Altaf Ahmed
Executive Vice President for Retail Banking, Cornerstone Bank
Years experience: 25 years 

After 20 years of working for some of America’s biggest financial institutions, Altaf Ahmed felt drawn to the $1.5 billion-asset Cornerstone Bank, where he felt he could be more engaged with the Worcester community it serves. His previous regional managerial positions at Citizens Bank, TD Bank and Bank of America, he said, taught him a different perspective on banking that he’s bringing to the world of mutual banking. 

Q: How advanced, niche or flashy do a bank’s products and solutions have to be to attract business depositors these days?
A: The most innovative thing that any bank can do is to personalize their products and services. For Cornerstone Bank, we focus on making sure our products are first and foremost easy to understand and use. If you’re looking to attract and retain business customers, you have to make sure you’re offering products that are relevant, cutting-edge in terms of technology and easy to understand and use.  

Your products and services have to be advanced – they don’t need to be flashy but they need to get the job done. It needs to be easy to use from a technological standpoint. There are certain niche products for certain business segments whether it be positive pay, remote deposit, or certain sweep services that we offer and a lot of other banks offer as well. We need to understand first what our customers’ financial needs are before we’re able to offer the services that are right for them and would benefit them the most. 

Q: Publicly traded banks have been open about shifting their deposit strategies, moving from high-yielding products this spring to offering lower-yielding options today. How has Cornerstone Bank adapted to this changing landscape?
A: That shift from high-yield accounts to more transactional accounts is a trend that we’re seeing, too. We have partnered with a fintech company to be able to offer an advanced and easy-to-use account opening solution for customers. We just launched it earlier this month and now our customers can go in and open up an account online in between three to five minutes.  

Anybody can do this, whether professionals starting out in their careers, retired or anywhere else in their life spectrum. But what we are specifically focusing on are students who perhaps are going to school in Worcester County, where you’ve got a lot of colleges and great educational institutions, or students who reside in Worcester County and are going elsewhere to pursue their higher education.  

Most of our transactional accounts have benefits associated with them. You can accumulate points when you use your debit card, and many of our accounts offer fee-free ATM access. We offer innovative benefits with some of our checking products such as roadside assistance, cellphone protection for up to a certain dollar amount, fraud protection and local discounts, which is a particular favorite of mine. Not only because Worcester residents use it a lot, but I also feel that it also gives back to the local community and brings everybody together as we are offering discounts to local merchants and helping reinvest back into the Worcester County economy. Those innovative solutions help retain our existing customer base and attract customers as well. 

Q: How does the bank encourage older customers to adopt digital services, and what strategies have been effective in retaining their loyalty?
A: We make sure that our online offerings are easy for customers to understand and use, which includes education and a little bit of tweaking in our offerings. Whether they call into our call center or come into a branch, our employees educate and help our customers not only to understand the solutions, but also to practice as well. I tell my kids all the time, practice makes perfect. We have iPads in the branches that customers can play with themselves to see how easy it is to use online or mobile banking.  

In terms of how sticky are online services – actually they are. Once customers understand them and know that there are people who they can go to with concerns about a particular product or a service, that is what makes it sticky. Our motto is “built on trust” and we continue to make sure that we utilize any and all channels to help build trust with our customers. 

Q: What do you think Cornerstone Bank’s branches are for in this day and age?
A: Branches are very critical to any bank’s success. However, the type of transactions that are done in branches today are different than what was done a few years ago. It’s going to be different as we continue to evolve. What that looks like is more personalization and more consultation. A lot of the transactions that customers would normally come into the branches for in years past, they can do online and on their mobile device. But what they do need to come in for is to get advice, address any concerns, answer any questions that they may have and fully understand how a banker can help them with their financial goals. Yes, we will always be here for transactional purposes but there’s more and more desire for consultation and advice.  

Q: Will banks and credit unions be forced to make hard choices about branch networks, since they can be expensive to operate?
A: Every financial institution, if they haven’t already, should be evaluating their branch network and any offering that they have on a periodic basis to make sure that it’s relevant, impactful, efficient, and right for their strategy. In Worcester County, we have banks that continue to open branches, and some are consolidating branches. Both are important. If there are other opportunities that present themselves, then we want to make sure that we are in the mix as well. 

Altaf’s Five Favorite Travel Aspirations 

  1. South Africa 
  2. Iceland 
  3. Asia 
  4. Australia 
  5. Brazil 

From Megabank to Mutual Bank

by Nika Cataldo time to read: 4 min