Steering a De Novo Through a Crisis and Beyond

New York-based Piermont Bank opened its doors in July 2019. Just eight months later — on March 1 — a New York woman returning home from Iran became the city’s first Covid-19 case. By March 20, with cases in the state rapidly climbing, Gov. Andrew Cuomo mandated that non-essential businesses close. One hundred days after reporting its first case, New York began reopening — but as of Nov. 19, restrictions remained in place, and New York City public schools recently returned to virtual learning to combat a resurgence of Covid-19 cases.

What a time to run a bank — especially a new one.

It sounds counterintuitive at first blush, but Wendy Cai-Lee, the bank’s founder and chief executive, believes Piermont is well positioned to serve customers. The $117 million bank focuses heavily on commercial real estate loans; it also makes commercial and industrial (C&I) loans.

She points out that as a de novo, the bank’s balance sheet is clean; her team didn’t have to devote attention to working with troubled borrowers. Piermont also has a lot of capital on hand, with a leverage ratio of 32.82% as of June 30.

But Cai-Lee recognizes the broader, longer-term impact the pandemic could have on the New York market. “We have seen appraisal values essentially drop anywhere between 10% to 35%,” she says. Her team has a risk assessment meeting every Monday; when we spoke in October, they were evaluating the potential fallout from the end of unemployment benefits through the CARES Act, set to expire at the end of the year. “That’s going to impact people’s ability to pay their rent, and I do think that’s going to bring some impact to multi-family that we haven’t seen so far,” she says.

Serving customers during the pandemic had some banks scrambling to adopt new technology to serve customers; in contrast, Piermont was already positioning itself as a “tech-enabled” bank. “When it comes to innovation, I’m a big believer that it’s not only technology that we need to focus on, but also process,” says Cai-Lee. She aims to create an end-to-end digitized process without sacrificing on risk controls.

“I use technology to digitize everything that the client doesn’t see so that I can move all those resources to allow my bankers to spend the time with the client to find specific pain points” and identify the right solution, she explains. “This allows my bankers to engage the client very differently.” Piermont can close commercial loans in three days, she says, rather than a couple of weeks. And innovation isn’t limited to technology; Piermont offers subscription pricing for its services, for example, and recently announced a banking-as-a-service platform it’s offering through a partnership with Treasury Prime.

I spoke with Cai-Lee before that announcement. “We’re actually not going to be that anonymous bank behind these fintechs,” she says. “We’re actually going to market front and center along with the API partner so that we can actually focus on creating the right product for them.”

Piermont Bank also seeks to serve women- and minority-owned businesses, which have been particularly devastated by the pandemic and have historically lacked access to credit and investor capital. A lot of banks say they want to serve women and minority entrepreneurs, yet these groups remain underserved. When I ask how Cai-Lee’s plans differ from other institutions’ efforts, she credits Piermont’s diverse team.

Cai-Lee is Asian American; before founding Piermont, she led the commercial real estate, commercial lending, and consumer and business banking divisions at $50 billion, Pasadena, California-based East West Bancorp, which serves markets in the U.S. and China. Before that, she spent almost a decade at Deloitte, where she was literally the poster child for diversity. “They had a [life-size] cutout of me made and had it in the lobby of every Deloitte domestic office,” she recalls.

When she founded Piermont Bank, she prioritized adding a diverse array of voices and backgrounds when she assembled her team. She believes it’s a strength for the bank. “The reason why [women and minorities are] underserved is — no different from serving any industry or any demographic out there — unless you understand their pain points, it’s hard to come up with the right product and service to serve them,” says Cai-Lee. “If you don’t have enough representation of women, of minorities on your board and senior management [team], how do you foster an environment where [you can] address that demographic?”

Driving Innovation Through Cultural Clarity

New York-based Quontic Bank bills itself as an adaptive digital bank; it’s also a $1 billion community development financial institution (CDFI), lending to immigrants, low-income populations, gig-economy workers and borrowers who struggle to get a traditional mortgage. That mission means that the bank’s executives — including chief innovation officer Patrick Sells — tend to think about banking a little differently.

Its culture is a true competitive advantage of the bank — and that goes beyond having good, talented people on staff who get along with one another. It requires a mission, he says, and “strategic anchors” that can guide decision-making and empower employees.

