Will More Banks Form this Uncommon Board Committee?

committee-2-22-19.pngIt wasn’t in response to a cybersecurity event or a nudge from regulators that prompted Huntington Bancshares’ board to create a Significant Events Committee in early 2018.

Instead, says Dave Porteous, lead director at the $108 billion bank based in Columbus, Ohio, it was old-fashioned governance principles that drove Huntington’s board to establish the ad hoc committee responsible for responding to the biggest risk faced by banks today: cybersecurity threats.

“Particularly over the last 10 years, the world is changing so quickly it has really become incumbent upon all boards, in my view, to continually be evaluating their governance structure and whether or not they need to make adjustments … to how the world is changing,” Porteous says.

Ask any bank executive or director right now to name the things that cause them to lose sleep at night and cybersecurity will almost invariably be at the top of the list.

Millions of personal records have already been compromised globally, and it can cost even a small bank millions of dollars to rectify a single cyber event. Yet, while it is a common topic in boardrooms, it hasn’t yielded widespread governance restructuring at banks across the United States.

Bank Director’s 2018 Technology Survey found that 93 percent of the 161 chief bank executives, senior technology officers and directors said cybersecurity is an issue of focus by their board.

But a 2018 analysis by Harvard Law School found that just 7 percent of all S&P 500 companies have separate technology committees, though 29 percent of large public bank holding companies above $10 billion in assets have set up just such a thing. This is significant because, as the study noted, cybersecurity is often the responsibility of the technology committee.

Significant events have over time produced mandated changes in corporate structure, like the requirement in Dodd-Frank requiring banks above $10 billion in assets to have a separate risk committee, or the requirement in Sarbanes-Oxley that an audit committee oversee a bank’s independent auditor.

But Porteous argues that banks should not wait for changes in the law to force them into structural changes. The changes should emerge instead from ongoing conversations at institutions about new trends and threats.

“To me the critical thing is constantly be assessing and challenging yourself as a board on the way in which you govern and not to be afraid to make adjustments,” Porteous says. “In other words, create committees to address the current or upcoming issues that enhance the focus (of the board).”

For Huntington, the establishment of the Significant Events Committee was years in the making, but finally came after the board realized it was having similar discussions about the same topic at the board level and in separate committees.

It was a natural thing for us to take these discussions we were having, both at the board meeting and various committee-level meetings, and then decide that we were spending a significant amount of time in those discussions that it was going to be critically important,” Porteous says.

When formed, the committee included Huntington CEO Stephen Steinour, who chaired the committee; the lead director; the chairs of the technology, risk and audit committees and the “lead cyber director,” the 2018 company proxy said. The committee has since been folded into the broader Technology Committee because of overlapping skill sets, Porteous says, but the bank can reestablish it or other ad hoc committees as necessary.

One such committee was Huntington’s Integration Committee, created when the bank acquired FirstMerit Corp. in 2016. The committee met three times in 2017 after the acquisition and was later dissolved.

But it’s not just cybersecurity or M&A that should qualify as a significant event worthy of a board’s attention. Recurring natural disasters, for instance, including hurricanes in the Southeast and wildfires in the West are examples that might merit a similar response.

Whatever the issue, Porteous suggests boards continually assess their governance structure through annual board-level assessments or just paying attention to what’s in the newspaper every day.

“It’s critical to make those adjustments or adapt to the changing world,” Porteous says.

A Roadmap for Productive Board Discussions

bank-board-10-11-18.pngYou can’t drive a car to a new destination without a roadmap, and a board can’t conduct a productive meeting—and ultimately, effectively oversee the organization—without a well-thought agenda that keeps meetings focused on discussing what’s important, and helping the board stay proactive on the potential opportunities and threats facing their bank. What’s placed on that agenda, and when it’s discussed, differs a bit from bank to bank. But there are several issues that should be on every agenda, and some that should be addressed regularly, albeit less frequently.

At every meeting
Bank board agendas don’t differ from a standard corporate agenda in many respects. There should be a call to order, review and approval of minutes from the previous meeting, and a review of reports.

For a bank, every meeting should include a review of financial reports, with the chief financial officer on hand to address questions and discuss items in detail. Directors will also want to review loan reports, at which point the board will typically hear from the senior loan officer. Reports from the committee chairs should also be heard at every board meeting.

