How Netflix and JPMorgan Can Help Your Bank Win Right Now


strategy-11-2-18.pngAs one of the best-performing stocks on Wall Street, you can bank on Netflix spending billions of dollars on even more original programming, even without a profit. Likewise, JPMorgan Chase & Co.’s consumer and community banking unit attracted a record amount of net new money in the third quarter.

How do I know this, and what’s the same about these two things?

Read their most recent earnings reports. Netflix doesn’t hide its formula for success, and JPMorgan boasts about its 24 percent earnings growth, fueled by the consumer and community banking unit, which beat analyst projections.

While we all have access to information like this, taking the time to dig into and learn about another’s business, even when not in direct competition or correlation to your own, is simply smart business, which is why I share these two points in advance of Bank Director’s annual Bank Compensation & Talent Conference.

Anecdotes like these prove critical to the development of programs like the one we host at the Four Seasons outside of Dallas, Nov. 5-7.

Allow me to explain.

Executives and board members at community banks wrestle with fast-shifting consumer trends — influenced by companies like Netflix — and increasing financial performance pressures influenced by JPMorgan’s deposit gathering strategies.

Many officers and directors recognize that investors in financial institutions prize efficiency, prudence and smart capital allocation. Others sense their small and mid-size business customers expect an experience their bank may not currently offer.

With this in mind, we aim to share current examples of how stand-out business leaders are investing in their organization’s future in order to surface the most timely and relevant information for attendees to ponder.

For instance, you’ll hear me talk about Pinnacle Financial Partners, a $22 billion bank based in Nashville. Terry Turner, the bank’s CEO, shared this in their most recent earnings report:

“Our model of hiring experienced bankers to produce outsized loan and deposit growth continues to work extremely well. Last week, we announced that we had hired 23 high-profile revenue producers across all of our markets during the third quarter, a strong predictor of our continued future growth. This compares to 39 hires in the second quarter and 22 in the first quarter. We believe our recruiting strategies are hitting on all cylinders and have resulted in accelerated hiring in our markets, which is our principal investment in future growth.”

This philosophy personally resonates, as I believe financial institutions need to (a) have the right people, (b) strategically set expectations around core concepts of how the bank makes money, approaches credit, structures loans, attracts deposits and prices its products in order to (c) perform on an appropriate and repeatable level.

Pinnacle’s recruitment efforts also align with many pieces of this year’s conference. We will talk strategically about talent and compensation strategies and structuring teams for the future, and we will also explore emerging initiatives to enhance recruiting efforts.

We will also explore big-picture concepts like:

Making Incredible Hires
While you’re courting top talent, let’s start the conversation about joining the business as well as painting the picture about how all of this works.

Embracing Moments of Transformation
With advances in technology, we will help you devise a clear vision for where your people are heading.

Creating Inclusive Environments
With culture becoming a key differentiator, we will explore what makes for a high-performing team culture in the financial sector.

As we prepare to welcome nearly 300 men and women to Dallas to talk about building teams and developing talent, pay attention to the former Federal Reserve Chairman, Alan Greenspan. He recently told CNBC’s “Squawk Box” that the United States has the “the tightest market, labor market, I’ve ever seen… concurrently, we have a very slow productivity increase.”

What does this mean for banks in the next one to three years? Hint: we’ll talk about it at #BDComp18.

Future Banking Leadership Formula: Talent, Technology and Training


talent-11-1-18.pngIt’s an old phrase but still rings true today: An organization thrives when you get the right people in the right jobs.

That’s easy to say, but not always easy to do. Future leadership in banking is of great concern to boards today. And while there are myriad methods of finding good people, three key considerations in finding the right people include talent, or a transitioning generation in leadership; technology, or a heightened need for new and better ways to get the job done; and training, or existing employees looking for that golden career opportunity.