Banks were already facing an “existential crisis” around digital and technology, Sells continues. “The pandemic that we found ourselves in has only exacerbated that tension,” he says. “[W]hen there is anxiety, we tend to act irrationally, we can tend to act scattered, we go back and forth. And what’s really critical is a steady hand as to who we are and what we need to do, and how we navigate through this, so we don’t get sucked into all of that. The culture, the clarity that we have, has definitely helped us navigate this storm.” Quontic has hired almost 90 new employees during the pandemic, he adds.

Sells discusses this further in this interview with Emily McCormick, Bank Director’s vice president of research. It has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: It’s very easy to think about innovation, and focus on the nuts and bolts of the technology, but the culture and the mindset are so critical. How do you think through culture as it applies to innovation?
PS: There’s a tragedy in that innovation is often synonymous with technology, especially in this industry, and it really shouldn’t be. Innovation as much more than that. The thing that perhaps needed the most innovation, and would yield the greatest results, was culture that I think many banks don’t have. I think culture is an area where they’ve struggled. When you compare it to what’s gone on in the world around us — there’s so many things happening, and banks haven’t kept up with that.

These issues all interplay with each other. I think the greatest existential threat to the industry of community banking is culture. We have lost the war on talent. As the first digitally-native generation grew up and came out of college, they didn’t want to go work at a community bank. So today, we’re so behind from a technology standpoint, and we’re frantically, as an industry, trying to say, “We need this, we need that.” And that’s really a Band-Aid.

If we don’t figure out how to change this and lose the next decade of talent, we don’t stand a chance. The technology that’s new and cool today, we know the pace it’s accelerating at will be nothing compared to two, three years from now. … We also know in the data that’s coming out around millennials and the generations that follow, is that the sense of purpose matters immensely. And so for us, where we really focused on innovating, or what to do differently, is all in and around culture: How do we do that, and how do we bring that to life at Quontic? That will drive us into the future and where we want to go.

BD: You’re active on Twitter; one of your recent tweets focused on the fact that culture doesn’t end at the bank, it extends to the customer. Could you expand on that concept and how that informs how Quontic meets customer needs?
PS: There’s three components to Quontic’s culture: the mission, the de-centralized decision [making], and the shared language. Core values became that shared language, but one of our core values is try it on. For example, we want to be quick to try something new, even if we don’t know if it’s the right thing or not.

The other one is saying, “Cheese.” The next time someone asks to take a picture of you and they say, “Cheese,” what happens? Both of you smile, and usually the photographer is also smiling. How do we create that interaction? I think most customers expect, when you call your bank, you’re going to get very black-and-white answers as to what can and can’t be done. And there isn’t so much a focus on making it a pleasant experience.

An example of that, when Covid[-19] first happened at the end of March or early April, as an online bank, we picked up a lot of CD customers. For the consumer, one of the great things about CDs is you commit to putting your money in for a period of time, and you typically get the highest interest rate. If you break the CD, you lose all that interest. We knew a lot of customers would be nervous about what that meant for their financials, so we quickly reached out to say, “If you need to break your CD, you can do that penalty free.”

The majority of people said, “Thank you for offering this. As of now, I don’t want to do that.” But there was another group of people who said, “Yes, I want to do that.” Those same people called us back later and said, “I ended up being OK. I want to re-establish my account with you, and I’m going to tell everyone I know about what you’ve done for me, because it was so above and beyond.”

We want to be a spot, even though there’s a lot of anxiety going on, where we can bring smiles to people’s faces. I don’t know the data, but I doubt many banks emailed their CD customers to say, “You can break penalty-free if you need to.” We’re trying something on, and what happened from it? It deepened relationships and brought new relationships because it resonates the culture of who we are with the customer that we serve.

BD: We know that small businesses continue to be devastated by this pandemic. How is Quontic thinking through meeting the needs of small businesses, as this crisis continues and past it?
PS: This gives us the opportunity, in any crisis, to reframe, which is something I talk about in terms of innovation. What is innovation? Can you reframe what’s going on? Can we become aware of these underlying assumptions that haven’t changed in a while? If we change nothing but that, everything changes — that’s where you can find your most effective innovation.

For example, there’s a lot of small business owners who are behind the ball in terms of e-commerce. There [are] two ladies that own a [boutique] that I’ve gotten to know, and they wanted to open up a Shopify account to sell products online. I helped them do that. In one lens, helping [our small business customers] establish Shopify and e-commerce doesn’t result in any new revenue for the bank; but it strengthens the relationship and the [role] that banks historically played as a resource for small business owners.

