On his way back from a work trip recently, Wyatt Abernethy encountered something many air travelers do these days: a flight delay. This, of course, affected the transportation arrangements he was counting on at the other end of his trip.
“I didn’t land back home until 11 p.m. that night,” says Abernethy, executive vice president and managing director of digital and treasury solutions at $12.5 billion-asset Veritex Community Bank, which is based in Dallas.
And yet, Abernethy was able to pull out his phone, tap the Uber app and secure a late-night ride to his house without a hitch. Reflecting on that experience, he better understands exactly why gig workers like Uber drivers and other independent contractors have different expectations of their banks, lenders and financial services providers.
“Their service and support expectations are different,” says Abernethy. “Some of these individuals work around the clock, which means the banking services have to be available on their schedules. Yet, many community banks aren’t set up to be able to provide after-hours support.”
“If we want to be true to who we are as banks and take care of the communities that we serve, we need to be able to serve those gig workers and independent contractors well.”
—Wyatt Abernethy, Veritex Community Bank
Banks may also get caught up in which new gadgets or technology tools their customers might need while overlooking those clients’ basic service needs and expectations. The good news is that the many community banks that do “get it” stand out to the nation’s growing pool of gig workers, freelancers and self-employed individuals.
“Independent workers make up a significant portion of our economy, and community banks can’t afford to ignore an entire segment of potential clients,” says Abernethy. “If we want to be true to who we are as banks and take care of the communities that we serve, we need to be able to serve those gig workers and independent contractors well.”
Seizing a growing opportunity
According to McKinsey & Co., a growing number of Americans have become independent workers in recent years. Whether they’re freelancing or taking on a side hustle, an estimated 58 million independent workers are opting out of full-time jobs. The research firm says that 36% of respondents to its latest American Opportunity Survey identify as independent workers, compared with 27% in 2016.
“The number of gig workers has grown significantly, and that growth is primarily being driven by the desire to work from home and have flexible hours.”
—Tina Giorgio, ICBA Bancard
Gig workers, who perform short-term work or take on projects for multiple clients—often using an online platform like Uber or DoorDash—operate as independent contractors. They are responsible for paying their taxes, signing up for their own benefits and other responsibilities that an employer would typically handle.
Freelance contractors and self-employed individuals operate in a similar manner. On the banking and financial front, this group operates somewhere between the full-time employee and larger businesses. Because of this, the growing segment’s banking needs may not always fit into the “traditional” mold.
“The number of gig workers has grown significantly, and that growth is primarily being driven by the desire to work from home and have flexible hours,” says Tina Giorgio, president and CEO of ICBA Bancard. “The growth is also being driven by advancements in technology and business needs.”
This growth opens the doors of opportunity for community banks that are agile enough to change on a dime and have always done an excellent job of serving specific niches within their regions. For example, gig workers tend to depend heavily on digital technology and, as such, want to be able to receive, send and transfer funds quickly. Community banks that understand this and invest in digital tools can position themselves well for attracting gig workers. (see sidebar below)
Gig workers’ loan needs
Lending is another area where community banks can stand out from the crowd, namely because they can take the time to build close personal relationships with their customers. When those customers—some of whom may not fit the “standard” business borrower profile—need loans for expansion, the bank already understands and can factor in those nuances when making a decision.
“Lending creates challenges for gig workers because of the unpredictability of their pay, but there are also new ways to assess someone’s creditworthiness without pulling a credit report and reviewing their credit score,” Giorgio points out. For example, a loan officer can review rent payment histories, utility bill payments and even cell phone bills to assemble a complete picture of the applicant’s creditworthiness.
Larger, national banks may not always take the time or put the extra effort into their lending decisions. “Community banks are well positioned to work with this customer segment because they’re known for supporting communities with their lending practices,” Giorgio says. “The fact that a gig worker lives and works locally, and can deal with the same person at a bank and build that relationship, is particularly important to them.”
Meeting the need for speed
Then and now
Source: American Opportunity Survey, McKinsey & Co.
Outside of lending, gig workers and freelancers also need help obtaining benefits like health and life insurance, planning for retirement, and investing their hard-earned dough. Community banks are in a great position to help customers with any or all these things, both from a service provider and educational resource perspective.
Independent workers also need speedy and/or instant payment processing options. Giorgio sees FedNow as an opportunity area for banks that want to meet that “need for speed.”
“FedNow and instant payments are important tools for supporting this share of the market,” says Giorgio. This also presents an opportunity to work with companies that contract with and pay gig workers. “From a small business perspective, companies that employ gig workers need payment services to be able to support paying those contractors with more frequency and to be able to transact with them in a more efficient way,” she adds.
Going digital in Dallas
Founded in 2009, Veritex Bank has always worked hard to serve small and growing businesses in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. More recently, the bank has welcomed a growing number of gig workers, independent contractors and freelancers as customers.
To serve this growing niche, Veritex uses a “personal touch” that it knows gig workers won’t get from a large, national bank. It’s also put digital technology tools in place to ensure a high level of service for folks like the Uber driver who delivered Abernethy home safely the night his flight was delayed.
“Whether you’re ordering a ride, booking an Airbnb or requesting a food delivery, the ease of use of the related platform is what makes that platform so interesting,” says Abernethy, who realizes that the very gig workers using those platforms expect the same level of ease from their banking relationships. In response, he says the bank has invested in technology, switched up some of its processes and looked carefully at how it services those clients.