Talent: Transitioning Generations
Understanding generational differences is critical if a bank is seeking to attract young talent. Failure to understand these differences will only result in frustration. For example, boomers and millennials may not see eye to eye on a number of things. Older workers talk about “going to work” each day. Younger workers view work as “something you do,” anywhere, any time. If you’re looking for younger talent, whether on your board or within your bank leadership group, take the time to understand these generational classes. The more you know about their needs, expectations, and abilities, the easier it will be to attract them to your organization, resulting in growth that thrives on their new talent.

For younger talent, the hiring process needs to be short and to the point, with quick decision making. Otherwise, they’re quickly scooped up by competitors. Another key area is a greater focus on company culture. Millennials, for example, are sensitive to the delicate balance between work and life. Some may easily turn down a decent paying job for one that provides more control over his or her schedule and life.

Take the time to read, learn, understand, and seek out that younger talent you believe will move your organization to the next level.

Technology: An Opportunity to Rethink What People Do
In the time it takes to write, publish and read this article, the technology target for banks has moved exponentially. Keeping up requires a great deal of focus, investment and thinking outside the box. And because of the pace of change in technology, a chief technology officer (CTO) is a critical part of today’s banking leadership team.

The qualities needed in an effective CTO include the ability to challenge conventional wisdom, move decisively toward objectives and flexibility. Since long-term growth and expense management quite often are dependent upon the right technology, the CTO plays a major role in management’s long-term strategic planning for the bank. Even now, technology is performing the work entire departments used to do just a few years ago.

An effective CTO will help ensure the bank is ready to move into new growth phases of the business, including internet banking, enhanced mobile banking, cybersecurity, biometrics, and even artificial intelligence.

Training: The Value of Existing Employees
While utilizing online recruiting systems can help you find good people, there could be gems right down the hall. Growing talent from within is too often overlooked. Traditionally, boards have felt this is a job for the CEO or human resources. But some have argued that a lack of leadership development poses the same kind of threat that accounting blunders or missed earnings do. This lack of leadership development has two unfortunate results: 1) individual employees seeking to make a greater contribution never get the opportunity to shine and 2) the bank loses a potential shining star to the competitor down the street.

Lack of an effective development program is shortsighted and diminishes the value of great employees. Today’s boards must take specific steps in becoming more involved in leadership development. First, encourage your executive team to be more active in developing the leadership skills of direct reports. Second, expand the board’s view of leadership development. Take an active role in identifying rising stars and let them make some of the board presentations. In this way, the board can assess for itself the efficacy of the company’s leadership pipeline. And meanwhile, the rising stars gain direct access to the board, gleaning new perspectives and wisdom as a result.

As boards consider their duties and responsibilities, identifying future leadership should be at or near the top of the list. Organizational growth depends on it and the bank will be better able to embrace an ever-changing generational, technological and business environment.

Two Traditional Strategies to Supercharge a Bank’s Growth


strategy-10-26-18.pngBankers would be excused for thinking right now that everything has changed in the industry and nothing is the same—that all of the old rules of banking should be thrown out, replaced by digital strategies catering to the next generation of customers.

There is some truth to this, of course, given how quickly customers have taken to depositing money and checking their account balances on their smartphones. Yet, banks should nevertheless think twice before throwing the proverbial baby out with the bathwater.

This is especially true when it comes to growth strategies.

Make no mistake about it, digital banking channels are thriving. At PNC Financial Services Group, two-thirds of customers are primarily digital, up from roughly a third of customers five years ago. And a quarter of sales at Bank of America Corp., the nation’s second biggest bank by assets, now come by way of its digital channels.

Yet, just because digital banking is transforming the way customers access financial products doesn’t logically mean that the old rules of banking no longer apply.

In a recent conversation with Bank Director, Tim Spence, the head of consumer banking at Fifth Third Bancorp, observed that digital channels are still not as effective as traditional mergers and acquisitions when it comes to moving into a new geographic market.

