Banking’s Vaccine Dilemma

David Findlay has witnessed several crises over his 37-year banking career, but he says the Covid-19 pandemic has been the most challenging — one that continues to redefine what it means to be a good employer.

“We took a very protective stance of our entire workforce,” says Findlay, the CEO of $6 billion Lakeland Financial Corp., based in Warsaw, Indiana. Lakeland’s subsidiary, Lake City Bank, has followed Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and health department guidance to sanitize branches, and closed lobbies as needed. Around one-third of employees worked remotely.

These early decisions were easy, Findlay adds. Encouraging employees to get vaccinated against Covid-19 has resulted in a new dilemma, due to “divisions between those [who] believe in the efficacy of the vaccine,” he says, “and those [who] don’t.”

Righting the economic ship has long hinged on successfully defeating the coronavirus through the development and broad adoption of one or — as came to pass — multiple vaccines. “Ultimately, the economic recovery depends on success in getting the pandemic under control, and vaccinations are critical to our ability to accomplish that,” Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen told the Senate Banking Committee in March.

Like all businesses, vaccinations allow banks to safely reopen branches and repatriate staff into offices. All three of the Covid-19 vaccines available in the U.S. are currently authorized for emergency use by the Federal Drug Administration; some Americans say they won’t get vaccinated until they receive full approval by the FDA.

In early May, Lakeland rolled out an organization-wide vaccination program, updating employees about Covid-19 cases, quarantines and vaccination efforts for the organization. Employees have had access to an on-site vaccination clinic, and the bank pays a $100 bonus to each vaccinated employee, with another $100 to the nonprofit of their choice.

The program was retroactive, so the roughly 40% of employees who were already fully vaccinated were rewarded, too. As of June 10, half of the bank’s employees reported that they had been vaccinated, which compares favorably to Indiana’s population, at 39%, and 30% for Lakeland’s home base in Kosciusko County.

We have made it clear that this is a personal choice and that we must all respect each other, regardless of [our] position on the vaccine,” says Findlay. “It has been a challenging 17 months, and we must all stick together so our culture can survive the pandemic.”

Carrots, not sticks, also drive the vaccination program at Pinnacle Financial Partners. “This is a personal decision, it’s a medical decision, so we don’t want to cross that line,” says Sarae Janes Lewis, director of associate and client experience at the $35 billion bank.

Pinnacle started communicating the benefits of the vaccine in December 2020 — around the time that the FDA first approved emergency use for the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines. It started its incentive program in March, after the vaccine became more broadly available. Employees get time off to get vaccinated — a half day per shot — and receive a $250 gift card to spend as they like. “We wanted to make the amount enough to incentivize people,” says Lewis, “but we didn’t want it to be so much that it felt like someone who had not made that decision yet would feel overly pressured.” Pinnacle includes a thank-you note with each gift card.

And they’re promoting the upsides of getting vaccinated. Vaccinated employees aren’t required to wear a mask, for example; those who haven’t yet gotten the vaccine are asked to mask up. Pinnacle isn’t policing its employees’ mask use.

When Lewis and I spoke, 64% of Pinnacle’s associates reported to the bank that they were fully vaccinated against Covid-19. That’s well ahead of the bank’s hometown of Nashville, at 44%, and home state of Tennessee, where roughly one-third of eligible individuals are fully vaccinated. An employee survey revealed that many of Pinnacle’s employees who are hesitant may reconsider once one or more of the vaccines receive full FDA approval. When that happens, Lewis says that the bank may ramp up communications again, and incentives will remain in place.

This high vaccination rate — and understanding the vaccination status of its employees — has helped Pinnacle reopen locations and get a little closer to normal operations. “If there does happen to be an exposure, we’re not having to close offices anymore,” Lewis says. “It’s been pretty amazing to have that stability.”

Lake City and Pinnacle both boast above-average vaccination rates compared to their communities, but they’re still below President Joe Biden’s goal for 70% of American adults to be partially or fully vaccinated by the Fourth of July. So, should banks help close this gap by requiring that employees get vaccinated?

Companies can do that, according to guidance from the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission that was updated in late May.

