In a wide-ranging discussion on the Banking Transformed podcast, The Financial Brand’s Jim Marous and Grant Karsas, vice president of Digital Experience at Travis Credit Union explored how community-based credit unions can leverage personalization, fintech partnerships and digital capabilities to compete with big banks and fintech disruptors.
Q: You have experience across big banks, fintechs and credit unions. What led you to Travis Credit Union and your current role?
Grant Karsas: I began my career at Wells Fargo, learning firsthand the intricacies of retail banking. This instilled both a passion for technology’s potential and an appreciation for the financial challenges consumers face.
I later co-founded a fintech called HelloWallet, which focused on making personal financial guidance more accessible through technology. After growing and selling that startup, I worked at KeyBank on empowering branches with financial wellness insights.
Throughout this journey, I became increasingly drawn to credit unions and their community-focused mission.
Though Travis has deep community roots, its leadership recognized the need to enhance member experiences through improved digital capabilities. This energized me — and over the past two years, we’ve already made great strides in our transformation.
Standing Out in a Competitive California Market
Q: California hosts an extremely competitive financial services marketplace. How does Travis Credit Union differentiate itself?
Karsas: The proliferation of digital banking options has raised consumer expectations dramatically. Members now demand experiences on par with leading tech brands.
Budgets at credit unions pale in comparison to major banks, so we must take a different approach to digital delivery. The key is selecting the right technology partners and practices.
With proper design and account management support, we can match larger institutions’ experiences at a fraction of the cost.
We start by truly understanding our target members’ needs and desired journeys. We then evaluate partners on how well they support excellent design and post-launch account management. These factors greatly impact long-term user experience and value delivery.
Read more about partnerships and product growth:
- How Banks Are Tackling Fintech Partnerships & Managing Other Risks
- How This Cohort of Banks Mastered Deposit Growth
Integrating Innovation Through Aligned Marketing
Q: How do you determine which technology investments will have the biggest impact on your members?
Karsas: We analyze every initiative through three lenses – adoption, engagement and operations. Adoption shows how broadly members use a new capability. Engagement reveals their depth of interaction over time. Operations confirm the tool is performing smoothly.
For instance, we recently added a more robust credit score and financial wellness solution. In just two months, adoption has increased fivefold over the prior platform. This aligns perfectly with member requests for more personalized financial insights from our research.
Next, we’ll monitor engagement over time to ensure the solution truly empowers sustained beneficial behaviors versus being a novelty. When members use tools frequently to improve their financial lives, we achieve our ultimate goal.
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Q: Many institutions struggle to market new digital tools effectively. How does Travis Credit Union bridge this gap?
Karsas: Close alignment between digital product and marketing roadmaps is essential for launch success. Our marketing team receives detailed launch timeframes from [the digital team] well in advance. This allows them to plan targeted campaigns to deeply engage members with each new capability.
We also closely time marketing kickoffs based on post-launch user feedback. Those initial member reactions help craft messages and value propositions that will resonate most. Ongoing campaigns then sustain awareness and excitement around our evolving digital tools.
This integration ensures members actually know about — and understand the benefits of — our latest innovations. Without it, even the most advanced technology risks going undiscovered and underutilized.
Retaining Relevance in a Disrupted Industry
Q: Why is constantly reinventing engagement so crucial today?
Karsas: In the past, financial institutions controlled the pace of innovation. Today, consumers determine their expectations based on experiences delivered by leading technology brands.
When novel solutions like Venmo and PayPal appear, adoption happens rapidly. Silent attrition follows as customers incorporate new providers without necessarily leaving legacy ones.
Continuous improvement is mandatory to retain relevance in customers’ lives. Partnerships provide the speed critical to matching these ever-rising expectations. With the right focus and vision, smaller institutions can keep pace.
Q: Some fear digital advancements come at the expense of human relationships. How do you balance both?
Karsas: As Beth Mooney, former CEO of KeyBank, once told me: “Trust is very difficult to build with consumers through technology alone.” She was absolutely right.
Credit unions pride themselves on unparalleled relationships and community connections. We must bring those same values into our digital experiences. Excellence comes not from replacing humans with technology but thoughtfully combining both.
“Trust is very difficult to build with consumers through technology alone.”
— Beth Mooney, KeyBank
That means seamlessly blending physical and digital channels so members feel our brand’s care and support consistently. Though digital capabilities provide scale, human empathy remains irreplaceable. Leadership must consciously strengthen — not weaken — those bonds.