If a bank wants to grow at an accelerated rate, in other words, it shouldn’t cast aside the traditional method of doing so. This is why it’s valuable to continue learning from those who have safely and rapidly built banks over the past 30 years—as the barriers to interstate banking came down.

One approach is to wait for a downturn in the credit cycle to make acquisitions.

This strategy has been used repeatedly by $117 billion asset M&T Bank Corp., based in Buffalo, New York. In the most recent cycle, it acquired the largest independent bank in New Jersey, Hudson City Bancorp, as well as one of the nation’s preeminent trust businesses, Wilmington Trust—both at meaningful discounts to their book values.

Great Southern Bancorp, a $4.6 billion asset bank based in Springfield, Missouri, followed a similar strategy in the wake of the financial crisis. Through four FDIC-assisted transactions between 2009 and 2012, Great Southern transformed from a community bank based in southwestern Missouri into a regional bank operating in multiple states along the Mississippi and Missouri Rivers.

A second approach that has proven to be effective is to buy healthy banks in good times and then accelerate their growth.

Bank One did this to grow from the third largest bank in Columbus, Ohio, into the sixth largest bank in the country, at which point it was acquired by JPMorgan Chase & Co.

Its former chief executive officer, John B. McCoy, pioneered what he called the uncommon partnership: a non-confrontational, Warren Buffett-type approach to buying banks, where the acquired bank’s managers remain on board.

Another bank that has applied this acquisition philosophy is Glacier Bancorp, an $11.8 billion asset bank headquartered in Kalispell, Montana. Starting in 1987 under former CEO Michael “Mick” Blodnick, Glacier bought more than two dozen banks throughout the Rocky Mountain region.

Importantly, however, it wasn’t the assets acquired in the deals that helped Glacier grow from $700 million to $9.5 billion in assets in the 18 years Blodnick ran the bank. Rather, it was the subsequent growth of those banks post-acquisition that accounted for the majority of this ascent.

Glacier’s success in this regard boiled down to its model.

Today, it operates more than a dozen banks in cities and towns throughout the West as divisions of the holding company. These banks have retained their original names—First Security Bank, Big Sky Western Bank and Mountain West Bank, among others—as well as a significant amount of autonomy to make decisions locally.

Approaching acquisitions in this way has reduced the customer attrition that tends to follow a traditional acquisition and rebranding. At the same time, because these banks are now within a much larger organization, they have larger lending limits and access to new, often more profitable deposit products, allowing them to expand both sides of their balance sheets.

In short, while it’s true that the financial services industry is changing as a result of the proliferation of digital distribution channels, it isn’t true that these changes render the traditional growth strategies that have worked so well over the years obsolete.

A Valuable Lesson from the Best Bank You’ve Never Heard of


strategy-8-24-18.pngThere are a lot of places you would expect to find one of the highest performing banks in the country, but a place that wouldn’t make most lists is Springfield, Missouri—the third-largest city in the 18th-largest state.

Yet, that’s where you’ll find Great Southern Bancorp, a $4.6 billion regional bank that has produced the fifth best total all-time shareholder return among every publicly traded bank based in the United States.

Since going public in 1989, just two years before hundreds of Missouri banks and thrifts failed in the savings and loan crisis, Great Southern has generated a total shareholder return, the ultimate arbiter of corporate performance, of nearly 15,000 percent.

What has been the secret to Great Southern’s success?

There are a number of them, but one is that the Turner family, which has run Great Southern since 1974, owns a substantial portion of the bank’s outstanding common stock. Between CEO Joe Turner, his father and sister, the family controls more than a quarter of the bank’s shares, according to its latest proxy report, which places most of their net worth in the bank.

The importance of having “skin in the game” can’t be overstated when it comes to corporate performance. This is especially true in banking, where a combination of leverage and the frequent, unforgiving vicissitudes of the credit cycle renders the typical bank, as one of the seminal books on banking written over the past decade is titled, “fragile by design.”

The trick is to implement structural elements that combat this. And one of the most effective is skin in the game—equity ownership among executives—which more closely aligns the interests of executives with those of shareholders.