New business will include updates on strategic initiatives, including milestones and progress. Actions taken by the bank to address regulatory concerns should also be addressed, though how frequently this item appears on the agenda will depend on how much hot water the bank is in with its examiners. Trends impacting the growth and financial performance of the bank should also be discussed.

Old business should also be addressed in the agenda, and it’s an area often overlooked by banks, according to Bob Brown, a managing director at Kaplan Partners and board member at $84 million asset County Savings Bank in Essington, Pennsylvania. He previously spent 40 years at PwC. If management was instructed to take a certain action, or the board decided it would circle back to an issue, those matters shouldn’t be dropped.

Regular items to address
Risk, cybersecurity and technology are top concerns for bank boards, but directors are split on how often these topics need to be discussed by the full board. Twenty-six percent of respondents to Bank Director’s 2018 Risk Survey said their board discusses cybersecurity at every meeting, compared to 37 percent who do so quarterly. Half of the respondents to the 2018 Technology Survey said their board discusses technology at every meeting, compared to 37 percent who cover the topic quarterly.

The board should discuss management and incentive compensation semiannually, advises Brown. And don’t forget the auditors: Internal auditors should address the board semiannually, and external auditors annually.

Board education should be woven into the agenda at least quarterly, and should cover a variety of topics relevant to directors’ level of expertise as well as any ongoing regulatory, economic or competitive concerns. Regularly bringing in outside experts can also stimulate productive dialogue among board members.

Every year, the board should review board and committee charters, as well as key policies and loan loss reserves. The makeup of the board should also be assessed annually, using a board matrix or evaluation, or both. A board matrix is a grid that lists all the directors on one axis, and the skill sets and attributes needed on the board on the other. This check-the-box-style exercise can be an easy way to identify gaps where additional expertise is needed.

Strategic planning should occur annually and will drive the agenda by setting the priorities that the board will want to follow up on throughout the year. “That then drives what senior management does,” says Jim McAlpin, a partner and leader of the financial services client service group at the law firm Bryan Cave Leighton Paisner. Does the bank need to renew its contract with its core vendor, or seek another solution? Does it make sense to build a new branch? These decisions should be fueled by the strategic plan. “It’s good to take stock, set direction and plan, and then over the course of the next year refer back to that plan and refer back to the priorities when engaging with the CEO,” he says.

McAlpin recommends that strategic planning take place off site if possible, with the board spending a half day or day talking about the bank’s strategic direction.

The board chairman—or the lead director, if the chairman is not independent—often develops the agenda, with input from the chief executive. Committee chairmen should also weigh in to ensure those areas are addressed. Individual directors should feel welcome to contribute to the agenda, and there should be room to speak up during meetings. “A good agenda should include a line item in which the chair asks if there are any additional matters the directors think should be addressed,” says McAlpin.

An annual discussion that sets the agenda for the year—tied to the strategic planning session—can help boards better drive what’s on the agenda, says Brown. The governance and nominating committee can then take that conversation and finetune the scope of the board’s agenda for the year, with input from the board before it’s finalized.

Getting the right input
It’s important to hear from other members of the management team and ask questions directly of the heads of the respective areas of the organization, rather than relying on one source—the CEO—for that information. Ideally, the board should hear from the CFO at every board meeting to address financial matters. The heads of legal, compliance, human resources and information technology should also be available to address their areas of expertise, when needed. McAlpin recommends asking open-ended questions to gain their perspectives and address any of the board’s concerns. “If I were a board member, I’d rather [their answers] be unfiltered,” rather than through the CEO, he says.

Brown also recommends that the board hear from business line leaders at least annually, to better understand these important areas of the business.

Aside from better understanding the bank, it’s important for the board to understand the depth of the management team. “Perhaps the most important role a board has is selecting and evaluating the CEO,” says Brown. “Succession planning is a key responsibility, and understanding the management team’s depth, strengths and weaknesses of management team members, and having the chance to see them in action … is really important.”

Independent directors should also make time to discuss issues without management present, in an executive session, advises Brown.

Facilitating effective discussions
The board agenda will structure the discussion, but it’s on the board to ensure those discussions are fruitful. First and foremost, materials should be provided in advance, so directors have time to prepare.

