Banking in blue jeans

Community bankers define a new kind of banking

Dressed down in casual shirts, jeans and trainers, Edwin van de Wijngaard and Jeroen Brouwer don’t look like your typical bankers – but then they are anything but typical. As self-described ‘community bankers’, they are more likely to be found in the halls and offices of ‘Spaces’, a multi-tenant building in Amsterdam’s Zuidas business district, than at any ‘run-of-the-mill’ local Rabobank. This allows them to work closely with their customers: international startups and scale-ups and other fast-growing businesses.

Van de Wijngaard and Brouwer feel the term 'community bankers' – which they coined themselves – essentially sums up the type of work they do. Van de Wijngaard: "We operate in spaces where a large number of people gather who have a common purpose, which is essentially the definition of a community. The flexible offices you find at Spaces are a perfect example: they are filled with young entrepreneurs who are open to collaboration and sharing their knowledge with others. You’ll find startups looking to make the connections that will help their business get ahead and scale-ups whose goal is to further develop and refine their product or service. We are based in this building right alongside our customers, and we’re always looking if we can help people by putting them in touch with other entrepreneurs or by sharing specific expertise. Finding the right people can sometimes be a challenge for new businesses, and many of our partner companies are not even Rabobank customers."

Achieving goals

Van de Wijngaard and Brouwer differ from traditional bankers in more than just their dress style and work environment. Van de Wijngaard: "We never really discuss banking business with the startups we serve, but we talk about their goals and how we can help them to achieve them. We provide support mainly by being available, responding quickly, managing any practical issues, making a lot of introductions, putting current customers in touch with each other and coming up with appropriate solutions. In some cases we provide financing or involve third-party financiers, including investors, the government and crowdfunding channels. Sure, new customers are important, but the best part of all is helping them to achieve their objectives."

Thomas Slabbers is the co-founder of Mysocialdatabase.com, one of the startups served by the community bankers. His company maintains its own Twitter database that businesses can use to send relevant tweets to highly specific audiences. It turns out there is a huge demand in the market for this type of service. Slabbers: "When it comes to financial services, it doesn’t really make a whole lot of difference for a startup who you bank with. But Jeroen and Edwin bring something extra to the table: they have already introduced us to many parties that have proved to be valuable to us, many of whom are other Rabobank customers. Just recently, they introduced us to another startup called Watcher Enterprises. One of their products is a children’s watch with a GPS tracker, which enables parents to check their child’s location at any time. We created a Twitter campaign for Watcher and used our system to manage the sales. We’ve already got the follow-up campaign all worked out, so we’re very pleased about that. It was also Edwin who introduced me to Jesse van Doren, a software developer and innovator with 80,000 Twitter followers. He and I talk once a week to discuss all kinds of issues, like how to further develop my business. I find it all extremely inspiring."

Emmelie Stapel, Business Development Associate at Rockstart, is another business partner of community bankers Van de Wijngaard and Brouwer. Her company supports startups during their first thousand days through a number of different programmes. Stapel: "Edwin and Jeroen are involved in our Web & Mobile accelerator programme, which covers the first 150 days. As part of this programme, startups prepare for a demo day, when they will present their business to potential investors. Jeroen and Edwin support the process by sharing their knowledge, but above all by providing access to their extensive network. In a series of one-on-one meetings with the startups they discuss any problem areas and then set out to solve them. They also introduce the startups to seasoned entrepreneurs and customers, who may test the startup’s products if necessary. I find that Jeroen and Edwin work very fast and efficiently. To be honest, I’m used to things taking a little longer when you’re dealing with large companies, but these two guys answer your questions immediately and they will tell you straight out if they can or cannot honour a particular request. They don’t try to sell any products to startups but want to genuinely add value for their customers."

The bank as a linking pin

For the startups that have teamed up with the community bankers, Rabobank is not the only financier: many are backed by investors, or a business might choose to raise funds through crowdfunding. The bank does not play the traditional role customers have come to expect from banks, acting more as a linking pin instead.
In fact, Van de Wijngaard and Brouwer are known to regularly refer their startup customers to other financiers to help them realise their plans. Van de Wijngaard: "We might refer them when they require the type of capital that we are not in a position to offer startups, such as high-risk capital, but where we do know the companies that can help them, such as venture capital firms. We also bring together Rabobank customers from all sectors and industries. For example, we recently put a fintech startup in touch with MyOrder, a Rabobank subsidiary. Many of the tenants in the Spaces building are innovative new businesses and expats, people working for international companies. Since Rabobank has such a large international network, we have already been able to help several businesses break into international markets."

Van de Wijngaard: "The key is to actually meet and liaise with all these different companies, something we would not be able to do if we were still working at a regular bank branch office."

Cooperation and community

Cooperation, a support network to fall back on and shared success are central to any community. In this sense, communities have a lot in common with traditional cooperatives, and it is no coincidence that Rabobank happens to be the leader in community banking in the Netherlands. Yet the role of the bank has changed over the years: instead of acting as the main financier, it is now more likely to be one of several financial backers and fulfil the role of linking pin.

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