“Having a big investment in the company…gives you credibility with institutional investors,” says Turner. “When we tell them we’re thinking long-term, they believe us. We never meet with an investor that our family doesn’t own at least twice as much stock in the bank as they do.”

An interesting allegory that speaks to this is the way the Romans and English governed bridge builders many years ago, as Nassim Taleb wrote in his book Antifragile:

For the Romans, engineers needed to spend some time under the bridge they built—something that should be required of financial engineers today. The English went further and had the families of the engineers spend time with them under the bridge after it was built.

To me, every opinion maker needs to have ‘skin in the game’ in the event of harm caused by reliance on his information or opinion. Further, anyone producing a forecast or making an economic analysis needs to have something to lose from it, given that others rely on those forecasts.

The most important thing having skin in the game has done for the executives at Great Southern is the long-term approach to their family business. “Our dad turned a valuable asset [stock in the bank] over to me and my sister [a fellow director at the bank] and my goal, when I’m finished, is to turn that over to my kids and have it be worth a lot more,” says Turner.

This becomes especially evident when the economy is hitting on all cylinders. “When institutional investors and analysts…are rewarding explosive growth, you need to have a longer-term view,” says Turner. “For instance, the explosive growth you can get from acquisitions is great in terms of the short-term boost to your stock price, but over the longer term that type of thing can reduce your shareholder return.”

Having skin in the game also addresses the asymmetry in risk appetite that otherwise exists between management and shareholders, where the potential reward to management in short-term incentives from taking excessive risk outweighs the potential long-term threat to a bank’s solvency, a principal concern of shareholders.

A long-term mindset promoted by skin in the game also causes like-minded, long-term investors to flock to your stock. This is a point Warren Buffett has made in the past by noting that companies tend to “get the investors they deserve.”

“That point is probably right,” says Turner. “We have a much larger proportion of retail investors than a lot of other companies do. I understand where institutional, especially fund, investors are coming from. It’s great for them to say they’re long-term shareholders, but they have investors in their funds that open their statements every quarter and want to see gains. So it’s harder for big money managers to be truly long-term investors.… It’s a different story with retail investors, who, in my opinion, tend to be longer term by nature.”

This cuts to the heart of what Turner identifies as the biggest challenge to running a successful bank.

“The hardest thing is balancing different constituencies,” says Turner. “We have a mission statement that is to build winning relationships with our customers, associates, shareholders, and communities. What we’re talking about is building relationships that are balanced in a way that allow each of those constituencies to win.”

The moral of the story is that, much like bridge builders in ancient Roman and English times, one of the most effective ways to construct an antifragile bank is by putting skin in the game.

How You Can Foster an Entrepreneurial Environment


entrepreneur-8-8-18.pngGone are the days of bank employees repetitively completing their tasks. A productive day in today’s banking environment consists of collaboration and teamwork to solve challenging problems.

Community banks and credit unions need to deliver on two industry trends to succeed: 1) managing interest rate, compliance, and regulatory risks, and 2) adapting with technology and products to compete against a decline in branch visitors, check volume, and cash transactions. The question is, how?

The answer is new ideas. Managers and leaders must cultivate an entrepreneurial environment where employees are not afraid to share them, because they are the future of the banking industry.

1. Refine the team
Leader Bank itself is an entrepreneurial venture started in 2002 with $6 million in assets. After spending the first six years focusing on implementing traditional methods, we began shifting our hiring practices to include employees with little or no banking experience but that had a lot of potential for creative problem solving. Today, almost 40 percent of our employees (excluding loan officers) are new to the banking industry.

By not hiring solely based on education and experience, and focusing more on potential, we have seen some of our most successful periods of growth to date.

2. Listen to customers
New ideas often present themselves as customer issues.

Take this example: A landlord customer encounters legal complications with his tenant’s security deposit, so to avoid future issues he assumes a greater risk by no longer requiring security deposits. Identifying this real-world problem led to the creation of a new security deposit platform that manages compliance headaches for landlords.