Adam Maier, a partner at the law firm Stinson LLP, believes banks like Pinnacle and Lake City, that focus on education and modest incentives, have the right approach. The EEOC guidance is “fraught with uncertainties,” he adds. “It’s such a tightrope to be walking to mandate vaccines and also make sure you’re not doing it on a discriminatory basis, or with a discriminatory outcome.” Companies still must comply with the Americans with Disabilities Act and Title VII of the Civil Rights Act, which prohibits discrimination based on race, color, religion, gender, pregnancy or national origin. Incentives also can’t be coercive.

Both Lake City and Pinnacle emphasize their respect for employee choice, and that appears to be a consistent theme for the industry. Bank of America Corp. CEO Brian Moynihan was asked in the company’s April shareholder call if the board would “commit to not coercing our employees into getting the COVID vaccine.” Moynihan responded that the bank emphasized communication and education — and the right for each employee to come to their own decision.

The megabank asks employees to update their vaccination status through an online portal. Requesting an employee’s vaccine status — confidentially — is clearly permitted by the guidance, Maier confirms.

“Whatever your approach is, just try to be respectful,” advises Maier. “Be reasonable and rational, and don’t get caught up in any individual employee’s decision.”

Five Assessments that Every Acquirer Should Make

Acquiring another bank will be one of the most important decisions that a board of directors ever makes. A well-played acquisition can be a transformational event for a bank, strengthening its market presence or expanding it into new markets, and enhancing its profitability.

But an acquisition is not without risk, and a poorly conceived or poorly executed transaction could also result in a significant setback for your bank. Failing to deliver on promises that have been made to the bank’s shareholders and other stakeholders could preclude you from making additional acquisitions in the future. Banking is a consolidating industry, and acquisitive banks earn the opportunity to participate one deal at a time.

When a board is considering a potential acquisition, there are five critical assessments of the target institution that it should make.

Talent
When you are acquiring a bank, you’re getting more than just a balance sheet and branches; you’re also acquiring talent, and it is critical that you assess the quality of that asset. If your bank has a more expansive product set than the target, or has a more aggressive sales culture, how willing and able will the target’s people be to adapt to these changes in strategy and operations? Who are the really talented people in the target’s organization you want to keep? It’s important to identify these individuals in advance and have a plan for retaining them after the deal closes. Does the target have executives at certain positions who are stronger than members of your team? Let’s say your bank’s chief financial officer is nearing retirement age and you haven’t identified a clear successor. Could the target bank’s CFO eventually take his or her place?

Technology
Making a thorough technology assessment is crucial, and it begins with the target’s core processing arrangement. If the target uses a different third-party processor, how much would it cost to get out of that contract, and how would that affect the purchase price from your perspective? Can the target’s systems easily accommodate your products if some of them are more advanced, or will significant investments have to be made to offer their customers your products?

Culture
It can be difficult to assess another bank’s culture because you’re often dealing with things that are less tangible, like attitudes and values. But cultural incompatibility between two merger partners can prevent a deal from reaching its full potential. Cultural differences can be expressed in many different ways. For example, how do the target’s compensation philosophy and practices align with yours? Does one organization place more emphasis on incentive compensation that the other? Board culture is also important if you’re planning on inviting members of the target’s board to join yours as part of the deal. How do the target’s directors see the roles of management and the board compared to yours? Unless the transaction has been structured as a merger of equals, the acquirer often assumes that its culture will have primacy going forward, but there might be aspects of the target’s culture that are superior, and the acquirer would do well to consider how to inculcate those values or practices in the new organization.

Return on Investment
A bank board may have various motivations for doing an acquisition, but usually there is only one thing most investors care about – how long before the acquisition is accretive to earnings per share? Generally, most investors expect an acquisition to begin making a positive contribution to earnings within one or two years. There are a number of factors that help determine this, beginning with the purchase price. If the acquirer is paying a significant premium, it may take longer for the transaction to become accretive. Other factors that will influence this include duplicative overhead (two CFOs, two corporate secretaries) and overlapping operations (two data centers, branches on opposite corners of the same intersection) that can be eliminated to save costs, as well as revenue enhancements (selling a new product into the target’s customer base) that can help drive earnings.

