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MetaBank focuses on customers’ life changes


What’s in a name? Among financial institutions, there’s better than a one-in-five chance that “first” is part of its name. And odds are also pretty good that “state” or “federal” is a in it as well. Breaking away from such well-worn adjectives was one of the reasons that First Federal Savings Bank of the Midwest, which operated as Iowa Savings Bank in the Des Moines market, changed its name earlier this year to MetaBank.

Along with that name change, the Storm Lake-based thrift will soon have two more Greater Des Moines offices. By late summer, MetaBank plans to begin construction on its fifth metro-area branch, to be located near the Jordan Creek Town Center, to be followed by a branch in Ankeny.

The name change, which became official Feb. 1, includes a new logo that symbolizes life changes in three dimensions: physical, mental and spiritual.

“We see it as an opportunity to differentiate our bank, because we’re the only we know of that focuses on life changes,” said Ellen Moore, MetaBank’s senior vice president for marketing and sales. “Banks and financial institutions are finding a need to brand themselves more.”

As part of that shift, each bank employee has received in-house training to assist customers with banking services related to any of 10 significant life events, from having a new baby to building a new home to retiring.

“This life-change philosophy applies to the business customer as well,” said Troy Moore, president of MetaBank’s Central Iowa market. “If you’ve got business changes, our commercial lenders can step up and help them, whether it’s buying real estate or setting up an employee stock ownership plan.”

Now an $800 million institution, MetaBank is currently the seventh-largest bank in Greater Des Moines, based on total assets in Iowa. It has experienced more than 20 percent growth in assets for each of the past four years. Half of those assets are concentrated within its two highest-growth areas: Greater Des Moines and Sioux Falls, S.D. The bank also owns Meta Payment Systems. a payments card company launched last year in Sioux Falls.

Founded in 1954 as Storm Lake Savings and Loan Association by Stanley Haahr, MetaBank now has 16 banking branches in central and northwest Iowa and Sioux Falls.

The holding company, which first went public in 1993 as First Midwest Financial Inc., is now Meta Financial Group Inc., which is traded on the Nasdaq Stock Market under the ticker symbol CASH.

In 1995, First Midwest’s banking subsidiary, First Federal Savings and Loan Association of Storm Lake, entered the Central Iowa market by buying Iowa Savings Bank, which had one office in Highland Park. Iowa Savings Bank subsequently opened branches in West Des Moines and Urbandale as well as another in Des Moines.

The assets of the bank’s Greater Des Moines operations have increased tenfold in the past decade. MetaBank’s Central Iowa market now accounts for $250 million of its $800 million in assets. Locally, MetaBank employs 55 people at its four metro offices.

Going public also gave First Midwest sufficient capital to purchase Brookings Federal Bank in South Dakota in 1994 and Security State Bank in Stuart, Iowa, in 1996. Five years ago, First Federal opened a de novo branch in Sioux Falls, S.D, which now has $150 million in assets. The company established a trust operation in Sioux Falls in 2002, and now plans to open two additional bank branches there.

With each acquisition, “we kept the local name and local flavor,” said Tyler Haahr, MetaBank’s president and chief operating officer, “but it became apparent that it was more important to be able to provide a better quality of service, a better product, which is easier to do if you’re under one system and one name.”

Following its planned expansion within the next year and a half in West Des Moines, Ankeny and Sioux Falls, Haahr said the Des Moines and Sioux Falls markets remain the likeliest candidates for further expansion.

“We still think there are a lot of opportunities in this market,” he said, “for instance, Indianola and Norwalk. Banks go where the people are going.”

Meta Payment Systems on cutting edge of prepaid card industry

Say you’ve just twisted the cap off your soda and found you’ve won a contest. Your next surprise may come after you’ve sent away for your prize, when the payment comes in the form of a plastic card rather than a check.

Similarly, it’s becoming more common for businesses to issue debit cards to their flexible spending account participants that allow the employees to directly transfer funds from their flex account to pay a clinic co-payment.

Additionally, some employers are finding prepaid cards to be more cost-effective than checks to pay employees who don’t have checking accounts. Companies can also issue gift cards as incentives or employee bonuses. In each case, the cards can be used anywhere that a Visa or MasterCard credit or debit card is accepted.

“It’s a product that really benefits everybody, and it’s just kind of the cutting edge of technology for banking,” said Tyler Haahr, president and chief operating officer of MetaBank, which launched a payment card division in May 2004. Based in Sioux Falls, S.D., Meta Payment Systems specializes in partnering with a variety of companies in the design, implementation and monitoring of payment systems, as well as providing automated teller machine sponsorships and other services for banks and merchants.

“Not only do we do (prepaid cards) for our own bank, we do that for many other banks around the country,” Haahr said. “One of the niches that we have is we allow ABC bank to brand their cards with ABC on them, and we’re the wholesaler, in effect, for banks that can’t afford to operate it themselves.”

Because Meta Payment Systems does not take on the credit risk of the transactions but rather is only handling the fund transfer function, the division’s operations do not adversely affect MetaBank’s credit quality, which is among the best in the industry, Haahr said.

Haahr said the bank expects later this year to begin recouping a $1 million loss from start-up costs it has seen from launching the division and from its corporate name change.

“Now stepping into the second year, we’ll probably have some residual losses for six months, but the profits from the next six months will offset that, and in the third year we would earn back what we lost in the first 18 months,” he said. “Things are progressing exactly where we thought. If anything, we’re probably a little bit ahead of where we thought we’d be from the sales side.

“We’ve always made the decision that we’re going to do what’s best for the long-term best interest of the company, the shareholders and the customers, not what’s going to get us the next best quarterly earnings announcement. Because we’ve done that, our stock price has roughly tripled in the past 10 years.”

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