A Dangerous Force in Banking


culture-8-23-19.pngThe more you learn about banking, the more you realize that just a few qualities separate top-performing bankers from the rest.

One of the most important of these qualities, I believe, is the ability of bankers to combat what famed investor Warren Buffett calls the “institutional imperative.”

Buffett, the chairman and CEO of Berkshire Hathaway, wrote about this in his 1990 shareholder letter:

“The banking business is no favorite of ours. When assets are twenty times equity — a common ratio in this industry — mistakes that involve only a small portion of assets can destroy a major portion of equity. And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks. Most have resulted from a managerial failing that we described last year when discussing the ‘institutional imperative:’ the tendency of executives to mindlessly imitate the behavior of their peers, no matter how foolish it may be to do so.”

At the time, Buffett was referring to a credit-fueled bubble in the commercial real estate market. The bubble was in the process of popping; commercial real estate prices would decline 27% between 1989 and 1994.

The subprime mortgage and leveraged lending markets in the lead-up to the financial crisis offer more recent examples. No bank wanted to lose market share in either business line, even if doing so was prudent. This was the impetus for Citigroup CEO Chuck Prince III’s oft-repeated quote about having to dance until the music stops.

“When the music stops, in terms of liquidity, things will be complicated,” Prince told the Financial Times in 2007. “But as long as the music is playing, you’ve got to get up and dance. We’re still dancing.”

Here’s the problem: A bank that loses market share is vulnerable to criticism by analysts and commentators.

In 2006, for instance, JPMorgan Chase & Co. began offloading sub-prime mortgages and pulling back from the market for collateralized debt obligations. “Analysts responded by giving JPMorgan Chase what one insider calls ‘a world of [expletive] for our fixed-income revenues,’” writes Duff McDonald in “Last Man Standing: The Ascent of Jamie Dimon and JPMorgan Chase.”

“One of the toughest jobs of the CEO is to look at all the stupid stuff other people are doing and to not do them,” a long-time former colleague of JPMorgan’s Chairman and CEO Jamie Dimon told McDonald.

You would think that analysts and commentators would, at some point, realize that it’s ill-advised to pressure bankers into prioritizing short-term results over long-term solvency, but there’s no evidence of that.

Darren King, the chief financial officer of M&T Bank Corp., noted at a conference in late 2018 that, “The narrative around the industry is that M&T has forgotten how to lend.”

M&T Bank has been one of the top-performing banks in the country since the early 1980s. King was referring to analysts and commentators’ reaction to the fact that M&T’s loan growth over the past two years has lagged the broader industry.

But as King went on to explain: “Generally what you find is when economic times are strong, we’re growing but generally not as fast as the industry. And in times of more economic stress, we tend to grow faster.”

So, how does a bank combat the institutional imperative?

The simple answer is that banks need to cultivate a culture that insulates decision-makers from external pressures to chase short-term performance. This culture is a product of temperament and training, as well as institutional knowledge about the frequency and consequences of past credit cycles.

This culture should be buttressed by structural support, too. Skin in the game among executives is a good example; a supportive board focused on the long term is another. A low efficiency ratio also enables a bank to focus on making better long-term decisions while still generating satisfactory returns.

In short, while the institutional imperative may be one of the most dangerous forces in banking, there are ways to defeat it.

How One Top-Performing Bank Explains Its Remarkable Success


strategy-10-5-18.pngThe closer you look at U.S. Bancorp’s performance over the past decade, the more you’re left wondering how the nation’s fifth biggest commercial bank by assets has achieved its remarkable success.

Here are some highlights:

  • It was the most profitable bank on the KBW Bank Index for seven consecutive years after the financial crisis.
  • It emerged from the crisis with the highest debt rating among major banks.
  • Its employee engagement scores are consistently at the top of the industry.
  • It has been named one of the most ethical companies in the world for four consecutive years by the Ethisphere Institute.

How has the $461 billion bank based in Minneapolis, Minnesota, accomplished all this?