3. Pursue lopsided opportunities
All ideas come with upsides and downsides, but as we all know, the best ideas are asymmetrical, meaning the upsides outweigh the downsides.

A great example is when we developed our rewards checking product.

Before developing the product, we knew we not only wanted to grow deposits but also reward our customers for using us as their primary bank. We analyzed the downside versus the potential upside before deciding to move forward.

The downside vs. the upside
A downside is best kept small and finite. It’s something you would be comfortable with if it actually happened.

With our rewards checking product, the only real downside we could foresee was lack of participation. There is always a risk with a new product or process that the client may not fully adopt it.

However, in this particular situation, the upsides significantly outweighed our fear of failure.

To start, we developed Zeugma in-house. We had existing employees working on it, to keep our cost of investment low. It gave us control of the product features, which allowed us to differentiate leading to strong growth in deposits.

Assessing the upside vs. downside
With any new idea, senior management and the board will want to know what the downside is, and if it is limited. That limitation is finite and can be articulated, then odds of approval increase.

When trying to measure the downsides relative to the upsides, there are questions we ask to lean one way or the other:

  • Is the total potential financial loss greater than the cost of the project?
  • Could the project cause significant reputational damage?
  • Does the project require additional resources?
  • Does the project effort need significant interdepartmental coordination?

If the answers are “no,” then the idea likely carries low risk and can move quickly.

There are also additional ways to mitigate risks throughout the launch process of any new idea.

Start a focus group
There is no better way to see how a new idea works before launching full-force than experimenting with beta groups. Testing the product with hand-selected, vested people first helps gives managers an idea how customers will use the product and understand pitfalls before going live.

Conduct weekly meetings
Weekly meetings are great for adapting procedures as necessary throughout the development and launch process. Teams from product development to marketing can share ideas on how to develop and grow the product to its utmost potential.

Maintain strong financial tracking
Tracking every penny will ease the anxiety that comes along with the development and launch process of any new idea. Start a shared spreadsheet among involved employees and enter in the income and expenses along the way. If the financial budget is kept in check, it is easier to plan where to allocate future expenses.

Also don’t forget to track success, including each new customer acquired or deposit gathered.

Moving forward
Banks are inherently risk-management institutions, which is why understanding the downsides of new ideas is so important.

Transitioning a financial institution to an entrepreneurial, spirited workforce takes time, patience and dedication. Every idea, whether a success or a failure, is a stepping stone to the next. Over time, even in a highly regulated industry like banking, a culture of energy and entrepreneurship can be a competitive advantage.

Have MVB and BillGO Reached True Financial Symbiosis?


payments-7-18-18.pngSometimes a fintech partnership doesn’t result in a new product or service for the bank but can still result in new opportunities for both organizations. The relationship between BillGO, a real-time payments provider based in Fort Collins, Colorado, and MVB Financial Corp., a $1.6 billion asset financial holding company headquartered in Fairmont, West Virginia, isn’t your typical partnership story. Instead, it’s an example of true symbiosis between a bank and a fintech firm, with MVB gaining deposits and fee income while helping BillGO scale its real-time payments solution to more than 5,000 banks and credit unions. Less than a year ago, the company worked with just 200 institutions. It plans to go live with another 3,000 in the next few months.

The two companies were recognized as finalists for the Best of FinXTech Partnership at Bank Director’s 2018 Best of FinXTech Awards.

MVB supports BillGO’s growth in a number of ways. The bank processes its payments, resulting in fee income for MVB. The bank also holds deposits for the company and its B2B clients in connection with their transactions. And the bank’s compliance expertise is another key benefit. “We keep them out of trouble, so to speak,” says MVB CEO Larry Mazza.

This growing understanding of the fintech industry’s needs, gained in part due to its relationship with BillGO, is quietly turning MVB into a bank of choice for fintech firms.

