Compensation Issues That Can Determine the Success of Your Acquisition

September 6th, 2017

compensation-9-6-17.pngMergers and acquisitions continue to be an important business strategy for many community and regional banks. The compensation areas that receive the most attention are change-in-control (CIC) related severance payments and the equity holdings that typically increase in value upon the change. The CIC severance payments that are covered under employment and severance agreements are often estimated and are frequently a part of the conversation prior to the actual CIC. Equity and deferred compensation programs that have accelerated vesting upon a CIC are also generally reviewed ahead of time. The executive groups that have these compensation programs get plenty of attention from the key parties involved in a transaction. However, there are also many non-executive related compensation issues that can have a big impact on the ultimate success of a merger or acquisition.

Once the transaction is complete and the executive related compensation payouts have been settled, there is a combined organization that needs to operate successfully. It is possible that the two organizations had significantly different compensation philosophies in place and one of the key first steps is to clearly identify and communicate the compensation philosophy of the merged bank going forward. For example, if one organization believes in leading the market and the other likes to “lag” the market on pay, you’ll need to determine the future direction. A strong compensation philosophy that guides the compensation decisions and clearly communicates the preferences of the organization will help accelerate the pace of the transition.

Additionally, the combined organization will need to determine the appropriate market benchmarking data to utilize. The bank is now larger following the the transaction and this creates a situation where new peers may be appropriate and new benchmarking surveys or data cuts may be necessary. The bank may have expanded into new states and/or regional markets, which impacts the external market benchmarking process. It is critical to identify the appropriate market data to use for external benchmarking and market competitiveness.

Another potential challenge after an acquisition is the possible need to combine and/or introduce formal salary grade structures. If both organizations had a salary structure system in place there will need to be a determination on whether adjustments need to be made to the future structure. If one organization did not have any salary grades in place, then they will likely need to be introduced to the concept. It can take some time to educate managers and employees as to how these salary systems work. The bank should have a non-discriminatory, market competitive, easily manageable and communicated salary structure to use.

Another common challenge is the realization that the actual pay ranges for certain positions within the combined organization are significantly different. This could be attributed to the differing compensation philosophies of the organizations, differing market locations and competitiveness, or simply differing pay practices that have developed over time. The first step to resolving these potential issues is to review the various positions and identify the significant pay differentials that exist. After identification, the challenge is to assess why the differences have occurred and if there isn’t a clear reason—for example, a geographical differential like a rural versus urban location--then the tough part becomes what to do about these internal pay differences. For example, should the pay grade be changed and/or different levels created for a job title?

Possibly the most significant challenge after a transaction is the combination and/or introduction of incentive-based pay methodologies. Most likely there are some differences in place between the two organizations. One may have a completely discretionary system and the other a true performance-based system. These differences often lead to cultural challenges, because formal systems generally emphasize the importance of pay for performance more heavily than discretionary systems. If both banks have formal performance-based incentives in place, then the challenge will be combining the plans and identifying the key differences that need to be resolved. Examples of differences would be the award opportunity levels, participants included in the various tiers and plans, types of goals used, documentation of the plans, and the award tracking systems in place. Someone will need to review the various incentive plans and determine how to best mesh the current practices for the future.

There are a number of compensation related challenges that can impact a successful merger. The challenges spread beyond the executive related severance payments, and continue well after the change-in-control event occurs. Careful consideration and planning should be used to harmonize differing compensation philosophies and practices through the compensation landscape of the combined entities. Compensation philosophies need to be reviewed, salary structures and market benchmark methodologies may need adjustment, and incentive plans will need to be combined or revamped. Finally, a timeline and communication strategy will need to be developed to ensure a successful compensation environment going forward.

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Matt Brei is the president of Blanchard Consulting Group.  He has been a compensation consultant since 2000 and has been exclusively focused on the banking industry since 2002.