By the time floodwater receded from the South Australian Murraylands town of Mannum in January last year, so too had its only bank branch. 

Resident Cathy Clemow surveyed the township to gauge attitudes around the creation of a community bank after BankSA’s departure in December of 2022. 

Cathy Clemow has been pushing for a community bank in her town of Mannum in the Murraylands.(ABC Riverland: Timu King)

Ms Clemow said the community rallied for a time. 

“The community managed to get some businesses together and to do some banking in a courier set-up, but that didn’t last for very long,” she said. 

“I spoke to one business that said their prices have increased because of costs associated with extra travel.” 

The bank branch closed during the River Murray floods of 2022–2023.(ABC Riverland: Timu King)

Ms Clemow said, for all her urging, ultimately the community would decide what happens. 

“It needs to be driven by the community, which also means we need to have the people who can run a bank,” she said. 

“This is a big undertaking, both financially to get it off the ground and then the expertise to keep it moving.” 

Generational change

People First Bank recently merged two community-owned banking institutions that had been operating in regional Australia: People’s Choice and Heritage Bank. 

Peter Lock says People First Bank arose from a merger.(Supplied: Customer Owned Banking Association)

Chief executive Peter Lock said there were a number of crucial differences between a traditional bank and a customer-owned bank. 

“We don’t have shareholders. We don’t pay dividends,” he said. 

“All of the profits of the bank go into the bank to provide better products or services, or back into the community itself.”

Cathy Clemow says the removal of the ATM had an impact on Mannum.(ABC Riverland: Timu King)

Mr Lock said banks increasingly needed to manage a growing tension between an older generation of clients and the new generation of digital natives.

“We need to be respectful of the population that got us to where we are,” he said. 

“We’ve got to build a new engine while maintaining the existing one.

“The new engine of banking has to be built differently going into the next generation.” 

Stephanie Elliott says branch closures are keenly felt in small towns.(Supplied: Customer Owned Banking Association)

Diversity and competition 

The Customer Owned Banking Association’s chief operating officer, Stephanie Elliott, said it was important consumer and shareholder banking models existed. 

“One of the elements of competition, which can be overlooked, is the importance of business model diversity,” she said. 

“A strength of the customer-based model is serving particular communities, which might be geographic, professional, or even cultural.” 

Ms Elliott said she was encouraged to see banks trying to keep branches open. 

“The Capricornian up in central Queensland operates small branches in operation with the local council,” she said. 

“These kinds of solutions won’t work for all banks and communities, but it is really encouraging to see this kind of innovation appearing in the sector.” 

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