There’s an opportunity to rethink branches. … While there’s great technology out there, like Shopify and Square, they don’t have people who can help you. What if the branch became a place where small business owners could get help [digitalizing themselves?] Now you’re utilizing the space that so many banks already have, and you’re beginning to play that meaningful role again in society. I think there’s a tremendous opportunity for banks to think differently, and say, “How do we help our customers also embrace technology that will ultimately help their businesses thrive?” That’s an example of a way banks can reframe what those relationships look like and deepen those relationships that’s outside of the norm as to what we think banks should be doing.

BD: So essentially, it’s about having that talent and expertise within the branch that can help the customer, and empowering employees to do that.
PS: This goes back to the mission [of] financial empowerment. It’s both that the products banks offer [are] one size fits all, and that the culture or the skills are largely the same. What if banks said, “We’re going to hire kids out of college who understand social media and e-commerce natively to help our small business customers.” Now you have talent that can help your bank figure out how to evolve. You solve two problems with one stone, and begin to change the reputation and everything. Not only does that have an impact for today, [but] my suspicion is the ROI on that over a decade is tremendous.

But you have to be willing to do something different. That’s where banks struggle, understandably; we’re taught to mitigate risk and to think about risk in everything. That can stand in the way of trying things that aren’t all that risky … it’s not that risky to add another digital bell and whistle that our core provides. It may be new for the bank, but it’s not really risky or innovative. We actually have to challenge ourselves to be bold and do something differently.

Customer Loyalty and the Competition for Stable Funding

It’s more important than ever for banks to compete on value and increase client loyalty.

Banks are increasing loan loss reserves to counteract eroding credit quality at the same time they are also contending with competitors’ high-yield savings accounts, which pay more than 0.60% APY in some cases. August’s consumer savings rate was 14%, albeit down from a high of nearly 34% in April.

It’s easy to lose sight of the importance of competing on value in this environment, even as cost-effective ways to retain funding are more necessary than ever.

When I managed cash and investment products for banks and brokerage firms, I was regularly asked to increase the interest rate we offered our clients — often because a large client was threatening to leave the firm. My response then is still relevant today: A client relationship is more than an interest rate. In fact, multiple research studies I’ve sponsored over my career showed that when it comes to their cash deposits, the majority of clients rank safety, in the form of deposit insurance protection, first; access to their cash when they need it second; and interest rate third.

It’s a given that the majority of banks are members of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and have debit cards linked to savings accounts, making clients’ funds accessible. According to the FDIC, the current average national savings rate at the end of October was 0.05% APY.

I ask potential bank partners the following key questions to understand what their strategy is to retain the excess deposits as long as possible on their balance sheet.

  • Does your bank create value with relationship pricing?
  • Does your institution have an easy-to-navigate website and app?
  • Can clients easily open an account online?
  • Does your bank offer a broad range of flexible products that meet clients’ cash needs?
  • When was the last time your institution launched an innovative savings product?

We’ve learned a lot about building more value for customers from successful consumer technology over the last few decades. Decisive points include that product attributes should be intuitive for use by front-line sales, be easily incorporated into a bank’s online experience, and allow clients to co-create a banking experience that meets their individual needs.

What would tech-inspired, easy-to-use, personalized products look like in retail banking?

Example 1:
A savings ladder strategy can meet clients’ needs for safety and access to their cash. This approach gains crucial additional value, however, when a bank deploys technology linking all the steps in the ladder into one account. Clients want to see what they’re getting in advance too: to test different inputs and compare potential strategies easily prior to  purchasing. Implementing new, individualized products should be as easy as clicking on the Amazon.com “Buy” button.

Example 2
In the face of economic uncertainty and job losses, many clients may look for flexibility. Some consumers will want to readily access cash for their already-known needs — for instance, parents with college-age children, small businesses, or homeowners with predictable renovation schedules. Advanced software lets banks meet these needs by creating customizable, fixed-term deposits with optimized rates that allow for flexible withdrawals.

Banks can consider adding value to their product offering beyond rate with time-deposit accounts that are easy for clients to implement and designed to meet their specific cash needs and terms. A product with such attributes both meets clients’ individualized needs and creates value in a competitive field.

Example 3
If a client prefers safety with some exposure to the market upside, a market-linked time deposit account also helps banks offer more value without increasing rate. An index or a basket of exchange traded funds can be constructed to align with your client’s values, which is especially attractive in today’s market. Consider the appeal of a time deposit account linked to a basket of green industry stocks, innovative technology companies, or any number of options for a segment of your clients. Offering products that align with your client’s broader worldview allows you to build a more holistic, longer-lasting relationship with them.