Capabilities of Your M&A Team
A well-conceived acquisition can still stumble if the integration is handled poorly. If this is your bank’s first acquisition, take the time to identify which executives in your organization will be in charge of combining the two banks into a single, smoothly functioning organization, and honestly assess whether they are equal to the task. Many successful banks find they don’t possess the necessary internal talent and need to engage third parties to ensure a successful integration. In any case, the acquiring bank’s CEO should not be in charge of the integration project. While the CEO may feel it’s imperative that they take control of the process to ensure its success, the greater danger is that it distracts them from running the wider organization to its detriment.

Any acquisition comes with a certain amount of risk. However, proactive consideration toward talent, technology, culture, ROI and a thoughtful selection of the integration team will help enable the board to evaluate the opportunity and positions the acquiring institution for a smooth and successful transition.

Overcoming Cultural Challenges In M&A

Culture is fundamental to the success of the deal, so it’s top of mind for bank leadership teams working with Richard Hall, managing director for banking and financial services at BKM Marketing. In this video, he explains why transparent, candid communication is key to retaining customers and employees, and shares his advice for post-pandemic strategic planning.

  • Ensuring a Successful Integration
  • Retaining Customers and Employees
  • Formulating a Strategy for 2021

Digital Transformation Defined

Many banks know they need to undergo a digital transformation to set their institution up for future success. But what do most bankers mean when they talk about digital transformation?

“If you look at the technical definition of digital, it means using a computer. Congratulations, we can all go home because we all use computers to do everything in banking today,” jokes Nathan Snell, chief innovation officer at nCino during a presentation at Bank Director’s BankBEYOND 2020 experience.

Of course, a digital transformation requires technology, Snell says, but he argues that the integration or adoption of this technology should change how a bank operates and delivers value. Going beyond that, it should be accompanied by a cultural shift to continually challenge the status quo — otherwise this attempt at change may fall short of innovation and transformation.

You can access Snell’s complete presentation and all of the BankBEYOND 2020 sessions by registering here.

Strategic Insights From Leading Bankers: First Financial Bankshares

Few banks have built value for their shareholders like Abilene, Texas-based First Financial Bankshares.

Over the 20-year period ending June 30, 2020 — the cut-off date for institutions featured in Bank Director’s 2021 RankingBanking study, sponsored by Crowe LLP — the $10.6 billion bank generated a 2,074% total shareholder return. That figure is second only to Bank OZK in Little Rock, Arkansas, for the entire banking industry. First Financial placed sixth overall in the study and earned top honors in the Best Bank for Creating Value category. It also rated highly for its retail strategy.

“They’re one of the best banks out there,” says Brett Rabatin, head of equity research at Hovde Group. First Financial’s culture, M&A track record and competitive strategy — delivering a high level of service in small-town markets — set it apart. “A lot of banks like to say, ‘we’re relationship lenders,’ [but] this is one of the few banks where it shows up. It shows up in their loan yield, it shows up in the profitability.”

To delve further into First Financial’s performance for the RankingBanking study, Bank Director Vice President of Research Emily McCormick interviewed First Financial Chairman and CEO Scott Dueser about the bank’s customer-centric philosophy, prospective M&A opportunities and how he leverages his Texas connections. The interview was conducted on Oct. 14, 2020, and has been edited for brevity, clarity and flow.

BD: Based on my earlier reporting on First Financial and its culture, I know you have placed a strong cultural emphasis on building excellence and serving the customer. How does that differentiate First Financial from other institutions in its markets?

SD: I like to think of us as the Ritz-Carlton of banks because of what [Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. co-founder] Horst Schulze has done for us. Horst has been outstanding, not only [in] training us [on] customer service, but also as a mentor on business and dealing with people. Horst doesn’t call it hiring people; you select people and that changes your whole attitude about it. We have a very strong team of people that work together extremely well.

I’m disappointed if somebody leaves our bank and is not extremely happy. That’s what we want to accomplish every time somebody walks in.

Our philosophy of how we do business is very important to us, and adds to the bottom line and the value of our stock. That’s the fact that we’re not in the big city, we’re in the small towns around the big city, where we can be the big fish in the little pond and be the No. 1 bank. We’re not in the big cities fighting the big boys; that takes a lot of money and a lot of time, and it’s a battle that frankly, I don’t think we can win. Why not stay in the areas [where] we do well and focus on that? That’s been our focus, along with credit quality and going after the better customers in our markets. 

BD: Covid-19 has impacted how banks serve the customer. Has anything really shifted for your bank in that regard, or do you feel like the situation is proving your strategy out in a way?