Remote participation has become more common as technological solutions like web conferencing make this option easier and can be a good way to attract younger candidates with diverse backgrounds, who may still be building their careers, to the board, says Dottie Schindlinger, vice president at Diligent. But make sure discussions are secure. Don’t reuse the same conference call number and passcode every time—this can easily be accessed by a disgruntled ex-employee, for example, who then gains access to sensitive conversations. And directors shouldn’t use their personal emails to discuss board matters. Web portals, such as that offered by Diligent, can help boards store and access information, and communicate safely.

Remote attendance can have its disadvantages, and there are always directors who tend to dominate a discussion. An effective facilitator—usually the chairman or lead director—will overcome these hurdles and ensure everyone’s voice is heard. Pointed, open-ended questions can help engage introverted board members. Making sure one director speaks at a time cuts out crosstalk and helps remote directors understand what’s discussed.

McAlpin emphasizes that it’s important to have an actual discussion—not just directors passively listening to what the CEO has to say, or other members of management, or the committee chairs. And this underscores the need to assemble a strong board. “Some of the most effective CEOs, I’ve found, are those who purposefully build a strong board—a board consisting of board members with a range of strong experience, good insight and a willingness to share feedback and make suggestions,” he says.

What to Know: The Yield Curve is Squeezing Banks, and Other Topics

governance-9-28-17.pngOne of the biggest challenges of serving as a bank director is understanding all of the changes that are occurring in a very complex and highly regulated industry. Most independent directors do not have a career background in banking, and while they usually bring an experienced and thoughtful perspective to their board service, they still have to learn about the industry and stay abreast of the many changes that are occurring.

This week Bank Director held the 2017 Bank Board Training Forum in at The Ritz-Carlton Buckhead in Atlanta, where 225 attendees comprised of independent directors, chairmen, lead directors and chief executive officers met for a day and a half to hear presentations on the latest industry developments, discuss their common problems in peer collaboration sessions and network at refreshment breaks throughout the day and at the Monday evening reception. This is the fourth year that we have held this event and the attendance has more than doubled over that period of time, which I think is a strong indication that directors view professional education as an important process. The agenda included presentations and panel discussions on audit, compensation, risk and technology, as well as the industry’s recent performance.

This year we also invited chairmen, lead directors and CEOs to meet separately on the first day in small group peer exchanges where they were able to share their experiences, discuss a variety of issues they have in common and learn from each other.

Some of the topics under discussion included the disappointing trajectory of interest rates, and proposed Federal Reserve supervisory guidance that will clarify the role of the bank board.

In the opening presentation, John Freechak, a principal at the investment banking firm Piper Jaffray Companies, reported on how a flattening yield curve in recent months is a sign that the industry’s margin pressure from low interest rates might not be easing any time soon. Freechak explained that interest rate spreads had widened following the victory by Donald Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Early market optimism that the Trump Administration would be able to achieve meaningful regulatory reform and tax cuts helped maintain those spreads into early spring, but the well documented legislative struggles by the administration and Republican-controlled Congress has led to an erosion of confidence. The Federal Reserve has said it intends to gradually raise rates, but long-term rates have yet to move appreciably. “The dwindling spread has hurt the profitability of banks as they reach for yield in a low interest rate environment,” said Freechak.

And proposed guidance on supervisory expectations for bank boards of directors, released by the Federal Reserve Board in August and intended to pertain only to banks with assets of $50 billion or more, could end up having a wider application, according to Jim McAlpin, a partner at the law firm Bryan Cave, in a presentation on board culture. “While initially applicable only to the largest banks, application of these expectations would likely spread to all banks,” McAlpin said. One of the core board responsibilities defined in the proposed guidance is to oversee the development of the bank’s strategy. “Much of what passes for strategic planning in banks is actually operational planning and budgeting,” McAlpin said. “High performance boards have a strong sense of ‘we,’ coupled with an expectation of success. This leads them to become more proactive and assertive in the strategic planning process.” Bank Director digital magazine’s November issue will discuss this issue in greater depth.

The 2018 Bank Board Training Forum will be held September 10-11 at the Four Seasons Hotel in Chicago.

