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Jared Meyers

Climate First expands digital services with fintech startup

By Business

Climate First Bank’s flagship location at 5301 Central Ave. in St. Petersburg. Photos provided.

Just one year into operation, St. Petersburg-based Climate First Bank is capitalizing on its early success and launching a fintech startup that will provide banking as a service (BaaS) solutions.

June marks the first anniversary of Climate First Bank – a full-service community bank focused on environmental sustainability. In addition to the St. Petersburg flagship, the bank expanded into Central Florida with a Winter Park location, and a Lake County branch in Eustis is pending regulatory approval.

Despite opening during the pandemic, the bank has reached $211 million in assets, $142 million in loans and $171 million in deposits. In light of that success, CEO and founder Ken LaRoe is now raising capital for OneEthos, Climate First’s fintech spinoff.

“When we started, we knew we had to be very tech-centric,” said LaRoe. “But I’m a baby boomer, so it’s got to be super user-friendly tech-centric.”

Community banks are at a disadvantage in the technological space, said LaRoe, as they are “beholden” to a core processing system. He added that only around five exist in the U.S., and most “are just bad” because they utilize old tech.

He explained that operators know the shrinking pool of smaller institutions rely on their products, so they are reluctant to invest money into updating the systems.

Despite those limitations, LaRoe said the bank’s leadership knew Climate First needed robust mobile banking applications, including the ability for customers to open an account within three minutes through their phone. He said account holders also need full depositing capabilities from their homes or businesses – without ever setting foot in the bank.

“But the problem is how do you get there?” said LaRoe. “We were looking for the right person, and our CTO (chief technological officer) just kind of fell in our lap.”

Ken LaRoe, founder and CEO of Climate First, is celebrating the environmentally-conscious bank’s one-year anniversary.

That CTO is Marcio DeOliveira, also an executive vice president and chief digital banking officer. LaRoe said he reached out to Climate First after reading about the values-based and environmentally conscientious community bank. According to LaRoe, DeOliveira relayed that he needed to add some meaning to his life, “and you guys are it.”

After joining Climate First nearly a year ago, LaRoe said that DeOliveira has already written several proprietary codes and is hiring coders and engineers to “flesh out” the bank’s tech aspects.

“But in that process, we decided to spin off the division into a wholly-owned subsidiary of a holding company,” said LaRoe. “And that’s OneEthos.

“And what we’re doing there is we’re going to provide banking as a service through proprietary software as a service (SaaS) technology.”

According to a release, OneEthos will initially offer solutions to Climate First and eventually to other financial firms seeking a transition to sustainable finance. LaRoe said the fintech startup will launch “very, very soon.”

“We’re basically ready to go,” he added. “We just got to fund it at the holding company.”

LaRoe said funding OneEthos through the holding company is a little complicated. He explained that when raising capital for Climate First, he just had the bank charter, as establishing a holding company would have taken more time.

According to the release, LaRoe raised $44 million in capital before opening the bank, but he said regulations prevent him from moving that money into the holding company. Therefore, he must now raise new funding for the holding company, a mission he is undertaking through warrant exercises of current shareholders.

“I think I’ve got about $1.1 million at the holding company,” said LaRoe. “I’d like to get to $1.5 (million) before we actually spin it off.”

LaRoe said OneEthos differs from other fintech companies that refer to themselves as banks. He noted that people sometimes refer to them as “neobanks.”

Only businesses with access to the Federal Reserve are considered banks, said LaRoe. He explained that when companies offer checking accounts, they are just sending customers’ money to federally-recognized financial institutions. He said OneEthos would provide that service – along with anyone else needing white label banking solutions.

White label banking and BaaS allow third parties to build their own financial products by utilizing existing infrastructure.

“We want to be able to provide stuff like our solar lending platform as a white label to other banks,” said LaRoe. “Especially values-aligned banks, like members of the Global Alliance for Banking on Values.”

Climate First, also a member of mission-aligned networks like the Net-Zero Banking Alliance and 1% For The Planet, launched a Digital Solar Lending Platform in May to dramatically streamline the process of borrowing money to install solar panels.

LaRoe said DeOliveira developed proprietary code to simplify the loan process, and consumers can now fill out the application “in three minutes” through a mobile device.

“In three seconds, you’ll have an answer, and in a day, you’ll have your closing documents ready to sign,” he said.

