Elizabeth Glasbrenner Leads Smiley Technologies to New Heights

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Banks do not magically process your paychecks, update your online accounts or manage digital systems. If there is any magic involved, it’s due to core software that enables banks and financial institutions to get these essential functions done quietly and in the background. If all goes well, no one is the wiser.

Nestled in Little Rock, one company is growing its profile as a key player in supporting small and mid-sized banking institutions. Founded in 2002, Smiley Technologies is becoming known as a service-focused data processor, offering core banking software solutions and products to meet the needs of clients.

This is a business that co-founders Elizabeth Smiley Glasbrenner, president and chief executive officer of Smiley Technologies, and Vance Smiley knew well, having grown up around their Walter Smiley’s –their father – financial services company, Systematics. As Glasbrenner tells it, Smiley Technologies is not a multi-generational company or a re-hash of Systematics (now FIS) but it has “rebooted the niche” of serving smaller banking clients.

The genesis of Smiley Technologies is bound up with Southern Bancorp. The Community Development Financial Institution, which was established to serve underserved markets in the Mid-South, was struggling with its core system vendor in the early 2000s, having difficulties with completing acquisitions and general system stability. Having sold Systematics in 1990, Walter Smiley was helping the bank with its core review to find a new vendor.

That’s when Glasbrenner and her brother Vance got the call that changed the course of their lives. Their father called both of them to ask if they could help him with the search.

“We helped him look at all the vendors and what we really realized was there weren’t any great options for small to medium-sized community banks anymore. They all started that way, even Systematics, but they’ve all gotten so big that the level of customer service that a bank like [Southern Bancorp] needs is just not there anymore – or it wasn’t in 2002,” Glasbrenner said.

With limited options on the market, the siblings decided to set up shop themselves, establishing Smiley Technologies as a service bureau to tackle the problems that Southern Bancorp was facing. Southern Bancorp agreed to the proposition, becoming their first customer.

As they built the company, Glasbrenner and Vance Smiley bought the core system, teller system and an online banking system, assembling all of the pieces and installed it in a data center. They began running Southern Bancorp’s processing but quickly realized that their service was only as good as the software they controlled.

“It’s really hard to provide good service if you don’t have control of the software. We were probably naïve. We thought, ‘Well, we’ll just build our own core system then.’ And so that’s what we did. We started over,” she said.

It was a pivot for the nascent company but a necessary one. During these early days, they built out the customer support, operations and other features that Smiley Technologies uses today. The early years were not unlike most startups: lean. But as Glasbrenner points out, no one ever missed a check, and the company never took on debt to get by.

“It’s a lot of blood, sweat and tears, and we were very lucky. We didn’t have to put a ton of money into it, thankfully, because we started with a customer. We’ve not ever taken any private equity money or any venture capital investments ever. It’s been a pretty good run for us,” Glasbrenner said.

Clients have come to depend on Smiley Technologies’ SIBanking Enterprise Core Banking Solution, which streamlines banking needs. As banking needs evolve, Smiley Technologies’ solutions and products evolve with them, and the company offers remote banking, reporting and other solutions. Smiley Technologies also provides standalone productivity tools, including a loan pipeline tracking tool, a task manager, customized audit tracking and banking apps.

“We build the software that does all of that in the background. And so one of the unique things about us is we have that back office accounting piece that handles all of that, but we also build some of the front end applications like online banking and mobile banking for our bank’s customers,” she said.

The SIBanking Suite is just one facet of the company, though – it’s the customer support that sets them apart. According to Glasbrenner, a commitment to service has been the key element in Smiley Technologies’ success. “We started as a service business. I’ve tried to impart that over the years and continue to preach that, that, that is the most important thing. That is our differentiator,” she said.

Smiley Technologies has seven clients now, according to Glasbrenner, but that number will likely be rising soon. Glasbrenner is committed to keeping the company at a manageable size as it scales itself. “Our strategy really is to grow at a reasonable pace. We do not want to grow up too fast,” she said.

Glasbrenner estimates that Smiley Technologies could reasonably add three to five banks annually during its growth period. The end goal is to have between 50 to 80 banks as clients. This number, she said, will enable significant growth while maintaining its core service.

“We feel like that service model breaks and have seen enough evidence of that. The service model breaks when you get too big,” Glasbrenner said. “We’ve got a good group of people that want to work hard, but still want to enjoy their lives. And there’s no sense in breaking that at this point. 

“This business is a very scalable business. Most of our costs are people. Once you get to a certain size, you can bring on other banks without having to exponentially add employees. I feel like we’re at that size right now. We’ve hit that peak, and now it’s a very scalable process from here on out.”

Currently, Smiley Technologies’ clients are located Arkansas, Mississippi, California, Oregon, Washington state, Texas, Missouri and South Carolina. While all of the company’s current clients are based in the United States, Glasbrenner disclosed that Smiley has gotten international interest. The prospect of taking on an international client, she said, was exciting to think about, but that she would have to explore the idea and think “very carefully” before making the step. As she said, “That’s the beauty of what we’ve built – we’re not in a hurry to do anything other than take care of our customers.”

All of this company growth has attracted other positive attention, as well. In 2020, Smiley Technologies was named to the fifth annual Forbes Small Giants list, which highlighted 25 privately owned companies committed to “greatness over fast growth.” The national recognition served as an affirmation for Glasbrenner that the company was heading in the right director. “It gives us some validity to play in the market. It certainly helps tell our story of the kind of company we want to be.”

Glasbrenner’s vision for the company is one where customers get high-touch service and employees can feel valued and part of an important mission. The vision is something that’s ingrained in the core values of Smiley Technologies, and Glasbrenner is continuing to carry the torch for it.

“My hope is that we build a really solid stable company that provides a great avenue for our employees to have well-paying jobs and do the level of service that we’ve always done for our customers. I’m bound and determined, no matter how many banks we get or the size we get, that we don’t break the service model,” Glasbrenner said

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