Modern Woodmen Bank never set out to have a bank branch on every corner.

In fact, as the Internet bank celebrates its tenth anniversary, it still has only one bricks-and-mortar location — in downtown Rock Island. With that strategy, the bank has still drawn customers from all 50 states and embraced new technologies.

President Steve Ollenburg, who has been with Modern Woodmen Bank since its beginning, takes pride in the untraditional banking model.

Like other banks, Modern Woodmen Bank has tellers to wait on walk-in customers, a drive-thru and two of its own ATMs. But the vast majority of its customers conduct their business online and around-the-clock. “The people working in our lobby are as much a call center as a bank lobby,” he said.

Focused on a narrow set of banking products, but supported by leading-edge technologies, he said the bank has enjoyed “methodical growth” over its first decade. “It was not all right away or in one big year.”

That type of steady growth, he said, mirrors that at Modern Woodmen of America, the bank’s sole shareholder. “You don’t survive 130 years (as Modern Woodmen has), unless you’re good at strategy,” he added.

When Modern Woodmen decided to expand into the banking arena, it recruited Ollenburg and Mark Sperfslage, the bank’s executive vice president, to get the operation up and running. The pair had previously worked together at Principal Financial Group, Des Moines, where they launched its bank in 1996.

“It was wonderful to have done it before because we knew what we’d do differently,” Ollenburg said.

Sperfslage, who serves as the bank’s chief financial officer, chief operating officer and chief information officer, recalled how at the very start Modern Woodmen knew it “wanted to offer the latest banking technology and position itself as a great banking choice.”

Sperfslage, who has spearheaded Modern Woodmen Bank’s technology, said the bank has been out front with advanced technologies. In addition to traditional online banking services, it offer online applications, mobile banking and mobile express deposit, which allows a customer make a deposit by taking a photo of a check using a smartphone.

According to Ollenburg, Modern Woodmen Bank was the first bank in the Chicago Federal Reserve Region to fully image its checks. “We have never sent a paper check to them,” he said, adding the bank also was early in offering mobile apps.

But sitting in the shadow of its parent company and bearing its name can cause misconceptions about who it serves. “People think we are only available to Modern Woodmen members and that’s not true. We are open to the general public,” Ollenburg said.

Even 10 years later, it faces a community awareness problem. “Since we don’t have a lot of branches, locally, we run into ‘I didn’t know Modern Woodmen had a bank,’ ” he said.

The bank is located at 1701 1st Ave. in a building constructed in the mid-1960s as First National Bank of Rock Island. Modern Woodmen acquired the bank/office building in 2000.

Ollenburg said the lack of a large, national advertising budget also poses a challenge. “We often get ‘Are you big enough to handle us?’ But not as much as we did in the beginning.”

Its banking approach attracts customers who want the convenience of banking online, but do not demand a wide menu of banking products. “We’re not going to have 10 types of checking accounts, but we’ll lay our products up against anybody’s,” Ollenburg said.

The bank also offers savings accounts, residential real estate loans and issues its own credit cards. It employs 31 people.

Modern Woodmen’s 1,700 insurance representatives nationwide help the bank get the word out to customers. However, they do not sell the bank’s products.

“We want them to understand our products … but with all the regulations in the financial services, each product type is difficult to understand,” Ollenburg added.

Conversely, the bank presence helps keep Modern Woodmen’s name in front of the agents’ customers. “If you sell a life insurance or an annuity to someone, how many touches do you have with those customers? But if you have one of our credit cards, a debit card or a checking account, they can be reinforced with the Modern Woodmen brand every day. It helps the agents.”

As an Internet bank, Modern Woodmen Bank could have opened for business anywhere, he said. “But for Modern Woodmen, it’s important to them that they invested in the Quad-Cities.”

In fact, the bank recently supported its hometown by donating $10,000 to the Rock Island Economic Growth Corp. The funding will help kickstart a housing redevelopment project in downtown at the Star Block, located at 1821-1823 2nd Ave. The building will be renovated into eight residential units, two of which will be affordable housing for veterans.

(1) comment

Gary Stoefen
Gary Stoefen

Congrats on 10 years!

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