Through the first 11 months of operation, LaRoe said Climate First booked about $500,000 in residential solar loans, “which is nothing.” In the new platform’s first month, the bank saw $1.5 million approved.

“So, it’s just got tremendous action,” said LaRoe. “We’re confident it’s going to be a change agent.”

As part of its business plan, LaRoe said officials approved Climate First for four locations through its first three years in operation. After St. Pete, the Orlando area and Lake County, he said next on the list is Tampa.

As much as he looks forward to opening a branch across the bay, LaRoe said he is hesitant until he finds the right person. He also noted that Climate First is not “place-based,” and out of 43 employees, only five work in brick and mortar buildings.

“We opened during Covid and had those realities right from the start,” he said. “It just proved to be perfect … fortuitous timing.”

To learn more about Climate First Bank, visit the website here.

Yelp wants to connect customers with eco-friendly businesses.

By Commerce

Yelp users in search of eco-friendly businesses will have an easier time finding them, thanks to the platform’s new sustainability attributes.

The searchable features launched April 13, connecting customers with, for example, businesses that prioritize “plastic-free packaging” or have “compostable containers,” according to the review website.

The new eco-friendly attributes also flag businesses that “provide reusable tablewear,” allow customers to “bring your own container” or have an “EV (electric vehicle) charging station available.” Yelp teamed up with the California-based Plastic Pollution Coalition to bring the changes to the platform.

The searchable options arrived just in time for Earth Day, which is celebrated globally each year on April 22.

“The new Yelp sustainability attributes will allow people to more easily find eateries, bars, and cafes that are plastic free and support our values of thriving communities and a healthy, livable planet,” Dianna Cohen, co-founder and CEO of Plastic Pollution Coalition, said in a statement. “We’re grateful Yelp is using its platform in this way and we’re excited the new attributes will help more sustainable businesses stand out for their green practices.”

Users can find the new additions on Yelp business pages under the “Amenities and more” section, or highlighted in Yelp search results, the company said.

Business owners can add the attributes to their page by updating the “Business Information” area of their profile.

Yelp has launched similar attributes in the past, including one for Black-owned businesses that help consumers find and patronize Black-owned bars, restaurants and stores.

Dawn Shirreffs, Jason Mathis: In Florida’s climate crisis are you a sustainability leader?

By Business
On sustainability, it’s clear; Florida voters are ready for a change.

A recent poll by Fabrizio and Associates shows that climate change has climbed to a #4 issue amongst Florida voters.

Tens of thousands of properties are at risk in Florida from climate change and sea level rise. Others face the stark repercussions of energy insecurity. Chronic flooding, severe weather, and increased energy prices will impact everyone who lives in the Sunshine State.

Our changing climate doesn’t just threaten the environment, it also threatens our economy. Forward-thinking sustainable projects, from the public and private sectors, must integrate into Florida’s infrastructure to protect our state. We already see a spike in solar installations, increased EV adoption, and a desire from Florida voters for energy-independent policies.

Florida business leaders understand the need to make sustainability and climate resilience an integral part of their future practices to protect their bottom line. From energy efficiency and renewable energy to structural preservation and water quality, businesses recognize that tomorrow’s success depends on our environmental responsibility today. Local developers report increased consumer demand for new business ventures that minimizes carbon risk, improves energy efficiency, and reduces long-term costs for clients. These sustainable investment opportunities set our state up for long-term business success and will have lasting impacts on our quality of life and economy.

The Environmental Defense Fund and the St. Petersburg Downtown Partnership are partnering together to highlight these efforts made in Pinellas County through the Inaugural 2022 Sustainable Leadership Awards. These awards will recognize development projects and local business leaders who are prioritizing sustainability as part of their business plans, paving the way for a more sustainable and resilient Florida. By highlighting best practices from Florida business leaders, we can help to move the entire state forward to a more successful and sustainable future.

On sustainability, it’s clear; Florida voters are ready for a change and Florida businesses are leading the way. Now, it’s up to policymakers to act.

Dawn Shirreffs is the Florida director of the Environmental Defense Fund. Dawn works to bring nature-based solutions to the toughest climate challenges that Florida faces.

Jason Mathis serves as the CEO of the Downtown Partnership in St. Petersburg, Florida. The Partnership is a private, nonprofit organization dedicated to thoughtful growth and urban redevelopment. Its mission is to champion community prosperity through purposeful, transformative projects.