A recent Deloitte study indicates community bank merger and acquisition activity has been on the rise in 2018, though not necessarily at levels predicted by most experts.
A key benefit of a merger or acquisition is the resulting increase in talent for the surviving bank. Conversely, one of the greatest risks to consolidation is the loss of key employees; particularly talented loan officers. To mitigate this risk, many community banks ensure that director and employee benefit offerings are at or above the market.
The plans offered by the acquiring bank should not be perceived as non-competitive by the acquired talent they wish to retain.
Executive and director benefit plans are also part of the cost of consolidation. The latest report by community bank advisory group Vining Sparks highlighted several “hidden” costs of a merger or acquisition, including executive salary continuation plans (SCPs), director retirement agreements, stock options and employment contracts.
Acquiring banks need to understand the change-in-control stipulations outlined in such benefit plan agreements. These may include stay bonuses designed to retain critical staff through the closing of the consolidation, severance pay arrangements and accelerated accrual and payout requirements for certain nonqualified plans.
While retaining local talent after an acquisition is crucial to the acquiring bank, it should also be a consideration for banks who do not want to be acquired. The 2016 Bank Director M&A Survey found that 85 percent of banks sold because of shareholder liquidity, CEO/management succession, or board succession issues. One year later, Bank Director asked banks why they think they might sell in the future, 67 percent noted the same succession issues. Although many banks recognize succession issues as a driver, nearly 20 percent more of the banks who actually sold noted this as the main motivator.
Though it may be a challenge to find young local talent to establish an effective succession plan, banks can attract and retain the future leaders of their institution. Traditional bank deferred compensation plans, such as SERPs or SCPs usually interest the older generation. More creative plans, such as short-term deferrals and synthetic equity, can attract the younger generations.
When properly designed, short-term deferral plans can interest a young potential executive while simultaneously providing the bank with a hook to retain their services. Typically, a bank would identify a handful of potential candidates for the succession group and offer them a bonus that is deferred for a few years, and then pay out in cash. The bank continues to do so in subsequent years, building an account balance of 3-4 years of bonuses. If the employee leaves, they forfeit the bonuses. This strategy provides the employee with more immediate cash incentive, rather than waiting until retirement like traditional plans. It also gives the bank a few years to vet candidates of the successor pool.
Synthetic Equity, such as Phantom Stock and Stock Appreciation Rights plans, is another approach banks utilize to align the interests of the executive with the success of the bank. Often, younger executives are not shareholders, but these plans are designed to make them feel and act like it. Simply stated, fake shares are awarded to each executive in the plan. These fake shares perform exactly like actual bank stock, giving the executive a stake in the success of the bank, while not diluting any actual ownership or voting rights of current shareholders.
Looking beyond 2018, short-term deferral and synthetic equity plans will certainly be among the more prevalent compensation plan designs in community banks, as the market continues to trend toward performance-based programs that more readily accommodate regulatory guidance. Plans are likely to include claw-back provisions and more deferrals of incentive pay that allow banks to take back all or a portion of incentive earned by an executive if the bank suffered losses, or was subjected to undue risk, as a result of the executive’s actions.
Bank owned life insurance (BOLI) continues to serve as the primary strategy used by community banks for recovering the costs of executive and director compensation plans. Rising employee benefits costs and competitive market pressures continue to challenge banks to explore unique and innovative ways to maintain profitability and growth while not abandoning their fundamentals.
BOLI helps a bank achieve this in two ways: tax-deferred growth of cash value (recorded as annual non-interest income) and non-taxable insurance proceeds paid to the bank at the time of death of the insured officer or director. These features of BOLI create an earning asset for the bank in addition to providing an effective means of informally funding executive or director compensation plans.