Millennials have long been blamed for pushing transgenerational businesses to extinction. Even financial institutions with storied pasts have not emerged unscathed, forced to scramble to create app-based offerings, branded credit cards and zero-commitment products to suit changing preferences. Banking analysts have been quick to assign blame, pegging millennials as a dark cloud hanging over the industry.
Yet, not only was the forecasted doom and gloom massively overblown, but a unique opportunity has emerged from its shadow. If housing numbers tell the story, then the U.S. is on the brink of a massive millennial population shift that could bring tremendous growth to local, regional and community banks the likes of which haven't been seen in decades.
The most important thing to consider is that this generation still has a strong desire to chase the American dream, despite being hindered. In order to achieve what past generations have, they've got to do things differently. That means exiting large, expensive cities — and the banks that serve them — in favor of so-called secondary markets. And so far, some of the most appealing markets appear to be in Rust Belt cities that have rounded the corner for revitalization.
An analysis of origination and lending data at Nations Lending shows that not only do millennial buyers make up more than 46% of new U.S. homebuyers for the first two months of 2019 — the largest generational segment of the market for the fourth year in a row — but their movement out of traditional big cities and into secondary markets is on the rise. From 2017 to 2018, millennial buyers surged 24% in Rust Belt cities, while purchasing in larger cities, like Dallas, Chicago and Houston fell more than 14%.
All of this is happening while the number of local community banks serving these soon-to-be flourishing real estate markets is plummeting. Fewer than 5,500 existed in the U.S. as of last year. Small- and medium-sized lenders, too, continue to consolidate with larger institutions.
We're seeing a major market shift happen right before our eyes, and herein lies the opportunity. Banks and lenders willing to focus on these markets — upstate New York, Pittsburgh, Cleveland, Cincinnati and Milwaukee, and the likes — with community-based initiatives, trust marketing, local offerings, and new technology should be able to capitalize. Tapping into this largely underserved market shouldn't be difficult, either.
Regional banks and lenders have to physically be where the need is. If they're not already, that means mergers and acquisitions or the establishment of new retail locations. It also means actively recruiting in those markets, as the fastest way to gain market share and build authority is to seek out those who are already well versed with the needs of the community. Acquiring production managers already ingrained in the community, with standing ties to the market, is most advantageous.
The local presence is the face of authenticity, so brick-and-mortar locations are a natural step. Yet building local presence goes beyond merely renting office space. There's a sense of Main Street authenticity to these markets, which often have either already invested in or are in the process of revitalizing downtown areas. Assimilate and become part of that change. Support efforts when possible, either financially or by participating in roundtables and joining local organizations.
Banks looking to capitalize on this shift need to double down on trust. Millennial homebuyers want straight-shooting honesty and authenticity, and that's been proven time and again when industry disruptors come to market with clear, concise, no-gimmick messaging. Frankly, it's endemic of millennials' deep distrust of big banking institutions, which comes in response to scandals like the ones Wells Fargo has fought through in recent years.
When local and regional lenders invest in these new millennial hotbeds, they should do so with a multipronged approach. Treating digital as the end all, be all to success with this demographic is a mistake. Often there's a propensity to push technology that doesn't necessarily streamline the millennial customer experience. Treat digital as one — but not your only — channel. It should be a touchpoint, not the sales pitch.
Regional lenders must market their local thought leaders, and amplify their voices, which will only serve to get the lender's name out more in the public conversation. Yet they must do so in a natural way. Millennials don't want some faceless voice advertising to them by the big banks. Choose a clear, simple message that's easily understood and skips the fine print.
Millennials are in the process of making "secondary" Rust Belt cities the local economies of the future. Local and regional lenders have an opportunity to reclaim greatness. Whether or not they cease that opportunity remains to be seen.