is for everything to go smoothly. After all, he says, it’s not about the name or the computer system or even individual transactions.
“It’s about helping people achieve financial success,” says Thatcher. “People are at the heart of everything we do.”
Address: 200 East Jackson Street P.O. Box 792 Muncie, Indiana 47305
Phone: (260) 422-2265
Years in Business: 124
Number of Employees: 240