The ability to create customer value beyond rate will ultimately determine the long-term loyalty of banking clients. Fortunately, we can look to technology for successful models that show how to add value through simple, intuitive, and individual products. At the same time, tech already has many solutions, with software and IT services that banks can access to meet their clients’ personal needs, even at this challenging moment. Innovation has never been more relevant than now — as banks need to secure their communities, their client relationships, and their funding in a cost-effective manner.

Revisiting Growth, Strategy in the Face of Banking’s Known Unknowns

It’s time to hunker down.

For the last several quarters, the banking industry has been whipsawed by rapid changes in the economy due to the coronavirus pandemic, as well as the response required to keep the fallout at bay. They worked with borrowers to offer widespread deferments, rolled out the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program loans and regraded their loan portfolios. With much of that activity winding down, institutions are getting back to the basics of block-and-tackling banking, and bracing for a prolonged period of muted loan growth and sustained low interest rates.

In this environment, the risks can sometimes seem more numerous than the opportunities. In response, banking experts weighed in on how institutions can craft a resilient and flexible strategy while planning for future growth during the first day of Bank Director’s 2020 BankBEYOND experience. Net interest margin compression, keeping up with customer demand for digital offerings and continued industry consolidation topped the list of long-term viability concerns for the CEOs and board members responding to Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey; organic growth was not far behind. Notably, that survey was conducted in February and March, before Covid-19 spread through the U.S.

While loans deferrals have declined, Hovde Group Chairman and CEO Steve Hovde says he still expects to see “credit quality issues, reserve issues” emerging in the fourth quarter and into 2021, depending on whether lawmakers allocate more stimulus. He also touches on the forces compressing NIMs and what banks can do to address it.

One way that bank leaders can address these concerns is by revisiting the fundamentals of operational excellence as they craft strategies to grow and maneuver safely in this challenging landscape. People, processes and vision are the building blocks of an effective board, says Jim McAlpin, a partner and global leader of Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner’s banking practice group — but these are also the building blocks of an effective bank. Directors should be vigilant in the role they play of engaging in risk oversight and management, McAlpin says, given that they can have a “significant impact” on the bank’s risk appetite.

On the funding side, banks should reconsider how they will amass and defend their core deposit base efficiently, given the decline in branch traffic and increasing digital channel activity. Community banks need to keep their customers engaged as they continually strengthen their digital experience. They should focus on existing customers, listen to what they want, leverage data to identify and understand clients, and maintain their service cultures by personalizing interactions.

“Shut the back door, rather than worry about what’s coming in the front door,” says Bob Reggiannini, a senior manager at Crowe.

But in positioning themselves for growth, McAlpin adds that banks should ensure they have the right type of people at their institutions and on their boards. Diversity in this environment is a strength, given the perspectives and approaches that can come from individuals representing a variety of demographics, identities and backgrounds. In our recent Governance Best Practices Survey, 52% of respondents agreed that greater diversity, defined by race, gender and ethnicity, improves the performance of a corporate board; only 8% said no. Nearly 40% of respondents said they had several members who fit that definition of diversity, and another 30% said they had one or two but wanted to recruit more.

2020 Technology Survey Results: Accelerating the Drive to Digital

The Covid-19 pandemic has bankers reexamining the value of their branches.

While branch networks remain vital, their preeminence as a delivery channel has been diminished through the coronavirus crisis.

Bank Director’s 2020 Technology Survey, sponsored by CDW, finds that bank executives and directors indicating that the digital channel is most important to their bank’s growth (50%) outnumber those who place equal value on both the digital and branch channels (46%).

In last year’s survey, those numbers were essentially flipped, with 51% indicating that the two channels were equally important, and 38% prioritizing mobile and online channels.

This accelerates the evolution that the industry has undergone for years. Nearly all respondents — 97% — say their bank has seen increased adoption and use of digital channels due to Covid-19.

The survey was distributed in June and July, after a period of time when many banks upgraded their technology to better serve customers digitally, facilitate remote work by their employees and respond to the high demand for Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans. Sixty-five percent say their bank implemented or upgraded technology due to the coronavirus crisis. Of these respondents, 70% say their bank adopted technology to issue PPP loans.

These executives and directors also report installing or upgrading customer-facing virtual meeting technology and/or interactive teller machines (39%), or enabling customers to apply for loans (35%) and/or open deposit accounts digitally (32%).  

Yet, just 37% sought new technology providers as a result of the pandemic.

