23 June 2009

e3bank: A new bank built for the green economy

You might think now is a terrible time to start a bank. The banking industry has gone from tailspin to government-owned in the past 8 months.

The collapse of one major financial institution after another -- either through mergers or failures -- has made the very profession seem like, well, something to avoid like swine flu.

But for the founders and principals at a new start-up bank that received its charter this past March, now is the perfect time to start a bank. If, that is, you're starting a bank based on a different value system.

Enter Sandy Wiggins and Frank Baldassarre. Of the two, Frank is the only one who resembles a banker, and that's because he is, and has had an extensive career as a banking professional with such regional institutions as Fox Chase Bank of Exton, PA, and First Financial of Downingtown. Sandy was the charismatic chairman of the US Green Building Council and has three decades of experience in the building industry.

Together, they are launching e3bank, set to open for business this fall and currently embarking on a $30 million private offering to shareholders willing to put up a minimum of $5,000. Their goal is to have a large number of shareholders, most of whom have made a modest investment.

"We don't want to have a single large investor who could call the shots and control too much," Wiggins told me in a recent interview. "We want to be inclusive, so we've made the minimum investment low enough to democratize ownership in e3bank."

So they are seeking a steady stream of small, $5,000-10,000 investors through what is, in part, a social networking campaign, trying to reach more people who understand and believe in the idea of a bank with a triple bottom line.

In fact, according to Wiggins that triple bottom line (enterprise, environment, and social equity) is the single greatest distinguishing factor for e3bank. They will couple that with world-class online banking service that "will be unlike any online banking experience on offer in the US," Wiggins says. "Think about it as Web 2.0 for the banking industry."

E3bank will have a limited building-based footprint. "It won't be your traditional branch bank, more like a resource center," reports Wiggins. "A place for public discourse and information about sustainability. A cross between a comfy living room or local cafe and an Apple store."

They will be few in number and location because, as Wiggins says, "The greenest building you can build is the one you don't build."

E3bank won't just be about atmosphere, Wiggins relates. The bank will offer a range of financial services designed to increase their customer's returns while reducing their customer's environmental footprint. They will also focus on what Wiggins calls "values-based financial incentives," such as interest rates to encourage sustainability choices and providing feedback on customer spending habits.

For instance, the bank will attempt to categorize expenses automatically online and recommend energy efficiency options for customers who have consistently high gas or electric bills.

Their "Green Assist" program is perhaps their most exciting innovation. Designed for residential and small business customers, e3bank will provide an energy audit, fund energy efficient and renewable energy projects, and automatically process all available subsidies, rebates, and tax incentives, as well as connect them with pre-screened contractors in their community.

One goal of the bank is to be a community bank, says Wiggins, "but a community bank of like-minded individuals rather than geography." They'll be coming together around the value system the bank espouses rather than proximity to some branch office.

It's an experiment worth watching. Can a bank tow the triple-bottom line? Other banks, such as Chicago's ShoreBank, San Francisco's New Resource Bank, and some community development corporations among them, have tried for a double bottom line approach. And only one, Triodus Bank in the Netherlands, has experimented with a third dimension, although ShoreBank is attempting to enter the green market as well.

E3bank has the potential to revolutionize the banking industry at a time when the banking industry is in dire need of an extreme makeover.

Ultimately, the goal of e3bank is to support the new green economy and a more sustainable economy and, as Wiggins puts it, his will be the bank for "everyone who cares about a sustainable world."