When designed well, technology removes friction from mundane tasks so branches can focus on more meaningful engagements. The future winners will integrate both realms intuitively based on user needs at each moment.
Q: Can you discuss a challenge Travis Credit Union faced where technology provided the solution?
Karsas: Rather than seeing hurdles as merely challenges, we view them as opportunities to reinforce our member-centric mission. With every obstacle, we ask ourselves: how can we innovate to deliver more value to our membership?
For instance, we recently examined our digital account opening process. By analyzing each step, we identified one friction point causing a 10% drop-off. Resolving this through an improved user experience will exponentially impact member acquisition.
We also faced unanticipated budget impacts from rising inflation. This required rethinking how we implement technology to control costs while maintaining members’ digital experience. Constraints force creativity and focus.
Ultimately, everything comes back to how we can best serve members. That lens helps reframe any difficulty as a chance to prove our commitment to their financial well-being.
Installing a Culture of Continuous Evolution
Q: Change initiatives often stall without proper vision and alignment. How do you motivate organizational buy-in?
Karsas: Success begins by communicating the “why” across the organization. We created a standard roadshow that explains the following:
- What digital transformation means
- The vision for our member experience
- How it aligns with institutional goals
This ensures all leaders and frontline staff feel connected to the digital journey. They understand how technology supports — not supplants — human relationships.
Ongoing partnerships between digital and business units reinforce this unity. We also closely track metrics reflecting member impact to validate we’re achieving real improvement.
With staff empowered through tools, training and support, technology seen as an enabler and metrics demonstrating evolving consumer value, transformation gains momentum across the organization.
Learn more about staff engagement:
- Banks Must Rethink Employee Comp and Benefits
- Why It’s a Good Time for Community Banks to Hire New Talent
Q: How do you balance the need for agility with procedural hurdles?
Karsas: I think about pace constantly in my role. New innovations appear almost daily, from AI to blockchain. How do I help my institution, partners and solutions keep up?
It starts by shifting fixed legacy mindsets that change occurs through long, linear projects. Now, iteration must be continuous. Building flexible systems makes integrating regular upgrades seamless rather than disruptive.
For instance, our new cloud-based digital banking platform enables much faster releases through microservices and open APIs. We can implement new features weekly to meet arising needs. This architecture is mandatory for agility.
I always have the next initiative lined up and ready to launch as soon as the current one concludes. We must run digital transformation as a progressive journey, not a defined project.
Q: As Travis Credit Union looks ahead, what emerging capabilities most excite you?
Karsas: We know our members value convenience. So, enhancing our digital lending and account opening journeys will be game-changers by removing friction from those moments that matter.
Optimizing these critical touchpoints will then provide data to personalize additional services. As an example, we can understand income and spending patterns to provide tailored guidance on financial goals.
“We must run digital transformation as a progressive journey, not a defined project.”
Delivering that right message at the right moment during a member’s daily life is the pinnacle. Personalized insights, not generic content, will set credit unions apart going forward.
We’ll also continue expanding our ecosystem through synergistic fintech partnerships.
Meeting users where they are with specialized innovations will be crucial. As expectations escalate, no single institution can provide all things to all people. Instead, future winners will assemble tailored “best-of-breed” solutions.
Parting Advice for Digital Transformation
Q: What advice would you offer credit unions looking to digitally transform?
Karsas: First, build partnerships at all levels — consumer, employee and vendor. Shared vision and trust create the foundation for risk-taking and innovation.
Second, obsess over your target user. Personalized journeys only work by understanding members’ needs, not your own assumptions.
Finally, select fintech partners strategically. Vendors who match your focus on design and customer success deliver exponentially more long-term value.
With focus, trust and accountability rooted throughout the ecosystem, credit unions can digitally transform to meet rising consumer expectations. Even with smaller budgets, impactful change is within reach.
For a longer version of this conversation, listen to “Communication Strategies to Navigate a Banking Crisis”, an episode of the Banking Transformed podcast with Jim Marous, available here or wherever you get your podcasts. This Q&A has been edited and condensed for clarity.
Justin Estes is an award-winning writer, strategist and financial marketing expert with expertise in banking, investments and fintech. His clients include the NYSE, Franklin Templeton, Credit Karma, Citi and UBS and his work has appeared in Forbes, Barrons and ThinkAdvisor as well as The Financial Brand.