Onboard New Directors to Help Speed Up the Learning Curve

bank-board-12-15-16.pngMost outside directors of a commercial bank or thrift come to the role knowing little about the industry, which for someone who is expected to protect the interests of shareholders and make sure the institution is abiding by the law is a distinct disadvantage. Banking is a complex and heavily regulated industry and it will take time for any new director who doesn’t have a banking background to learn enough to be an effective board member. Still, it helps to know in advance what some of the more difficult challenges are for new directors, and how to handle them.

The length of time it takes to become comfortable and confident in this new role can vary, although it will probably take at least a year to reach that point. As with many things in life, experience can be the best teacher. “In my opinion, there is no bright line on how long it takes,” says David Porteous, the lead director at Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares, and partner at the McCurdy Wotila & Porteous law firm in Reed City, Michigan. “It is very dependent on the individual. Have they sat on a bank board before? If they have, that accelerates their knowledge base. If they haven’t served on a bank board before, but maybe they’ve served on a board in another industry that has similar characteristics to the bank, that helps.”

Becoming a fully contributing bank director is a two- to three-year process, says Peter Crist, chairman at Wintrust Financial Corp. in Rosemont, Illinois, and chairman of Crist Kolder Associates, an executive recruiting firm in Downers Grove, Illinois. “It takes, minimally, a full year. You have to go through an entire cycle, from annual meeting through the four to five board meetings you have, through a budget system, a budget cycle. You’ve got to go through a full year to even understand what the cadence is. It’s when you’re in year two and three that the light bulbs start to go on because suddenly you’re now for the second time and third time seeing the same information that’s helping you think through the enterprise model.”

Crist says the same logic applies to whatever committee the new director is assigned to. “If you follow the cadence of a compensation committee, the early part of the year is the executive development and succession management activity. By the end of the year you’re [making] decisions about compensation. There’s a cadence at each committee, and I think you need at least a full cycle, maybe two, to get your head around what’s happening.”

The Three Challenges
For Crist, the first challenge new directors face is learning how to listen. “A new board member needs to be able to go into a boardroom, ego in check, and be a sponge,” he says. “In the first 12 months of engagement, listening is really important. Listen and absorb. Pay attention to what the chairman is saying and where the conversation is flowing. I think in the early days one has to be very sensitive to the balance of listening and speaking.”

New directors often find the amount of information they are expected to absorb prior to a board or committee meeting daunting, so they also need to learn how to prepare themselves. “You cannot do enough homework early on as a bank board member because the subject matter is deep and wide and you really have to spend time doing it,” Crist says. “You have to get ready. You cannot come into a board meeting unprepared. It will show.”

The third challenge is to learn about the bank’s various businesses and operations. “To be an effective board member I believe one really has to get a great understanding of the enterprise,” Crist says. “That takes more than reading material. That means site visits and really understanding where the enterprise is heading, and how you can contribute given whatever skill you might have, whether it’s a functional skill, an industry skill or something that you developed over time that has made you what you are—a CEO, CFO, head of marketing or whatever.”

For Don Musso, president and CEO at FinPro, a bank consulting firm in Gladstone, New Jersey, the challenges facing new bank directors begin with getting their arms around the industry’s regulatory system. “Most directors don’t come from heavily regulated industries so for almost all of them, it’s a little bit of a shock how we’ve got the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp., the Comptroller of the Currency and the states promulgating the volume of rules that they do,” says Musso, who has served on a several bank boards including, currently, Millington Bank in Millington, New Jersey.

Musso says that new directors are also surprised by the competitive landscape that banks operate in today. “It’s not just competition from other banks, it’s from credit unions, it’s from fintech companies like Lending Tree,” he says. “Even on the deposit side we’re seeing some major pushes from some of the insurance carriers and pension funds.

Try an Onboarding Program
A new director’s progression up the learning curve can be accelerated by an onboarding program that gives them an introduction to the bank and tries to prepare them for what to expect. “Wintrust added three board members in an 18-month period and our general counsel had this wonderful roadmap laid out with the meetings they’d have, the people they’d meet internally, the sessions they would sit in on,” Crist says. The educational sessions were on a variety of topics, including the bank’s balance sheet, risk and asset/liability management, and they were run by Wintrust personnel who could help the new directors get up to speed about the bank. “They’re all smart people,” Crist says of the incoming directors, “so you’re going to match them up with other really smart people and make sure that in each session, they are given a pretty deep dive into the elements of that particular discipline.”

