Horicon Bank, a 125-year-old bank based in Wisconsin, made a unique decision to acquire a fintech, Monotto, thereby acquiring its’ founder, Christian Ruppe, to become the bank’s innovation lightning rod. Travillian’s Head of Banking & Fintech, Brian Love, spoke with Christian, now the VP of Digital Banking at Horicon Bank. Christian also explains how something as simple as wearing a hat helps him express himself and promote diversity within the organization.*
Brian Love: Tell me about your story with Monotto, the company that you founded, and its’ eventual acquisition by Horicon Bank?
Christian Ruppe: You solve what you know. Especially as an entrepreneur, you try to solve the problems that are around you. In college, obviously that’s a time where people like to spend frivolously. Wanting to start a company, wanting to build something, we started building Monotto, a robo-save product where we could automate savings. We look at how much money you’re making and spending and determine what you need to save. We can automate that saving. $2 today, maybe $4 in a couple of days, 20 cents the next time. The goal is to not feel the money coming out of your account.
We built that and we were fortunate enough to get a little bit of an investment and get into an accelerator, which pushed us into the banking world. That’s really where the story starts in this trajectory. We really learned about banking. We learned about the technology around white labeling and I-frames and SSOs and how the cores, mobile and online vendors work together.
Through that we started selling our product. Monotto was awesome. It was growing. We got to meet cool people and got customers. And then through that, you try to solve the problems around you. Being around a lot of banks, it was like what if a bank or credit union would just do this or why do all their apps look like this and not what the fintech’s are doing like this.
One of our customers at the time who worked at a bank started asking questions like, “Hey, we’re having this problem. How would you solve it?” That became a self-fulfilling prophecy where I started itching to take this bank and work with them to try to solve the problems that I wanted to solve.
Fortunately, Mark Nelson, Executive Vice President, Chief Information and Operations Officer, at Horicon Bank, asked if there would be a time where I’d want to come over and help them solve those problems. It just worked out perfectly to be able to come on and have some fun.
Brian Love: A lot of banks out there are thinking, “How do we innovate?” At most smaller banks, it usually comes down to maybe one person who is thinking innovatively. What you told me is that Horicon’s idea was, “let’s bring Christian and Monotto on to help us innovate.”
Christian Ruppe: They wanted to innovate and they have been innovative for a while.
Everything that they’ve done, they’ve been thinking, how can we do this in a way that looks towards the future? They wanted to take that step so that when the opportunity came up, they took it and I’m glad they did. It’s been fun.
Brian Love: You’re younger, maybe more of a techie and I’m sure you were a little gun shy to join an old “stodgy” bank.
Christian Ruppe: We have to make the right decision. We needed to know that this decision was the right decision and we had talked about a similar thing when they brought us on. They would bring us on to do this stuff but Horicon made it clear that we’re not going to slow you down. We want to run alongside you. We want to do this together. We want to invest in technology and we’re going to invest in top technology no matter what. We’d love to have you come on in and help us do that. That, as well as just the people being great, helped us push it over the edge and we’ve been running.
Brian Love: What’s in store for her Horicon and what other frontiers are you trying to move into?
Christian Ruppe: Our big focus is just the architecture. I heard this quote last week which is, “Features are fleeting, and architecture endures.”
I’m not trying to guess what’s going to be the next big thing. I’m currently trying to build the architecture that will allow us to immediately onboard the next new thing. So many banks right now, if they see opportunities and they see these cool products and they say, man, I’d love to do that.
The process of integrating it and dealing with that whole process can make it not worth it. If we can immediately do an ROI study because our data is set up, we can immediately see how many people in our bank would qualify or maybe work with a product like this.
Then have the mobile and online vendor that we can immediately onboard this new fintech company and integrate it effortlessly and make it look like it’s a part of what we’ve been providing forever. That doesn’t just happen. That takes a lot of investment, a lot of time and a lot of strategy to make it to where the next time a huge opportunity comes or the next time there’s a way that we can help our customers.
Something like PPP. We’re not going to have to manually figure these things out and be running around like a chicken with its’ head cut off. We can immediately say; here’s an opportunity. Here’s a problem we can solve. Let’s look at the data. Let’s look at the vendors out there and we can go from it taking 6-12 months to maybe find something that looks cobbled together to within less than a month.