If you ask Kate Quinn, the bank’s vice chairman and chief administrative officer, the answer lies in its culture.

“There’s a reason that sayings like ‘culture eats strategy for lunch’ are stitched into pillows,” says Quinn.

Quinn doesn’t talk about U.S. Bancorp’s culture from a distance; since joining the bank in 2013 to oversee its rebranding campaign, she has led the charge on articulating and capturing the bank’s culture in a series of value and purpose statements.

“When I was starting to do the work of building the brand, I looked into the history of the company, its genealogy, to figure out our core attributes—the attributes our customers and employees associate with us,” says Quinn. “What I found was this unique thing about us. Any company can say ‘we bring our minds to our customers,’ but there aren’t many companies that can credibly say ‘we bring our hearts to our customers,’ and we can say that. It is real.”

Given that executives at all companies will tell you the same thing, the challenge is to differentiate between companies that pay lip service to these ideals and those that genuinely embrace them.

“The real insight you get about a banker is how they bank,” Warren Buffett has said in the past. “Their speeches don’t make any difference. It’s what they do and what they don’t do [that defines their greatness].”

One way to gauge what a bank does and doesn’t do is to look at its financial performance over an extended period of time. It’s an imperfect proxy, admittedly, but a revealing one nonetheless, as businesses built on unethical or immoral foundations simply aren’t sustainable. At one point or another, the chickens always come home to roost—just ask Wells Fargo & Co.

This is why U.S. Bancorp’s performance, since its current leadership took control of Cincinnati-based Star Banc in 1993, is so significant. It didn’t commit mishaps that caused it to fall prey to a larger competitor in the consolidation cycle of the 1990s. A decade later, it sidestepped the accounting scandals surrounding Enron, WorldCom, Tyco and others that tarnished the images of so many bigger banks. And it steered clear of the worst excesses in the mortgage and securities markets in the lead-up to the financial crisis.

Anyone who knows U.S. Bancorp’s former chairman and CEO Richard Davis will tell you that he embodied principled leadership, adopting an approach that wasn’t only ethical and rational, but also one that embraced balance. He never sent emails to his employees at night, for instance, because he didn’t want to interfere with their home lives. He was also known to call his employees’ parents on their birthdays.

When it came to bottling U.S. Bancorp’s culture, then, one of Quinn’s objectives was to capture Davis’ approach.

“As I was getting my head around what do we do and what are we trying to do, I realized that it isn’t about the products and services,” says Quinn. “When you think about what a bank does—and this came from Richard—it’s really about powering human potential. I told him that I wanted to build his DNA into the company—the culture, the purpose, the core values. That is the part of Richard that has become the fabric of this company.”

But Davis’ influence is just one element of U.S. Bancorp’s broader culture. Other elements come from Davis’ predecessor and successor.

His predecessor, Jerry Grundhofer, was a tactical operator with few equals. He was the dean of efficiency, one of the valedictorians of banking throughout the 1990s.

“Jerry brought a set of values and capabilities to the company that was needed—scrappiness, cut to the chase, financial discipline,” says Quinn. “When Richard came in, he didn’t change that piece of it, he built on top of what Jerry did by adding the human dimension. Jerry had always put the shareholders first. Richard came in and put the employees at the top.”

The same is true of Davis’ successor, the bank’s current chairman and CEO, Andy Cecere, who adds another element into the mix. Cecere’s reputation is that of a practical innovator who’s pushing the bank to focus on change, innovation and technology. His favorite presentation slides, for example, compare the Old Western TV series Bonanza to the Jetsons.

Again, things like this are easy to dismiss as vacuous corporate-speak. But one lesson you learn after spending enough time with top-performing bank CEOs is that just because something sounds trite doesn’t mean it isn’t true.

Quinn understands that. It’s why she’s writing these cultural attributes into U.S. Bancorp’s DNA with revamped value and purpose statements. Facile notions of efficiency and operating leverage may excite analysts on quarterly conference calls, but the true source of U.S. Bancorp’s competitive advantage lies in its commitment to doing what’s right.