Crist offers another suggestion that might not be for the faint of heart, but would hasten the learning process considerably: Serving on the audit committee, which is generally considered to be the most difficult committee assignment. “There’s so much about the enterprise and its various elements that you get if you’re on the audit committee or the risk committee,” he says. “[In terms of information, audit committees] really force you to drink from a fire hose.”

Providing a thorough onboard program is probably the single most effective way that bank boards can shorten the learning process for new directors. “If you don’t have an onboarding process, then l think that [the learning process] may take a long time because many times what happens is they may be reluctant to ask some basic questions,” says Porteous. “Many times, you ask the question and people around the room are going, ‘Gee, I’ve been wanting to ask that too.’”

Part 2: Best Practices for Bank Boards

megaphone-full.jpgOver the past several years I have attended dozens of meetings of boards of directors of banks in troubled condition.  The vast majority of these boards were well functioning and had dedicated and hard working directors.  Geographic location has been the predominant factor in determining winners and losers among banks in this challenging economy.  However, there have been several situations in which it appeared to me that the composition of a board, and the interpersonal dynamics among its members, had magnified the impact of the economic downturn.  A bank board is like any other working group in that the direction and decisions of a board can be heavily influenced by members who dominate the conversation, or by members who actively discourage discussion or dissent.

This is the second in a series of articles on best practices for bank boards.  During the past several decades, my partners and I have worked with hundreds of bank boards, for institutions ranging in size from under $100 million in assets to well over $10 billion in assets.  Regardless of the size of the entity, we have noticed a number of common characteristics and practices of the most effective boards of directors.  This series of articles describes ten of those best practices.  In the first article in the series, I focused on two fundamental best practices—selecting good board members and adopting a meaningful agenda for the board meetings.  In this article I will discuss three additional best practices—providing the board with meaningful information, encouraging board member participation and making the committees work.

Best Practice No. 3 – Provide the Board with Information, Not Data

Change the monthly financial report to something meaningful.  Most boards need to know only about 20 to 30 key data points and ratios and how those numbers compare to budget, peer banks and prior year results to have a good handle on the condition of the bank.  By contrast, the typical financial report at a bank board meeting is encompassed in a 25 to 30 page document that blurs into a very detailed, and often meaningless, recitation of data that is difficult to follow.

Providing meaningful information in an understandable format is essential for the board members to identify and manage risk.  Less is often more in effective board presentations. 

Best Practice No. 4 – Encourage Board Participation

No board should be burdened with a devil’s advocate who has to speak in opposition to everything, but there should be an atmosphere in the board room which allows for dissenting views and occasional no votes.  Far too many meaningful questions go unasked in the board room.  Board members need to feel empowered to ask challenging questions, and also to say that they don’t understand a proposal or a presentation.

In my experience, a very powerful question is the question: Why?  A sense of momentum and inevitability can develop during the discussion of a proposal in a board room, particularly when the discussion is dominated by one or more directors who are persuasive or who feel strongly about a position. 

I know several bank boards that greatly benefitted from a few independent thinking directors in the years running up to the current economic downturn.  Those directors had the insight and the courage to question generally held beliefs in a boom real estate market.  More importantly, the culture of the boards on which they served allowed for real discussion of concerns expressed by directors.

Best Practice No. 5 – Make the Committees Work

The best functioning bank boards almost always have an active and involved committee system.  There is effective leadership of their committees, and the committee members take the time to read and analyze management reports and related materials in advance of meetings.  If you ever need to provide motivation for committee members to be more focused and attentive, give them a copy of one of the complaints filed in litigation by the FDIC against directors of a failed institution.  Almost all of the FDIC lawsuits assert a lack of adequate attention and focus by directors, and particularly by loan committees.

Directors should not become micro-managers, but management of the bank should feel that board members are holding them to a certain level of performance and accountability.  “Noses in and fingers out” is a good maxim for directors to follow, whether in the committee setting or on the board as a whole.

A strong committee system also helps build real expertise on the board, which can help support management.  Future board leaders can be identified through their work on committees.  We recommend that committee chair positions, particularly among the two or three most active committees of the board, be rotated every few years.  This allows for broader exposure of directors to leadership positions, and can heighten their overall understanding of the bank’s business.  It also brings a fresh perspective and approach to the committees.  Leadership ability and the commitment of time and energy should be the main criteria for selecting committee chairs.