The survey also reveals that fewer banks rely on their core provider to drive their technology strategy forward. Forty-one percent indicate that their bank relies on its core to introduce innovative solutions, down from 60% in last year’s survey. Sixty percent look to non-core providers for new solutions.

Key Findings

Focus on Experience
Eighty-one percent of respondents say improving the customer experience drives their bank’s technology strategy; 79% seek efficiencies.

Driving the Strategy Forward
For 64% of respondents, modernizing digital applications represents an important piece of their bank’s overall technology strategy. While banks look to third-party providers for the solutions they need, they’re also participating in industry groups (37%), designating a high-level executive to focus on innovation (37%) and engaging directors through a board-level technology committee (35%). A few are taking internal innovation even further by hiring developers (12%) and/or data scientists (9%), or building an innovation lab or team (15%).

Room for Improvement
Just 13% of respondents say their small business lending process is fully digital, and 55% say commercial customers can’t apply for a loan digitally. Retail lending shows more progress; three-quarters say their process is at least partially digital.

Spending Continues to Rise
Banks budgeted a median of $900,000 for technology spending in fiscal year 2020, up from $750,000 last year. But financial institutions spent above and beyond that to respond to Covid-19, with 64% reporting increased spending due to the pandemic.

Impact on Technology Roadmaps
More than half say their bank adjusted its technology roadmap in response to the current crisis. Of these respondents, 74% want to enhance online and mobile banking capabilities. Two-thirds plan to upgrade — or have upgraded — existing technology, and 55% prioritize adding new digital lending capabilities.

Remote Work Permanent for Some
Forty-two percent say their institution plans to permanently shift more of its employees to remote work arrangements following the Covid-19 crisis; another 23% haven’t made a decision.

To view the full results of the survey, click here.

How Banks in Texas Built a Recruiting Pipeline

Banking is an accidental profession.

Some bankers start as tellers trying to pay for college. Others are accountants and lawyers hired by bank clients. Still others are entrepreneurs who get frustrated with banks and start their own.

This is one reason banks face such a challenge in recruiting high-quality candidates.

Well, God helps those who help themselves. That’s Scott Dueser’s philosophy.

Dueser is the chairman and CEO of First Financial Bankshares, a $10.3 billion bank based in Abilene, Texas. It trades for the highest valuation on the KBW Regional Banking Index. Over the past two decades, it’s produced a total shareholder return of more than 2,000%.

Five years ago, Dueser started lobbying his alma mater, Texas Tech University, to launch an Excellence in Banking program that would offer classes in banking to undergraduate and graduate students studying finance.

For years, First Financial hired students from Sam Houston State University’s banking and financial institutions program in Huntsville. It did the same with Texas A&M University’s commercial banking program in College Station.

Why not construct a similar recruiting pipeline, Dueser thought, in First Financial’s West Texas stomping grounds? Other banks agreed. Much of the program’s endowment came from upwards of three dozen banks.

The inaugural group of students started earlier this year, three of whom interned at Dueser’s bank over the summer.

The program’s director is Mike Mauldin, who spent 17 years leading First Financial’s Hereford region.

“Mike is the perfect guy for the job,” Dueser says. “He’s not an academic; he’s a banker. A really good one. He’s also great with kids.”

Mauldin has structured the program around four pillars.

The first is a bank management class, covering the gamut of issues that lower and mid-level managers face in banks. The second is a marketing course, delving not only into traditional marketing strategies, but also into etiquette, teaching students how to navigate a professional environment.

The third pillar is a credit and lending course. This is where the rubber meets the road insofar as banking is concerned. According to the syllabus, students learn how to work with customers, read financial statements and assess credit risk.

Finally, students must intern at a bank. They’re required to write weekly papers as a part of it, Mauldin says, making them reflect on what they’ve learned.

“I don’t think of it as an internship,” Mauldin says. “I think of it as a long job interview. What we want at the end of the process is for the students to get jobs.”

Now, as a publication read by practitioners, we can be honest: No one learns much in college. At least I didn’t. But you do learn how to learn —a critical skill in an industry as dynamic as banking.

The program also acclimates students to banking. It’s a profession that everybody knows about, but few people understand.

Banking is to business what ballet is to dance, requiring a combination of both strength and grace. It’s an art and a science to balance the fragility associated with leverage and the stabilizing influence of capital and prudent credit policies.

“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,” Warren Buffett wrote in his 1990 shareholder letter. “And mistakes have been the rule rather than the exception at many major banks.”