We’ve got something that’s so integrated. It looks like we built it ourselves and we’ve had it all along and that’s the goal. It’s not what’s the next flashy thing but it’s what’s going to allow us to do that next flashy thing when all the numbers make it so obvious that we need to be doing this.
Brian Love: Can you talk more about the support you have at Horicon and the size of the team?
Christian Ruppe: I don’t think it’s anything crazy. We have all the pieces that we need. We’ve got 210 employees across the entire institution.
We’re about $1.2 billion in assets. We’re by no means crazy with the amount of people we have but we have the pieces in place. We have a vision that we’re running towards and our marketing team’s able to do things. Our data team can get the data that we need.
We need to just provide them the right tools to enable them to be able to do more, not just hire more people. We want to make it to where the people that we have are able to be as efficient as possible and they’re able to use what they’re good at. They’re not having to spend hours and hours just dealing with a process that’s outdated.
Our team is a normal sized team. We have one developer, a couple of people that are on the data side, four or five people in the marketing department but we’re able to make the most out of them.
Brian Love: I appreciate that. As you look at the industry, what specific banks, companies, fintechs or even people excite you and inspire you?
Christian Ruppe: We could spend hours on just listing people and institutions on the bank side There’s no names that would be surprising. I think the people that were looking at specifically are nbkc, Cross River and Coastal Community Bank. People that are investing in BaaS specifically for those three but not even just that. People that are investing and heavily focusing on one area. That niche is something that’s important. Even on the banking-to-consumer side you’ve got Nerve and some of those banks that are heavily focusing on one group of people that have a unique need.
Those are the things that are possible today because of all the architecture and infrastructure that people can build. On the fintech side, there’s a lot as well. Anything that is going to help us look like a fintech company or at least help us to provide an experience that’s not going to make a consumer say, “I’d rather just use this Neobank or this fintech because they’re onboarding a schooler.” We love MANTL. We love Total Expert and there’s plenty that we aren’t even partnered with that I think are really cool and maybe one day we’ll get there. There are thousands and thousands of people that we like.
That’s the hope of us building this architecture is that we’ll be able to work with more because we’ll have a process of integrating them. My biggest fear is having our app look like Frankenstein. We want it to be integrated. We want to use data to show the customers the products that make sense for them and the features that make sense for them. That’s what we’re investing in.
Brian Love: I appreciate that. And some of those banks you mentioned are on Travillian’s Tech-Forward Bank Index, and we’ve been excited by them as well.
The last question I have for you, Christian is, as we were starting to record, I noticed your hat and you said you’re a “big hat guy.” I know you wear yours for a specific reason, to show that everyone is not the same.
Christian Ruppe: I love diversity. I think it’s the only way that you can solve problems for people that you serve as listening to the people that you serve and not making it to where every person trying to solve the problem looks the same because when you do that, you solve problems for people that look like that.
It’s almost a way to make us think. We’re individuals. We do things differently. Maybe if I looked like a slob, that’d be one thing. I don’t think it looks like a slob, lots of us in the FinTech world, we dress more comfortable, but our clothes are just as nice. Just in a different way.
It’s a way to make you feel comfortable with people that look different. There’s nothing wrong other than it’s just not something that you typically see. If that’s the only thing that’s different about it, then let’s get comfortable with working with people that you might not see every day, who might not look like you. Horicon Bank needs to get better at that, as well as most banks. I do think we’re improving. I’m hoping to be a part of forcing us to improve in that way. I’m hoping that banks realize that if you’re serving a community and yet none of your employees are in that community or have the experiences or perspectives of someone in that community, it’s not possible for you to provide services that solve their needs. You solve the problems that are around you. If you’re not around those problems, there’s no way that you can provide those things. Maybe it’s a stretch to think that a hat is getting that across, but that’s what’s going on in my mind.
Brian Love: I love it. It represents something important.
Christian Ruppe: Techie people have the same style as me usually. We all have our own thing. We’re a little bit more casual but no less serious. We have the same goals. You can’t provide a product that’s perfect for a really techie person if you don’t have someone who’s very techie on your team.
Brian Love: You’re exactly right. Perspective is everything.
*The questions in written format have been modified slightly to reflect better the overall tone and focus of the discussion/interview.