“We’re meeting other, more mature fintech companies that allow us to help them in different ways,” Mazza says. “It’s really started to be very positive for us, in learning fintech [and] in profitability, deposits as well as fee income.”

“They don’t really advertise it, but they do have a specialty with fintech because of their compliance [expertise], because of their ability with payments and their ability with partnerships to deliver some unique offerings that fintech companies can’t normally do by themselves,” says BillGO CEO Dan Holt.

Before partnering with MVB, BillGO worked with a larger bank, but Holt says MVB is a Goldilocks-style bank for the company: Big enough to help the company scale, but small enough to make decisions quickly and develop an in-depth relationship with his company. Holt adds that his company has access to MVB’s executive team, unlike his previous banking provider.

And MVB is an investor in BillGO. “I felt this would be a really good [way] for us to start the process of investing in fintech,” says Mazza. “Once you invest money in it, it definitely piques your interest.” He describes the bank as an active investor, and Mazza has served on the company’s board since January 2017.

This expertise has been invaluable for BillGO, given Mazza’s financial background and his ability to shed light on the needs of the banking industry, says Holt.

Just as the BillGO relationship is a strong reputation-builder for MVB with other fintech firms, Holt says that MVB’s investment in BillGO speaks volumes about his company’s reputation to potential bank clients. New customers feel more comfortable knowing a traditional financial institution is an investor and has completed the associated due diligence.

Holt joined the MVB board late last year as an extension of the partnership between the two organizations, and Mazza says his background has been highly beneficial to the bank. “[Holt] has intimate knowledge into the industry and payment processing,” says Mazza, and his expertise enhances board discussions about technology trends and opportunities. “Our board members could see the difference.”

Many bank boards struggle to add tech-savvy directors, with 44 percent of bank directors and executives in Bank Director’s 2018 Compensation Survey citing this as a key challenge.

“Banks are more traditional. They really honor regulation,” says Mazza. “It’s our lifeblood, and we have taken regulation extremely seriously. We see regulation as a competitive advantage, if we do it right.” But partnering with BillGO, and adding Holt to the board, is helping MVB think like a startup as well. “That has changed our lives,” he says. “BillGO has helped us think more innovatively [and be] more forward-thinking.”

Enhancing the Lending Process Through Data



Customers today expect quicker decisions, and data can empower banks to improve the customer experience. Data can also enable growth as banks gain more and better information about their customers. In this video, Steve Brennan of Validis outlines how banks can confront the challenges they face in making the most of their data.

  • How Data Has Transformed Lending
  • The Benefits of Leveraging Data
  • The Challenges Banks Face
  • Addressing Data Deficiencies

The Evolution of Regional Champions



Over the past decade, regional champions have emerged as strong performers in today’s banking environment, entering new markets and gaining market share through acquisitions. In this panel discussion led by Scott Anderson and Joe Berry of Keefe Bruyette & Woods, John Asbury of Union Bankshares, Robert Sarver of Western Alliance Bancorp. and David Zalman of Prosperity Bancshares share their views on strategic growth opportunities in the marketplace, and why culture and talent reign supreme in M&A.

Highlights from this video:

  • Characteristics of Regional Champions
  • Identifying Strategic Opportunities
  • Why Scale Might Be Overrated
  • Lessons Learned in M&A
  • What Makes a Good Acquisition Target

Video length: 41 minutes

 

Investor Pressure Points for the 2018 Proxy Season


proxy-2-9-18.pngInvestors need to stay focused on long-term performance and strategy in 2018. So says Larry Fink, the chief executive of BlackRock, the world’s largest asset manager with $6.3 trillion in assets under management, in a recent and well-circulated letter. “Companies must be able to describe their strategy for long-term growth,” says Fink. “A central reason for the risk of activism—and wasteful proxy fights—is that companies have not been explicit enough about their long-term strategies.”