What Your Bank Needs to Know About Data


board-9-12-18.pngBanks executives and directors of all sizes are or should be continually discussing and crafting strategic initiatives for the future of the institution. Today’s competitive ecosystem that’s rooted in continually evolving technological developments and uses of data has made it essential for bank leaders to continually adapt.

From the top of the company to the most basic product and talent level, banks are building strategies to maintain competitive positions using these different kinds of data assets. But with any new or developing strategy, there is a potential for added cost and risk that could negatively affect the bank.


efficiency-7-18-18-tb.pngThinking Beyond The Efficiency Ratio
The ratio of operating expenses to operating revenue has long been a metric by which banks track performance. But there’s much more to accurately and effectively evaluating the performance of your bank and improving efficiency, and management should be exploring further to truly assess opportunities to improve.

agenda-9-12-18-tb.pngWhy Data Should Be On Your Board’s Agenda
More and more executives have come to realize that data management needs to be a priority and not a back-office function for a select group within the organization. Almost everything in the company can be tracked or monitored with data, and it can lead to long term efficiencies.

strategy-9-12-18-tb.pngFive Steps to a Data-Driven Competitive Strategy
There’s no mistaking that leveraging the right data the right way should be a key component of any bank’s strategic planning. Assessing and evaluating your bank’s practices with data can enable you to deliver improvements and advantages for both the bank and its customers.

survey-9-12-18-tb.png2018 Branch Benchmarking Survey
As traffic in branches continues to decrease and as possible changes to the Community Reinvestment Act are discussed by regulators, bankers are continually trying to craft optimal branch strategies. In Crowe’s latest research, we review data from 457 branches around the country to find trends in branch operations and performance.

consumer-9-12-18-tb.pngFive Ways to Measure Success in Consumer Channels
Amazon is able to not only monitor consumer preferences, but deliver aligned products to deepen and extend the relationship with those consumers. If retailers like Amazon can achieve that with its data, banks should be able to deliver a similar experience for consumers as well. Banks must take an objective look at performance across their consumer channels to prepare to compete.

Bank Director’s Bank Compensation & Talent Conference to Highlight Culture


culture-10-23-17.pngCorporate culture will be on center stage at Bank Director’s 2017 Bank Compensation & Talent Conference, which begins on Monday, October 23, at The Ritz-Carlton Amelia Island in Florida with peer exchanges and a workshop. On Tuesday and Wednesday, October 24-25, the main conference takes place with presentations on incentive compensation, leadership development, business strategy and insights from bank CEOs and directors.

Culture is an important but under-examined topic in banking because of the connection between the culture of a company and its financial performance and regulatory compliance track record. To understand that, look no further than the fraudulent account opening scandal at Wells Fargo & Co. This was clearly a cultural issue, where a large number of people in the retail bank were willing to break the law just to elevate their own compensation, or keep their jobs.

The opening general session on Tuesday, “Culture Eats Compensation for Breakfast,” will examine the importance of culture in a bank’s performance, and how its compensation philosophy and practices can reinforce culture. A second general session on Tuesday, “Creating a Company That Scales,” will look at how bank management teams with experience acquiring other banks are able to take the cultures of two banks and successfully integrate them to get the full value of the acquisition.

One of the most important responsibilities of the board is to make sure the bank is doing a good job of managing its talent, from the CEO’s office down to middle management. A session titled “The Board’s Role in Leadership Development” will review some best practices for bringing talented people into the organization and then making sure they have an opportunity to grow and expand. Managing the CEO succession process is especially important given the key role that individual plays in the bank.

Other general sessions scheduled on Tuesday and Wednesday include “All Business Models Are Not Created Equal,” will look at how three factors—the increased use of technology, the continued popularity of online and mobile channels, and the changing demographics of banking’s customer base—are impacting the talent selection process. The impact that disruptive market forces like financial technology is having on how banks interact and attract customers and recruit talent will be explored Wednesday in the general session titled “Managing Disruption & Compensating for Innovation.”

