I’ve been on four bank boards, and currently serve on the board of Pacific Premier Bank, a $2.7 billion asset bank based in Irvine, California. On two boards, I was chairman and CEO, and I figure I’ve served with about 40 different individual board members over the past 30 years.
Unlike many people, I don’t believe that boards are the key to a bank’s success. I think it’s the CEO, with the board playing the key role of choosing and retaining the right person as CEO. I’ve even said, half jokingly, that a board could meet once a year and have only one agenda item, which is whether or not to renew the CEO’s contract for the coming year.
But what actually makes for an effective director? First, those directors who talk the most at board meetings are not necessarily the most effective. I’ve had directors who rarely said a thing at the meetings but who proved extraordinarily helpful during one-on-one sessions prior to or after formal board meetings. I had one director when I was CEO who was a very successful subdivision developer. He was shy and uncomfortable talking in group settings, but once a month he’d come to the bank and we’d spend about an hour going over things. He asked good questions and was very helpful with his thoughts on our longer-term strategy. His name almost never appeared in our board minutes, and if you didn’t know better, you might have thought he was a non-factor. The reality was that he was one of the best directors on that board. His effectiveness was simply behind the scenes and in private.
Second, there are directors who get involved in very special situations where they make a big difference. One was a private equity investor in a bank where I was chairman and CEO. It was a turnaround situation, and once we returned the bank to profitability, we decided to sell it. This director had been involved in the sale of countless companies his firm had invested in, and he offered to help me out. While I had spent a career in banking, I had no experience in negotiating the sale of a bank. This director really ran the show when we sat down with the chairman/CEO of the bank we chose to sell to. He got us a vastly better deal than I could have. His private equity firm had never invested in a bank before, but there is an art to selling a company, regardless of the sector, and this individual was an artist.
Another director on the board when I served as the CEO ran a large fixed income operation, and he, too, rarely spoke at our board meetings. However, he probably saved us from failing almost before we got started. Our bank was active in originating and securitizing mortgages. We did one of our very first trades with Drexel Burnham, and on the day it was supposed to settle, this director called me at home around 5:30 a.m. West coast time. He remembered that we had voted to approve Drexel as a counter-party, and he remembered from our board package that we had some trades that would be settling a few weeks after our board meeting. He told me that morning that there were rumors that Drexel might fail to open for business that day and to call him the moment I got to the office.
My blood turned cold as I realized what a Drexel failure would mean. Fannie Mae would deliver our mortgage-backed securities to Drexel, and if Drexel filed a bankruptcy, as they did later that morning, we’d be one of thousands of creditors standing in line asking the courts to release our securities. I was pretty certain what our regulators would do. They’d most likely want us to write off the security and take a recovery when we finally got our hands on it. This write down could have impaired our capital, and coming off the thrift crisis, the regulators were in no mood to be forgiving. Anyway, this director told me exactly what to do. He told me to call Fannie Mae and have the security sent to Goldman instead of Drexel, and while the trade would initially fail, at least it wouldn’t be tied up in a Drexel bankruptcy. We scrambled to get approved by Goldman, and it all worked out, but none of this could have happened without the help of this one director. These two directors seemed very disengaged at the board meetings, and it would have been easy to criticize them for almost never participating in any discussions. But in both cases, if only in those single situations, both were extraordinarily effective in helping the bank.
The only bad director I can think of in the past 31 years was one who constantly meddled and tried to run the bank. It’s an old cliché that directors direct and managers manage, and this one individual would write me extraordinarily long e-emails almost every day telling me exactly what I was to do. Dealing with him was a drain on my time, and he alienated other board members. He even got in fights with our regulators, further proving how counter-productive he was. I could handle the occasional spell check director. It’s not that helpful when a director reading board reports says, “I think you misspelled a word in the third line of the second paragraph on page 47,” but it’s only a minor irritant.
What I didn’t appreciate was one director who never looked at his package until he showed up. We used to FedEx them four to five days before board meetings, and he’d show up with his FedEx envelope sealed, and he’d open it when he showed up for the board meeting. Reading a board packet is pretty much a bare minimum for being a board member, and I resented his unwillingness to do this basic homework. Finally, I have found that board members who’ve served a long time can serve a valuable purpose. Having a director with institutional memory can be helpful in many ways, and especially so, I think, when there’s a new CEO or new directors.
Do I view and judge directors differently having served both as an independent director as well as an inside one? I think I do. When I was a CEO, I’d be sometimes frustrated by directors who might not seem to understand some aspect of banking that I assumed they should know. I tried not to let my frustration show, but I don’t think I was always successful. As an independent director now, I’m a lot more tolerant. I can appreciate how difficult it is to learn certain things when you’re only exposed to them at a monthly or quarterly board meeting.
If I were to re-do my tenure as a chairman/CEO, I’d try to make it easier for board members to feel free to ask things that they were afraid to ask. The 40 or so directors I’ve known were all highly intelligent, and my appreciation of the ways directors can bring their intelligence to bear has only grown over the years.