Programs like the one at Texas Tech are designed to combat this.

A second rationale for the program, Dueser explains, is the need to diversify the industry’s workforce, which has proved to be a perennial issue in banking.

And so far, the program has lived up to expectations. Half the inaugural class consists of minority and women candidates.

Done right, banking is a lucrative and fulfilling profession. No community can thrive without a bank. The more students that appreciate this, the easier it’ll be to recruit them.

Realities Beyond the Balance Sheet Facing Bank Buyers

Financial leaders face new and unique challenges as the navigate the remainder of this year and well into 2021.

The early reads on credit quality, credit access, operational and execution risk, regulatory oversight impacts and dimming growth prospects paint a bleak picture. Underlying this environment is an ongoing consideration for consolidation forcing institutions to assess their long-term viability. A closer examination of tangible book values clearly demonstrates who could be the buyers and potential sellers.

So, what is so different for M&A now? I have always believed that no two deals are the same —and that remains true. In the past, we may have looked solely at regulatory good standing, loan concentration, deposit pricing and distribution like geography and branches. While these remain fundamentally most important at the core, we now fully expect to see a heightened focus in due diligence around key layers of bank leadership, corporate culture and values, ability to deliver digital offerings to key customer segments, financial literacy programs and community investment.

A recent study by Deloitte noted that more than ever, bank M&A strategies need the right tools, teams and processes — from diligence through integrations — to pull off successful mergers. Additionally, buyers need to consider the compatibility and integration of any digital tools and how they will meet customer expectations. Can your bank deliver what these customers expect?

Most institutions looking to acquire or be acquired need to address several non-financial topics when considering how to proceed. Five in particular are consistently under-communicated by acquirers and will be even more impactful moving forward. These items speak to the fit of the merger partners — the intangible elements that cause the difference between a high customer retention rate with a platform for organic growth or a tepid retention rate with little sign of future organic growth.

1. Strategic Leadership
How an institution’s leaders navigated the recent Covid-19 pandemic says a lot about what investors, employees, customers and communities can expect if it merges with another bank. For example, the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program may have given some banks lessons and plans that may make them potential partners worth exploring. No one knows what lies ahead, but strategic leaders must be able to think, clarify and execute during these new M&A conditions.

2. Bank Culture and Values
Most banks have a mission, vision and values statements. Until the current environment, how leaders must lead to make employees feel included and valued had not been challenged. But in almost every M&A engagement, there are significant segments of impacted employees and customers that experience uncertainty and fear. Demonstrated values can go a long way to secure trust and help the execution of these transactions succeed.

3. Digitization Expectations for Employees and Customers
Many institutions were not prepared for what occurred earlier this spring. Disaster recovery and business resumption plans were a solid start, but many were insufficient for this type of event, requiring operations and services to move off-site in a matter of days.

But aside from the initial challenges of the PPP, most banks appear to have done an outstanding job of helping employees work from home without too much customer disruption. This operating model will be the new way forward in banking. When banks merge, it is important to understand how each institution’s plan worked, and how much or little displacement that model could be for employees and customers going forward.

4. Financial Literacy and Inclusion
The reality of how our country has operated over decades has come into focus during the pandemic. One issue that many banks have identified is access to capital and providing banking services in a service-blind manner going forward. Financial literacy and inclusion must be a tenet in creating a more-effective banking system. Aligning how these programs can work, collaboration and inclusiveness can create a platform for capital distribution that works with any institutional strategy and grows exponentially after a merger.

5. Community Investment
Many institutions have invested significantly in community programs over the years. In a merger, these groups need to understand what the plan for that support will be going forward. The pandemic has made it even more important to discuss and support these investments in communities, given the struggle of many organizations these days. While these five items are not exhaustive, we know that they are among the top issues of executives, employees and customers at prospective selling institutions.

Three Concepts that Drive Performance

The former top general in the Marine Corps, Gen. Jim Mattis, wrote in his memoirs, published last year, that “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”

That’s bold. But given its source, it can’t be discounted.

“Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before,” Mattis wrote in a 2003 email to a colleague. “It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

In no industry is experience by proxy as important as it is in banking, thanks to a pair of peculiar dynamics. Banks use three or more times as much leverage as the typical company. They’re also exposed to the unforgiving vicissitudes of the credit cycle.

It follows that in banking, as in the military, though in an obviously less lethal context, there is little margin for error. To be a high-performing bank, your credit decisions must be right 99% of the time — a high bar to clear.

