BY JUSTIN DENNIS
What, exactly, is “Kasasa”? You won’t find the word – pronounced "kah-SAH-suh" – in any dictionary.
A quick Google search returns Kasasa as a small town in the Kagoshima Prefecture of Japan that, in 2005, merged with four other nearby municipalities to create a larger city, Minamisatsuma.
In the banking realm, Kasasa is a national brand of checking and savings accounts that, in the spirit of that Japanese village, bring local community banks and credit unions together under one banner.
Under that banner, participating banks can offer their customers tantalizing interest rates and services most often touted by the so-called “megabanks.” Currently, 180 banks across the country offer Kasasa accounts to their customers – three of them are in our area, according to the Kasasa website.
“This is an opportunity for local banks to team up,” said Indiana First Bank president and CEO Tim Kronenwetter. “This is the attempt of the smaller community banks to stand up and say, ‘We’ve got a great product compared to these other banks.’ ”
Kasasa began in 2009, a product of BancVue CEO Gabe Krajicek. The company recruits bank partners around the country and trains the participating bank employees on setting up Kasasa-branded accounts.
Indiana First has been “Kasasa-fied” for about three weeks and converted around 160 of its customers, according to Kronenwetter. Altoona First Savings Bank and SPE Federal Credit Union in State College also are onboard. Kronenwetter said, according to his Kasasa representative, six new banks in the state are expected to join up soon.
“It’s starting to catch on very nicely. It allows us to talk about ‘collectively’ rather than ‘Indiana First and Altoona First,’ ” he said. “If you say something collectively, you’re going to be heard much stronger.”
Customers will still do business directly through their bank – and Kasasa accounts also are DIC-insured – but they also can take advantage of a handsome range of features like high interest on checking and savings accounts, free ATM transactions anywhere – on any ATM network – and no fees.
Kronenwetter said other checking and savings accounts, on average, offer .05 to .1 percent. With Kasasa, Indiana First is able to offer 2.5 percent and
1 percent, respectively. The interest rate market for each state is different.
To qualify for Kasasa through Indiana First, Kronenwetter said customers must do one of three things: receive account statements online; have electronic transactions like direct deposit or online bill pay on their account; or use their debit card at least 12 times a month.
“This Kasasa product is going to become pretty important to community banks,” Kronenwetter said. “It’s reacquainting a lot of people at these megabanks with the community banking system.”
He said he feels those smaller banks are “better equipped” to handle customers individually and that they’ve been the “backbone” of the industry nationwide for many years.
Kasasa’s marketing campaign also takes a bite out of megabanks and the inherent over-automation that converts human depositors into cold, lifeless string of account numbers.
“It’s really hard getting that message out because they’re so attracted to the glitz and the media presentation of the larger banks,” Kronenwetter said.
To that end, BancVue also develops marketing media on behalf of the bank partners – but those marketing, sales and support people come with a franchise fee.
Kronenwetter said, however, it’s “not significant.”
“Does it tie up our marketing budget? Yes,” he said. “Is it more expensive or less expensive on the media side? Probably, for the long run, it’ll be less expensive.”
But Roberta Lohr, senior vice president of marketing for Somerset Trust, said Kasasa might not be for every hometown bank. And she said she’s skeptical of the fee-less transactions for out-of-network ATMs.
“Believe me, there’s ‘nothing for nothing’, especially when it comes to the ATM network and the charge card network,” she said.
Lohr said Somerset Trust won’t be joining in the Kasasa collective – the bank has already generated a blanket of services and a wide ATM network for its community customers. She said Somerset Trust is doing just fine on its own.
“We started building our network of ATMs, debit cards and all that stuff in the late 1990s,” she said. “BancVue wasn’t around then.
“To pay a company to purchase those services from them doesn’t make sense for us,” she said. “It does for smaller banks ... We already have that infrastructure in place. Turn the clock back to 1997 and we might have looked at them as an option.”
By comparison, Somerset Trust checking account interest rates range from .15 to .40 percent – a fraction of what Indiana First is able to offer through Kasasa. But she said every bank has a different business model. Her bank follows the market and that’s what it’s able to pay now.
“For our bank, that’s what’s worked,” she said. “But when you have a smaller bank in a smaller market and they still have a PNC next door, how are they going to compete? “That’s expensive.”
Kronenwetter said choosing the megabank means your dollars might not even stay in the country. He said community banking insures the money
– and the benefits it can bestow – stay local.
“(Customers’) deposit dollars work best in the community they live in than the megabanks,’ ” he said. “And who knows where that money goes?”
Justin Dennis is a multi-media reporter for The Tribune-Democrat. Follow
him on Twitter at www.Twitter.com/JustinDennis.