Banking Amish-Style

By Sabrina Völz

When my col­leagues and I start­ed this blog, I would have nev­er in a mil­lion years thought I would be writ­ing about a bank. But near­ly five years lat­er, here I am. I wouldn’t even be sur­prised if this sto­ry ends up as a case study in busi­ness text­books around the globe.

Pri­or to the Amish Con­fer­ence 2019 on Health & Well Being in Amish Soci­ety held recent­ly at Eliz­a­beth­town Col­lege in Penn­syl­va­nia, I went on the Amish Enter­prise Tour which intro­duced con­fer­ence par­tic­i­pants to Amish busi­ness­es in the area: Ruth Anna’s Gluten-Free (whole­sale) bak­ery, DS Stoves, and The Bank of Bird-in-Hand.

“The Gelt Bus” Pho­to cred­it: Sab­ri­na Völz

Today, farm land in areas, such as Lan­cast­er Coun­ty, heav­i­ly pop­u­lat­ed by var­i­ous Amish groups, is hard to come by and quite pricey. With an aver­age of 6 to 7 chil­dren per Amish fam­i­ly, farm­ing is no longer an option for every­one. Thus, more and more Amish, includ­ing women, are open­ing up their own cot­tage indus­tries and small busi­ness­es. Apart from reli­gious con­sid­er­a­tions that need to be nego­ti­at­ed with their church lead­er­ship, Amish entre­pre­neurs have encoun­tered sim­i­lar prob­lem to those of many peo­ple in main­stream soci­ety while start­ing small and mid-sized enter­pris­es. Branch banks found­ed in oth­er parts of the coun­try often do not seem to be inter­est­ed in small loans and fail to under­stand the local peo­ple and their ways.

In order to meet the needs of this seg­ment of the pop­u­la­tion, 15 peo­ple, 10 of whom were Amish men, decid­ed their area need­ed a com­mu­ni­ty bank. So they did like the Amish do. They rolled up their sleeves and got to work. The Bank of Bird-in-Hand is the result of the joint ven­ture between Amish and non-Amish investors as well as pro­fes­sion­al bankers. The Gelt Bus (Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch for “Mon­ey Bus”) was only one of the adjust­ments to tra­di­tion­al bank­ing that had to be made.

Since the Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Con­sumer Pro­tec­tion Act was passed in 2010, the num­ber of new banks in the U.S. can be count­ed on one hand. The Bank of Bird-in-Hand in South­ern Penn­syl­va­nia was the first and as such attract­ed the atten­tion of The Wall Street Jour­nal and the Econ­o­mist.  Five and a half years lat­er, The Bank of Bird-in-Hand is now a full-ser­vice bank with two addi­tion­al loca­tions. It com­bines the lat­est devel­op­ments in bank­ing, such as online bank­ing and a new mobile app, with the tra­di­tion of small town hos­pi­tal­i­ty, includ­ing know­ing the cus­tomers by name and sup­port­ing its local char­i­ties and com­mu­ni­ty projects, rang­ing from hay auc­tions to a local fire company’s 10K marathon.

There were, of course, numer­ous chal­lenges that had to be over­come. One includ­ed how to accu­rate­ly ver­i­fy a new customer’s iden­ti­ty since the vast major­i­ty of the Amish do not have any pho­to iden­ti­fi­ca­tion. The bank solved that prob­lem by using Amish church records, includ­ing birth and mar­riage cer­tifi­cates. More­over, the bank’s dri­ve-in win­dow was built to accom­mo­date horse and bug­gies, and at each of the three loca­tions, there are now hitch­ing racks next to park­ing spaces for cars. They also have at least one staff mem­ber or liai­son who speaks Penn­syl­va­nia Dutch, the first lan­guage of the Amish.

“Inside the Geld Bus.” Pho­to cred­it: Sab­ri­na Völz

The most inno­v­a­tive of all the accom­mo­da­tions made espe­cial­ly for their Amish cus­tomers is, how­ev­er, the Gelt Bus, the full-ser­vice bank­ing branch on wheels pic­tured above. It enables cus­tomers to make deposits and with­drawals, open an account, or use the ATM machine. The Gelt Bus makes reg­u­lar stops in near­by under­banked areas. It takes rough­ly one hour for a per­son trav­el­ling by horse and bug­gy to trav­el 7 to 8 miles (or 12 to 14 km), so the Gelt Bus makes bank­ing espe­cial­ly con­ve­nient for those with­out cars. Although the armed guard on the Gelt Bus might be some­what dif­fi­cult for the paci­fist group to swal­low, the Amish make up 50+ per­cent of all the bank’s cus­tomers. The only major draw­back, as I see it, is for poten­tial bar own­ers and oth­ers seek­ing to open a busi­ness that would con­flict heav­i­ly with Amish beliefs. In that case, the loan appli­ca­tion might be marked as an “unde­sir­able cred­it” and those entre­pre­neurs would like­ly have to take their bank­ing elsewhere.

Final­ly, the bank admin­is­tra­tors would like the pub­lic to know that their Amish board mem­bers are qual­i­fied and that their Amish cus­tomers are more open to change than many ‘Eng­lish’ or non-Amish peo­ple might think. The admin­is­tra­tors stress that an eight-grade edu­ca­tion does not pre­clude Amish busi­ness­men from mak­ing a sig­nif­i­cant con­tri­bu­tion to the bank’s board. And believe it or not, the bank’s pres­i­dent and CEO is a woman: Lori A. Maley, C.P.A. For those famil­iar with the patri­ar­chal cul­ture of the Amish, that is a sur­pris­ing fact. And yes, the younger Amish are appar­ent­ly “fair­ly com­fort­able with an ATM or deb­it card.” So while the Amish may indeed live in many ways like aver­age Amer­i­can farm­ers did in the 19th cen­tu­ry, their cul­ture does evolve and in terms of bank­ing, has indeed arrived in the 21st century.

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