With this in mind, here are three concepts from three books that can help sharpen one’s decision-making and reduce the incidence of error.

Cognitive Dissonance
The study of behavioral finance gained traction after the financial crisis of 2008-09, which eroded confidence in the efficient market hypothesis — the assumption that markets operate best when they are most unfettered by rules and regulation.

Behavioral finance is predicated on the general rule that markets tend to produce rational outcome. More important than this rule, however, are multiple exceptions to it, called “behavioral biases,” which are so powerful that they can swallow the general rule.

The granddaddy of behavioral biases is cognitive dissonance. This is the “state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent,” explained Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.”

An example is the belief that “‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day,’” Tavris and Aronson wrote.

People don’t like hearing information that they disagree with. It’s why so many of the banks that got into trouble in the financial crisis of 2008-09 tended to minimize the ominous warnings from the risk managers, preferring instead to believe the lofty predictions of their revenue generators.

Deliberate Practice
If you want to get better at something, it helps to practice. But not all practice is equally effective.

“There are various sorts of practice that can be effective to one degree or another, but one particular form — which I named ‘deliberate practice’ back in the early 1990s — is the gold standard,” wrote Anders Ericsson in “Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise.”

There is an assumption that after reaching a satisfactory skill level at something, the more you do that thing, the better you’ll be at it. But this isn’t necessarily true.

Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of ‘acceptable’ performance and automaticity, the additional years of ‘practice’ don’t lead to improvement,” Ericsson explained. “If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities generally deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.”

Deliberate practice has several characteristics that distinguish it from what Ericsson calls “naïve practice.” These include specific, well-defined goals; focused and intentional effort; regular feedback; and the willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone.

Level 5 Leadership
A central paradox lies at the heart of effective leadership: while leadership calls for confidence, it also demands humility.

Jim Collins encapsulates in the concept of Level 5 Leadership, which he developed in his book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.”

Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will,” Collins explained. “They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.”

“The good-to-great executives were all cut from the same cloth,” he continued. “It didn’t matter whether the company was consumer or industrial, in crisis or steady state, offered services or products. It didn’t matter when the transition took place or how big the company. All the good-to-great companies had Level 5 leadership at the time of transition.”

Ultimately, there are no silver bullets to achieve exceptional performance — in banking or elsewhere — but concepts like these are fundamental building blocks that will accelerate one’s progress toward that goal.

Turning Goals from Wishes to Outcomes

Community banks should measure their goals and objectives against four tests in order to craft sustainable approaches and outcomes.

Community banks set goals: growth targets for loans or deposits, an earnings target for the security portfolio, an return on equity target for the year. But aggressive loan growth may not be a prudent idea if loan-to-asset levels are already high entering a credit downturn. Earnings targets can be dangerous if they are pursued at any cost, regardless of risk. However, in the right context, each of these can lead to good outcomes.

The first test of any useful goal is answering whether it’s a good idea.

One personal example is that about a year ago I set a new goal to lose 100 pounds. I consulted with my doctor and we agreed that it was a good idea. So then we moved to the second test of a useful goal: Is it sustainable?

As “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” author James Clear puts it: “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your process and systems.”

What good would my weight loss goal be if it wasn’t sustainable? If the approach I took did not change my habits and instead put me through a shock program, there would be little reason to doubt that the approaches and habits that led me to create this goal would bring me back there again. The only way to pursue my goal in a sustainable fashion would changing my habits — my personal processes and systems.

Banks often pursue goals in unstainable ways as well.

Consider a bank that set a goal in June 2018 of earning $3 million annually from its $100 million securities portfolio with no more than 5 years’ duration (sometimes called a “yield bogey”). Given a choice between a 5-year bullet agency at 2.86% and a 5-year, non-call 2-year agency at 3.10%, only the latter meets or beats the goal. A 3.10% yield earns $310,000 for this portfolio.

In June 2020, the callable bond got called and was replaced by a similar length bond yielding only 40 basis points, or $40,000, for the remaining three years. The sustainable plan would have earned us $286,000 for the past two years — but also $286,000 for the next three. To make earnings sustainable, banks always need to consider multiple scenarios, a longer timeframe and potentially relaxing their rigid “bogey” that may cost them future performance.

 The third test of a useful goal is specifying action.

The late New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said, “There are only two rules for being successful: One, figure out what exactly you want to do, and two, do it.”