Focusing on long-term success isn’t controversial, but Fink’s letter underlines the fact that proxy advisors and investment management firms are more frequently looking at broader issues—gender diversity and equality, and other cultural and environment risks—that can serve as indicators of long-term performance.

Board composition will continue to be a growing issue. BlackRock, along with State Street Global Advisors, the asset management subsidiary of State Street Corp., both actively vote against directors where boards lack a female member. “[Institutional investors] are tired of excuses,” says Rusty O’Kelley, global leader of the board consulting and effectiveness practice at Russell Reynolds Associates. “Regional banks [in particular] need to take a very close look at board quality and composition.” Fink, in his letter, said that diverse boards are more attuned to identifying opportunities for growth, and less likely to overlook threats to the business as they’re less prone to groupthink.

The use of board matrices, which help boards examine director expertise, and disclosure within the proxy statement about the use of these matrices, are increasingly common, according to O’Kelley. The varied skill sets found on the board should link to the bank’s overall strategy, and that should be communicated to shareholders. Expertise in cybersecurity is increasingly desired, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the board should seek to add a dedicated cybersecurity expert. “Institutional investors view cybersecurity as a risk the entire board should be paying attention to,” says O’Kelley. “They want all directors to be knowledgeable.”

Some investors are pursuing gender equality outside of the boardroom. On February 5, 2018, Bank of New York Mellon Corp. disclosed the pay gap between men and women—the fourth bank to do so in less than a month, following Citigroup, Bank of America Corp. and Wells Fargo & Co. “Investors are demanding gender pay equity on Wall Street, and we have no intention of easing up,” said Natasha Lamb, managing partner at the investment firm Arjuna Capital, in a release commenting on BNY Mellon’s gender pay disclosure. These banks, along with JPMorgan Chase & Co., Mastercard and American Express, rejected Arjuna’s proposals last year to disclose the pay gap between male and female employees, along with policies and goals to address any gap in compensation.

A domino effect can occur with these types of issues. “[Activist investors will] move on to the next bank,” says Charles Elson, director of the Weinberg Center for Corporate Governance at the University of Delaware.

Shareholders are aware that cultural risks can damage an organization. This includes bad behavior by employees—Wells Fargo’s account opening scandal, for example—as well as an organization’s approach to sexual harassment and assault, an issue that has received considerable attention recently due to the “Me Too” movement. “Shareholders are very focused on whether or not boards and management teams are doing a sufficient job in trying to understand what the tone is throughout the organization, understand what the corporate culture is,” says Paul DeNicola, managing director at PwC’s Governance Insights Center. Metrics such as employee turnover or the level of internal complaints can be used to analyze the organization’s culture, and companies should have a crisis management plan and employee training program in place. Boards are more frequently engaging with employees also, adds DeNicola.

Investors are keenly aware of environmental risks following a year that witnessed a record-setting loss estimate of $306 billion due to natural disasters, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Institutional investors expect boards to consider the business risk related to environmental change, says O’Kelley, particularly if the bank is at greater risk due to, for example, a high level of real estate loans in coastal areas.

Finally, investors will be looking at how organizations use the expected windfall from tax reform. “What will you do with the increased after-tax cash flow, and how will you use it to create long-term value?” said Fink in his letter. It’s an opportunity for companies to communicate with shareholders regarding how additional earnings will be distributed to shareholders and employees, and investments made to improve the business.

In an appearance on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” Fink explained that BlackRock votes with the companies it invests in 91 percent of the time due to the engagement that occurs before the proxy statement is released. Fink’s preference is that engagement occurs throughout the year—not just during proxy season—to produce better long-term results for the company’s investors.

Engaging with shareholders—and listening to their concerns—can help companies succeed in a serious proxy battle. “If you have good relations with your investors, you’re apt to, in a contest, fair a bit better,” says Elson.

