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The P.O.W.E.R of EVB’s Niche Program

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by Price
September 12, 2017

By Karen Kroll

All of us can be lured by the idea of being everything to everyone—after all, who doesn’t want more friends or customers? The temptation can resonate with some community bankers who worry about losing customers to larger institutions that offer an array of products and services.

However, the result can be scattershot efforts that require time and money, yet fail to gain traction.

Focusing on a niche or several niches can lead to greater success.

EVB, a wholly owned subsidiary of Eastern Virginia Bankshares, Inc., has successfully targeted women entrepreneurs and business owners through its P.O.W.E.R.—Potential of Women Entrepreneurs Realized—initiative. Along with financial products and services, P.O.W.E.R. offers opportunities to connect with other business women through networking events and social media. Podcasts and seminars offer the chance to hear experts discuss marketing, the use of social media, sales strategies, and other subjects that are key to building and growing their businesses.

“It’s an exciting program designed to meet the unique needs of women in business,” said Michelle Hastings Simon, senior vice president and chief marketing officer with EVB, and the catalyst behind the program. Eastern Virginia Bankshares, Inc., a bank holding company with $1.3 billion in assets, operates more than two dozen branches and offices in eastern Virginia.

From its start several years ago, the group has grown to more than 700 clients. “It’s a movement,” Simon told us. “We’re known as the bank with a program for women.”

Members range from twenty-somethings to octogenarians. They include doctors to retailers, to attorneys to photographers. If a man wanted to join P.O.W.E.R., he could. To date, however, no male has expressed interest.

The business case for targeting women.

Simon and her colleagues decided to target women business owners based on research indicating that women business owners are one of fastest growing sectors in the economy. Between 2007 and 2016, the number of women-owned firms increased by 45%, versus a 9% increase among all businesses, according to the 2016 State of Women-Owned Businesses Report by American Express OPEN. Moreover, business revenues among women-owned firms have increased by 35% since 2007, compared to 27% for all U.S. firms, also according to the report. “Targeting women in business makes sense,” Simon said. Further research revealed no bank in EVB’s area was targeting women business owners.

The benefits of focusing on a market niche are compelling, Simon noted. “When you’re trying to be everything to everyone, you can only make so much of an impact. You can get bigger wins when you position yourself as an expert.”

How they made it work.                                      

At the same time, effectively pursuing a niche requires “focus, continual adjustment, and learning the market,” according to Simon. To start, women tend to approach their ventures somewhat differently than men, she noted. For instance, many self-finance their businesses at the start. That can mean they lack a credit history and aren’t considered viable candidates when they later seek outside financing.

“At EVB, we look at the full story,” she said. That includes the business plan, its past performance, its cash flow, and balance sheet. The analysis often reveals a business that is a candidate for financing. When it’s not, EVB will refer them to organizations—like SCORE or the SBA—that can help the client improve her business’s performance so the bank can be in a better position to help it. “We’re very diligent to keep the doors open and be transparent,” Simon explained.

Dedicating the appropriate amount of resources to the program also has been key.

To provide the support necessary for success, EVB has appointed a director to the program. “We needed someone focused on P.O.W.E.R.,” Simon explained.

Just as important, “the entire organization is behind the program,” she added. The chief executive officer participates in events, and every office has a “P.O.W.E.R. Partner” that helps new members learn about the program. An advisory board and planning team provide overall direction.

When EVB launched the program, it did so “with a bang,” Simon said. “We promoted it like crazy.” She and her colleagues attended numerous networking events and provided the media with multiple news angles. “We were everywhere to promote it.”

Their efforts have paid off.

Within the first year, 100 women had joined the program. The early success helped to convince a few skeptics within the bank of P.O.W.E.R.’s viability and value. “Now, they can’t speak highly enough of it,” Simon said.

The P.O.W.E.R. program has consistently exceeded the financial goals established for it. In fact, EVB is expanding it to the northern Virginia market. The bank also is launching a similar program for leaders of nonprofits.

P.O.W.E.R.’s success is due to solid research, a willingness to tailor the program to clients’ needs, and consistent support across the bank. It’s not enough to simply package existing services in a new way and brand it, Simon explained. “We talked to women in the market. We did our research, both to target our efforts, and to develop resources.”

Karen M. Kroll is a business and financial services writer and content marketer based in Minneapolis-St. Paul. Email: karen@karenkroll.com.

Hear more from Michelle Hastings Simon when she presents at the ABA Bank Marketing Conference, September 24-26, 2017. We look forward to seeing you in New Orleans!