In some cases, a few simple tweaks can make a noticeable difference in the way a community bank serves this “non-traditional” business customer group. The key is understanding what that customer’s needs are first, versus putting the technology or platforms in place and hoping that they use it. This client-first approach has worked well for Veritex.
“This hasn’t required a huge investment in new technology, payment solutions or online banking systems,” says Abernethy. “It’s simply rethinking how we use those systems to better serve those clients and meet them where they are.”
The pandemic’s impact on gig working
Founded in 1999, Sunstate Bank is based in Coral Gables, Fla., and serves the Miami-Dade area. With about $500 million in assets and 60 employees, the community bank has been serving a lot more gig workers and independent contractors as a result of the pandemic. For example, when the Small Business Association (SBA) rolled out the PPP, many independent contractors working on a 1099 basis flocked to the bank for help securing their fair share of the funding opportunity.
“If you can imagine someone walking into a large bank branch and saying, ‘I want a PPP loan,’ that just didn’t work, because PPP was handled as a special facility,” Lloyd DeVaux, president and CEO, explains. “A lot of the big banks handled the PPP approval process centrally, which meant that a customer could walk into a branch and ask about the status of a loan, and no one knew the answer.”
At Sunstate Bank, on the other hand, customers could ask the same question at any branch and get an answer to their loan status update queries.
This helped the bank not only attract new customers applying for PPP loans but also a host of new, long-term banking customers. DeVaux himself was hands-on with the process, entering every PPP loan application into the SBA’s system, reviewing those applications and ensuring that all of the i’s were dotted and t’s crossed. Loan officers, underwriters and branch managers also reviewed every application to ensure that “everything was inline.”
“It was a joint effort from top to bottom,” says DeVaux. “Everybody could talk PPP.”
As a community bank that also employs independent contractors to handle functions like credit analysis, Sunstate Bank understands the challenges that these individuals may face in the banking and lending sector. For example, centralized decision-making helps community banks provide quick decisions on loans and other products that a micro-business can’t afford to wait weeks or months for.
DeVaux says most independent contractors and self-employed individuals come to Sunstate for basic checking and savings accounts. Their additional needs include things such as:
Business accounts for processing their payments quickly and seamlessly
The ability to use payment services like Zelle
Working lines of credit
DeVaux recalls one local optometrist who was expanding his small office. The optometrist was a longtime customer of the bank, which financed an expansion that doubled the size of his practice.
“He needed funding for equipment, construction costs and other requirements,” DeVaux says. “We knew this optometrist very well and could speak very quickly to his character. It didn’t have to go anywhere beyond us. We got him a loan very quickly, and now he has opened his [second] location.”
Gig working continues to grow
The national gig economy is currently creating an economic impact that exceeds $1 trillion, and Mastercard says the number of gig workers could reach 78 million by the end of this year. Giorgio says the term “gig worker” has evolved to include highly skilled workers (like those in the IT sector) that earn high wages and need a full range of banking services, support and financial resources.
The number of U.S. gig workers by the end of 2023
“Gig workers on average make about $10 an hour more than the overall workforce, so they should be highly sought-after customers for community banks,” says Giorgio. “Many are also younger Gen Zs who are really the future not only of how we work, but also the future of spending, banking and finances.”
Both Abernethy and DeVaux see the gig economy as a growing opportunity for community banks that take the time to learn what these customers want and then come up with creative ways to meet those needs.
“The [gig worker] trend will likely continue, which means even more opportunity for banks that want to serve this customer segment.”
—Lloyd DeVaux, Sunstate Bank
“During the pandemic, people got used to working from home and managing their own time, to the point where—once called back to the office—they realized that they really didn’t want to go back,” says DeVaux. “Many of these individuals have continued to find a way to work independently by starting their own businesses or finding work-from-home jobs.
“The trend will likely continue, which means even more opportunity for banks that want to serve this customer segment.”
Leveling the playing field
Lloyd DeVaux, president and CEO of Sunstate Bank in Coral Gables, Fla., knows that most businesses start out the same way: as very small entities run by one or more entrepreneurs. Over time, someone probably helped them get the funding, support and resources they needed to be able to grow and thrive.
The same principles can be applied to the gig economy, where community banks that understand that their customers are well positioned to help these “non-traditional” business customers achieve their short- and long-term goals. For example, those customers often need small, short-term loans as low as $5,000 to help them get to the next level.
Going beyond basic lending parameters, community banks can tap into the power of “character” (one of the 5 Cs of credit) to help determine the applicant’s creditworthiness. Again, this is something a larger, national bank may not be able to match.
“To be comfortable doing a loan, you have to know someone’s character,” DeVaux says. “As community bankers, we can get out there and work with them, understand their issues, know who they are and better understand how well that person’s business will perform.”
Standing up an all-digital channel
As community banks add new digital capabilities to their portfolios, they’re naturally positioning themselves as go-to service providers for freelancers, gig workers and self-employed individuals.
At Veritex Community Bank in Dallas, for example, Wyatt Abernethy, executive vice president and managing director of digital and treasury solutions, says the institution is “standing up an all-digital channel” that will benefit all its clients. He says the initiative is focused on client acquisition and how those clients are serviced—with a specific focus on being able to service them remotely.
“This is a new experience for us and for a lot of community banks, in that we’re not set up to service clients in that way,” Abernethy points out. One change the community bank made was adding a dedicated all-digital customer service group that services clients who want to access its services remotely.
“Whether that’s through online banking, opening accounts remotely or handling customer service-related issues,” he adds, “we’ve added this dedicated service that I think is going to differentiate us in the [gig worker] space.”