Are Innovation Labs the Best Way to Innovate?


innovation-1-15-18.pngThese days, companies as diverse as Lowe’s and Blue Cross are touting a shiny new innovation lab—and banks are no different. These special divisions, designed to incubate new ideas and technologies, are on the rise. According to a report from the website Innovation Management, the number of innovation labs jumped 66 percent in a 15-month period from July 2015 through October 2016. But even though some banks like to think of themselves as technology companies, does it really make sense for them to build standalone innovation teams?

Bank innovation labs are unlikely to replicate the secret sauce found in many successful startup companies because they are artificially engineered environments that cannot recreate the parameters that allow the most successful technologies to thrive. As described by Anderee Berengian, CEO of Cie Digital Labs, in-house innovation labs are missing three key ingredients:

  1. A passionate leader: Apple had Steve Jobs, Facebook has Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon has Jeff Bezos. The most successful technology companies in the world have one thing in common: a passionate, obsessive founder. Bank innovation labs miss out on this key ingredient. Even if they’re able to hire a technical wunderkind to run the lab, they simply can’t have that kind of passion. Part of this is because of a lack of ownership. Part of this is that labs are rarely, if ever, founded to pursue a specific idea or product. Bank labs are conjured up to digitize the company, explore new products or pursue any myriad of equally vague directives. These directives do not inspire and, without a visionary founder to lead the way, labs flounder about trying to build something that will meet undefined and unmeasurable objectives.
  2. Room to fail: Banks expect a reasonable ROI when they make a large investment. As Berengian described, “[p]icture Thomas Edison trying 5,000 light bulb filaments before settling on tungsten . . . [t]he reality is, most profit-focused companies would stop after 500 tries. Edison would then go start his own company.” Many of the “innovations” banks expect to come out of labs will not immediately add to the bottom line, or may be difficult to measure in any meaningful capacity for that matter.
  3. Constraints: Bank innovation labs also lack the constraints that force startups to either succeed or burn out. Bank innovation teams have security. So what if they don’t make that iteration deadline? It’s not like they need to ensure another funding round. Without clear objectives and high stakes, it’s hard to push an innovation lab to the lengths necessary to be truly groundbreaking.

Banks are, by nature, the direct opposite of startups; so why are they striving to artificially recreate that environment? That’s not to say that banks are incapable of invention—quite the opposite. To meet the demands of the digital world, banks don’t need innovation labs. They simply need to harness the creativity and ingenuity their teams already possess.

We know that innovation works best when it’s engrained as a corporate cultural value (see the book “Driving Growth Through Innovation,” by Robert Tucker). Too often, responsibility for innovation is limited by organizational silos that relegate the task (typically seen as merely one of many check marks on a CEO’s to-do list) to a small pocket of individuals. Technological advancement shouldn’t be a pet project for an executive team, or a nebulous directive for an innovation lab. It should be a goal that’s shared by every employee—from the retail teller to the CEO—so that ideas can flow freely from those that have a good handle on the way the bank actually works.

Instead of investing in new innovation labs, banks should strive to encourage organic innovation by fostering a culture that prizes critical thinking and new ideas. For example, USAA stays on the cutting edge of technology by utilizing the ideas of its 30,000 employees through events, challenges and its “ideas platform,” which allows any bank employee to post and vote on new ideas. Over 1,000 employee ideas were implemented in 2017. (For more on USAA, read the article “Crowdsourcing Innovation” in the May 2017 issue of Bank Director digital magazine.)

That’s not to say that remaking a bank’s culture is easy. Cultivating culture is hard, especially at a large institution, and can be even more difficult than creating an in-house innovation lab. However, the rewards of culture shift can be more far reaching and long lasting than a lab because new talent—especially tech talent—wants to work in an open, inclusive environment that encourages collaboration.

Innovation is not new; it’s something humans inherently do when faced with a problem. To truly innovate, banks don’t need new office facilities or new branches on their organizational chart (and, really, who needs more of those?) Instead, they need to embrace the natural creativity in their organizations and harness ideas to create specific solutions to real issues.