When customers walk into Exchange Bank in Grand Island, Nebraska, they are often greeted by name. It’s not uncommon for an employee to chat with customers, asking about a recent vacation or how their grandkids are doing. In fact, the company’s employees take great pride in operating with a local bank mentality, while providing customers with the kind of fast and reliable transactions that they might expect from a larger firm.
However, this super-fast and reliable technology wasn’t always the case. The company had to jump through some hoops to arrive at where they are today. Just ask John Wischmeier, Exchange Bank’s IT manager, who began his role about five years ago and immediately noticed that the bank was struggling with communication speed. This proved to be a real challenge for the company, considering that in today’s day and age, customers expect nothing short of speedy transactions, and employees need to be equipped with seamless support when fulfilling each customer request.
Wischmeier knew that to bolster the bank’s communication speed, he needed to set out to improve the existing MPLS circuit, which wasn’t fast enough between a few of the bank’s eight locations, and upgrade the existing lines—all while keeping costs in line with the company’s expectations. He also knew that while the problem was clear, arriving at a solution wouldn’t be as easy.
On a mission to swiftly address the challenge, Wischmeier was quickly met with resistance. While shopping around for a new provider, he was given quotes that were “truly ridiculous,” asking for as much as $20,000 per month for a very small communication line. “It was just too much money and not fast enough,” Wischmeier says. He also soon discovered that Exchange Bank’s outside mobile banking vendor Fiserv, which required access within the bank’s WAN infrastructure, was only willing to work with its existing provider, AT&T. (AT&T declined to comment.)
This roadblock could have stopped Wischmeier in his tracks, but he continued on with persistence. “Everyone else had abandoned the project, deciding that we were either going to have to pay a very high price or have to sacrifice reliability and go with another vendor that didn’t offer the redundancy we required,” Wischmeier says. “I just kept pushing forward, knowing there had to be a solution out there that fit us.”
Wischmeier recalls one night when he was eating pizza with his family and thought to himself, “If you can order a pizza with different toppings on the two halves, why can’t you do the same thing with WAN infrastructure?” This concept prompted Wischmeier to begin thinking outside of the box, mulling over the idea of continuing with AT&T to meet Fiserv’s requirements and adding communication from a new provider to supplement that solution. Since Fiserv was critical to the bank’s core functions, Wischmeier also knew that the bank couldn’t have just one connection to them, but rather, would need multiple connections.
The next day, he called Fiserv and proposed that the bank would honor their request to connect with AT&T, but then once the software vendor reached Exchange Bank’s network, the bank would disperse that communication using its own methods. After Fiserv said it would be comfortable with that agreement, he asked his prospective vendor, Windstream Communications, to put a plan together to actually execute on dispersing the communication after Fiserv arrived in network.
Windstream Communications and Wischmeier continued to negotiate over the course of a year, working on different methods and possibilities to get the circuit that Exchange Bank wanted at a reasonable price.
“After talking for a while, we found out some fiber builds were available that were fairly close to us and less expensive, costing around $4,000 a month, due to the location,” Wischmeier says. In order to capitalize on that, Wischmeier had to move a data center internally between branches. However, the move would be well worth the hassle. It saved upwards of $16,000 a month in costs, and the bank would get 10 times the bandwidth that was initially offered by the vendor that gave Wischmeier the astronomical quote of $20,000 a month. In all, the bank would reduce its communication cost by 25 percent.
Wischmeier ended up bringing two circuits into the bank’s network, and then had the bank connect them together. Since then, the bank expanded to another location in Kansas, requiring Exchange Bank to add yet another communication vendor, since government regulations proved to be a challenge in that location.
Exchange Bank started with an MPLS circuit that was 1.5 Mbps and recently upgraded to 1 Gbps. “It used to be that we barely functioned with all employees connecting to our data center. Now we have great service for everyone with very frequent and easy back-ups that happen within minutes, if not less,” Wischmeier says. Exchange Bank grew from 25 employees in 8 locations about five years ago to about 110 employees in 10 locations today, with reliable technology allowing communication to continue without a hitch.
Wischmeier emphasizes that supportive coworkers played an important role in the transformation. “It was great to have the support of coworkers willing to step in when needed and the ownership of the bank willing to go along with my plan, which was a big thing to do,” he says.
With faster, more reliable communication, Exchange Bank can continue focusing on what really matters to them: maintaining their small-town feel as they continue to grow and expand their customer base.
Renee Morad is a freelance writer and editor based in New Jersey. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Discovery News, Business Insider, Ozy.com, NPR, MainStreet.com, and other outlets. If you have a story you would like profiled, contact her at [email protected]
The IT Innovators series of articles is underwritten by Microsoft, and is editorially independent.