In my case, I didn’t do anything unsustainable. In fact, I did not do anything at all to work toward my long-term goal. When I checked my weight six months later, it should not have surprised me to see I had lost zero pounds. A goal that you do not change your habits for is not an authentic goal; it is at best a wish.

My wish had gotten exactly what you would expect: nothing. Upon realizing this, I took two material steps. It was not a matter of degree, but of specific, detailed plans. I changed my diet, joined a gym and spent $100 to fix my bicycle.

The fourth test of a useful goal is if it is based on positive changes to habits.

Banks must often do something similar to transform their objectives from wishes to authentic goals. Habits — or as we call them organizationally, processes and systems — must be elevated. A process of setting an earnings or yield bogey for the bond portfolio relied on the hope that other considerations, such as call protection and rate changes, wouldn’t come into play.

An elevated process would plan for earnings needs in multiple scenarios over a reasonable time period. Like repairing my bike, it may have required “spending” a little bit in current yield to actually reach a worthy outcome, no matter which scenario actually played out.

If your management team does not intentionally pursue positive changes to processes and systems (habits), its goals may plod along as mere wishes. As for me, six months after making changes to my habits, I have lost 50 pounds with 50 more to go. Everything changed the day I finally took the action to turn a wish into a useful goal.

Five Reasons to Consider Banking Cannabis

Like nearly every industry, the banking sector is facing major economic disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Operational strategies designed to capitalize on a booming economy have been rendered obsolete. With the Federal Open Markets Committee slashing interest rates to near zero, financial institutions have needed to redirect their focus from growth to protecting existing customers, defending or increasing earnings and minimizing losses.

While this will likely be the status quo for the time being, bank executives and their boards have a responsibility to plan ahead. What will financial markets look like after absorbing this shock? And, when rates begin to rise again — as they will, eventually — how will you position your financial institution to take advantage of future growth?

The booming legal cannabis industry is one sector banks have been eyeballing as a source for low-cost deposits and non-interest income. While ongoing conflict between state and federal law has kept many financial institutions on the sidelines, others have made serving this industry part of their growth strategy. According to new market research, the U.S. legal cannabis market will be worth $34 billion by 2025. While we don’t claim that sales will be immune to the financial shock caused by the pandemic, they have remained somewhat steady — due in large part to being deemed essential in most states with legal medical cannabis programs. With much of this revenue unbanked, it’s worth taking a closer look at how this industry can be part of your bank’s long-term strategy. Here are five reasons why.

  1. Cannabis banking can provide reliable non-interest income. As net interest margins compress, financial institutions should look to non-interest income business lines to support overall profitability. Cannabis companies are in dire need of quality banking solutions and are willing to pay upwards of 10 times the amount of traditional business service charges. Assessing substantially higher base account charges, often without the benefit of an earnings credit to offset those charges, means there are untapped cash management fee opportunities. Together, these fees can fully offset the operational cost of providing a cannabis banking program.
  2. New compliance technologies can reduce costs and support remote banking. Many banks serving cannabis customers are using valuable human capital to manage their compliance. However, new technologies make it possible to automate these processes, significantly reducing the labor and expense required to conduct the systematic due diligence this industry requires. New cannabis banking technologies can also enable contactless payments, and handle client applications, account underwriting and risk assessment — all via remote, online processes.
  3. Longer-term, cannabis banking can provide a source of low-cost deposits. The pressure to grow and attract low-cost deposits may wane momentarily but will continue to be a driver of bank profitability long-term. Increasing those deposits today will protect future profitability as the economy improves.
  4. Comprehensive federal legalization is on the back burner — for now. While your bank may want to wait for federal legalization before providing financial services to this industry, there’s a significant first-mover advantage for institutions that elect to serve this industry today. The ability to build new customer relationships, earn enhanced fee income and gain access to new sources of low-cost deposits early on could be a game-changer when legalization eventually occurs.
  5. You don’t need to be a pioneer. Having spent most of my career leading retail operations at a community bank, I know financial institutions don’t want to be the first to take on something new. Although it is still a nascent industry, there are financial institutions that have served cannabis businesses for several years and are passing compliance exams. Banks entering the industry now won’t have to write the playbook from scratch.

The coronavirus pandemic requires banks to make many difficult decisions, both around managing the financial impact and the operational changes needed to protect the health of customers and employees. While adapting operating procedures to the current environment, banks should also begin planning for a future recovery and identifying new potential sources of growth. Cannabis banking can provide a lucrative new revenue stream and the opportunity for financial institutions to grow deposits with minimal competition — at least for now.