Overheard at the Forum: How Colony Bank Hired a Fintech Creator to Jump Start Innovation

You won't find Christian Ruppe on the frontiers of artificial intelligence — and you surely won't find him messing with the likes of quantum computing. Instead, the community bank innovation chief focuses on applying his fintech-brewed skills to help his institution move into the fast lane for its own specialties. On the horizon: innovating for better business banking.

Innovation in community banking is often a very different affair than in larger institutions. Major players can afford teams of teams, dedicated fintech labs, some really exciting hardware , and all kinds of extras. At Georgia’s Colony Bank, Christian Ruppe, SVP and chief innovation officer, is the innovation team, and for him, the most important thing is focus.

Ruppe’s role is as an integrator of external and internal resources as the $3 billion bank works through a list of projects intended to bring it up to speed and ready for innovation.

He works off a “road map” that ties in directly with the bank’s strategic plan.

“My job is to build out the road map and to make sure that everything on the road map happens,” says Ruppe. Each project requires assembly of an internal team and resources from outside, with Ruppe playing a coordinating role. What’s been accomplished, he says, “is a function of the whole bank, rather than a single team that’s driving innovation.”

An Innovation Road Map Driven by the Bank’s Strategic Plan

In the nearly two years he’s been at Colony, he’s guided the bank through nearly everything on a three-year to-do list. Much of this has involved “decoupling” various operations from the bank’s core, allowing it to pick up superior, up-to-date technology. Ruppe says with some pride that part of the decoupling has been development of the bank’s own applied programming interfaces (APIs), which will enable a good deal of streamlining. Each step taken — another major step was adoption of no-code software design — is enabling the bank to move faster.

The stress at Colony right now continues to be on updates and innovation that will improve things immediately, particularly service.

“Here you don’t have innovation happening in a bubble,” says Ruppe.

The flip side of not spending much time on blue-sky projects is that support continues to be there. Even though the bank has been going through some cost-cutting, as have many community financial institutions, Ruppe says the board and Heath Fountain, president and CEO, remain believers in the need to move ahead with changes that bring technological complements to the people strengths of community banking.

“Just because we are reducing expenses doesn’t mean we aren’t going to continue investing in the future. Banks have to realize that innovation isn’t something you do just when you have excess cash.”

— Christian Ruppe, Colony Bank

Read more: Digital Transformation: Pursue Progress Now, Perfection Later

Bank Innovation Career Began from Fintech Roots

Ruppe has been learning the banking business from the inside. “The fun part of the job for me is that I get to work in all the groups of the bank,” he explains.

He started out as co-founder and CEO at Monotto, a fintech he and associates began building while he was in college. Monotto is a savings engagement tool designed to help banks encourage younger generation consumers to put money aside in small increments. Among investors in the startup app was FIS. One of the company’s mentors was Charles Potts, EVP and chief innovation officer for the Independent Community Bankers of America (ICBA).

Monotto was purchased by Wisconsin’s Horicon Bank and Ruppe joined the $1.5 billion institution in late 2020 as vice-president of digital banking. In 2022 Ruppe was promoted to vice-president of innovation and strategy.

Part of the job entailed building and maintaining connections to the fintech community, which he continues today with such groups as JAM FINTOP, BankTech Ventures and the ICBA’s Accelerator.

In time Colony Bank, looking to modernize, hired Ruppe. Colony chiefly serves communities in southern Georgia, though it has loan production offices in Tallahassee, Fla., and Birmingham, Ala., as well as in Atlanta, Ga.

Read more: This Community Bank Innovation Lab Picks Its Battles — and Wins

Driving Innovation Through Needs Instead of Shiny Objects

Financial technology has been exploding for years, and the table stakes a bank needs to simply remain in the game continue to rise. Burgeoning buzz about trends like artificial intelligence, especially GenAI, can easily become the engine driving thinking about innovation and what comes next.

Ruppe says he’s learned to dampen the temptation to pursue the trendy by steering toward the specific challenges of his own institution. He says that if a new technology can help Colony get caught up and moving forward in an area needing improvement, then it’s a good candidate. But getting ensnared in the latest craze isn’t something he can afford — literally.

So, he explains he’s not looking at AI for the sake of bragging rights, to say that Colony is getting into AI. Being cool won’t help him get through his to-do list.

But where new tools address items on the list, he’s all for it, and where it’s made sense, the bank is applying AI. Colony’s holding company, Colony Bankcorp, Inc., is a public company traded on Nasdaq and one AI solution that’s been helpful uses the technology to research and summarize information from corporate records to produce public financial reports.

Ruppe actually thinks that the current AI rage will have about a five-year duration, and then settle down.

After that, he says, AI will be embedded in many banking processes and will be part of the background, though an essential part. He thinks a key role going forward, akin to what the bank is already doing with its reporting, will be locating helpful data from among all the classic silos banks have, plucking what’s needed, and integrating it to produce insights.

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Going Beyond Consumer Banking Innovation

Many of the early steps that most banks take when adopting an innovation stance occur on the consumer side of the business. Something that often gets lost amid the early excitement is that many community banking companies are focused much more on business banking than on the retail banking dominated by giants like JPMorgan Chase and Bank of America.

Ruppe sees this being a major focus for Colony’s innovation process as it wraps up the basics of the early days. He says many more opportunities to streamline business banking services exist and they’ll be on his future road maps.

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