The Four Keys to Success: Q&A with Commerce Bank CEO David Kemper


David-Kemper.jpgOnce a year, Bank Director magazine ranks publicly traded U.S. banks based on profitability, capitalization and asset quality in the Bank Performance Scorecard, and there is one bank that often seems to appear high on the list. Commerce Bancshares, Inc., a $20.7-billion asset holding company for Commerce Bank headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, was the fourth best performing bank in the $5-billion to $50-billion asset size category this year.

Led by David Kemper, a seasoned banker with more than two decades as CEO of the company, Commerce Bancshares, Inc. weathered the financial crisis without TARP assistance, boasts an extremely high customer satisfaction rating, and consistently outperforms the market regardless of the financial climate. The bank had a 12.39 percent return on average equity last year. Bank Director interviewed David Kemper to get his insight on the keys to consistently high performance.

BD: What are some of the attributes contributing to Commerce Bancshares, Inc.’s continued success?

We’ve had a very strong credit culture. We are a relationship bank, so most of our borrowing customers are also customers who buy other things from the bank. That tends to mean we try to know more about the customer, and they are also primarily in our geographical footprint or in industries where we do a lot of business and have developed an expertise. So, know your customer and know the markets and industries you deal in. That’s been our philosophy for many, many years and that tends to lead to better credit performance. 

On the capital side, we have always felt that a strong capital base allows you more flexibility. It allows you the ability to take opportunities, such as expanding your balance sheet or acquiring another bank. So we have always had the philosophy of running with strong capital, and we are very supportive of stronger capital in the banking industry. It also will tend to improve pricing as people will have to price off of a higher capital ratio.

BD: Commerce Bancshares, Inc. has ranked near the top of the list for customer service in J.D. Power and Associates’ ranking. What are your strategies for achieving this?

We have always said that we are in the service business, and we have four major measurements that all of our associates know. One is top line revenue growth; we feel that is very important that a strong organization be growing their top line. Second is profitability. Third is customer satisfaction and fourth is employee satisfaction. So we pay attention to all four of those, and as you have said, customer and employee satisfaction is a top priority. It goes with the community and relationship aspect of our bank. We just think that gives you an edge.

Obviously, retention of customers is just a good way to do business; it makes it better for both the provider and the customer, and it’s also more profitable. The last thing you want is turnover in customers. We really pay attention. It’s been an advantage in this environment where you have had a lot of the large national banks kind of pull back from the market we are in. Frankly, we’ve got better personnel in those markets, and that leads to better customer satisfaction. 

We are a large community bank with expertise in certain areas such as payments and money management, but we very much want to be part of the community. We understand it better, and that’s just been a winning formula.

BD: Looking ahead, what are the key challenges for your institution?

It’s pretty obvious that some of the short-term economic situations of a deleveraging economy means very slow loan growth. These low interest rates are very difficult for both savers and banks because we have a very difficult time getting any kind of interest spread on money.

Everybody complains about regulation, but it is adding a lot of cost, and I think it is going to drive a lot of consolidation in the industry. It is going to put a lot of community banks out of business. Those are challenges the industry faces: tough top line growth, tough loan demand, tough interest rate environment, and too much cost. 

If you look at why we have done pretty well, it is because we have had great credit quality and we have really worked on expense control. We are determined to be a low unit cost producer and be very efficient. 

[The banking industry] is going to get smaller and more focused. The tough-minded people who picked the right niches and got the right cost controls will do pretty well.  That’s the way we view the world and I think we have executed pretty well with that kind of view. 

*The number one, two and three banks in the $5-billion to $50-billion asset size category were Santa Barbara, California-based Pacific Capital Bancorp; Miami Lakes, Florida-based BankUnited Inc.; and San Francisco-based First Republic Bank.