SD: It’s proven the strategy out. I will tell you the best thing that we did was we never closed our doors. We stayed open, and we came to work every day, and we learned how to work through Covid and how to serve the customer [in that environment]. We got a lot of business from it, because when customers went to their bank and found it locked, they didn’t like it. Those banks that locked their doors lost a lot of business, because 33% of the [Paycheck Protection Program] loans that we made were somebody else’s customers. To do that, we asked [those customers] for all their business, and they moved all their business. We grew about a billion dollars through the pandemic.

We made the decision not to cut hours and not to lock our doors, but to be here. We split big departments [where] half the people went home, half the people stayed here, but everybody that was customer facing had to come to work. Our goal was to make the workplace the safest place our people could be. Frankly, today we still feel like the safest place to be is here at work. We’ve kind of managed Covid, not that we haven’t gotten it. We manage it by masking and social distancing, and don’t come to work if you feel bad. We don’t want you to work [then]. That’s kind of the main rules.

I have been on the governor’s task force to reopen Texas. That has helped me tremendously, because I knew the inside scoop of how the state was fighting Covid.

BD: You also had a hand in the Texas Tech Excellence in Banking program that opened in 2020. I assume you see some indirect benefits to keeping those types of networks and communication lines open.

SD: No question. The Excellence of Banking Program was something that I took to Tech and said, “We really need to do this. It will be great for Tech. It’ll be great for the banking industry.” We were able to raise $12 million to endow that program; that’s from foundations and banks. There were about 50 banks involved in that program that gave $1,000 and above.

What’s neat about this program is it is focused [on] bringing minorities and women into banking. That’s something that we really need. We had interns from that program here this summer, and I’m very impressed with the high level of students that we have. I think all the banks that have participated are impressed with the interns that they got out of it. We are hiring people out of that program as we speak. It’s a direct benefit to the bank, but also a direct benefit to my alma mater.

BD: Looking at your past few M&A deals, First Financial does an excellent job of keeping costs down. With pricing coming down, do you see some opportunities on the horizon?

SD: I think there’ll be lots of opportunities next year. I do think Covid has made a lot of people think about whether they want to stay in the industry or not, and whether they want to keep their bank. If they don’t have people lined up to run their bank, they probably need to put it on the market. I think we’ll see a lot of banks go on the market, especially from the fact that a lot of banks missed their heyday when they could have gotten a premier price a year ago. That’s not going to happen today. Pricing is down. They’re going to say, “Hey, I’d rather take today’s price and see what happens next.”

With our price and our premium on the price, even in today’s market, we can go buy some banks that other people probably can’t, because they can’t make the deal work. With our stock price, we can make the deal work.

RankingBanking will be examined further as part of Bank Director’s Inspired By Acquire or Be Acquired virtual platform. Click here to access the agenda.

nCino IPO

nCino, a cloud-based technology and lending platform for banks, navigated the challenges of going public while working remotely. The firm’s success story speaks to the critical importance of digital transformations to the survival of any company, especially as the pandemic has changed consumer mindsets about delivery and the way banks approach their business.

nCino CEO Pierre Naudé virtually sat down with Bank Director CEO Al Dominick to share the lessons he took from the IPO experience and maintains the company culture now that it’s public. Banks can also hear about how nCino strengthened its board, and managed communications in the remote environment.

What is Your Bank Measuring?

Recent comments around diversity from Wells Fargo & Co.’s CEO brought renewed attention and focus on a problem that continues to plague corporations, including banks.

In a video call with staff over the summer, Charles Scharf pointed to a “limited pool of Black talent” as the reason why the bank missed its diversity and inclusion (D&I) targets. 

Scharf has since walked back those comments. “There are many talented diverse individuals working at Wells Fargo and throughout the financial services industry, and I never meant to imply otherwise,” he told employees. “I’ve worked in the financial services industry for many years, and it’s clear to me that, across the industry, we have not done enough to improve diversity, especially at senior leadership levels.” 

Wells Fargo, it should be noted, has established clear D&I goals. It expands on these in a recent press release: Diverse candidates must be considered for key roles, and the bank plans to integrate D&I into business plans and reviews. An anti-racism training course is under development. And the achievement of D&I goals will directly impact executive compensation decisions.

Most banks lack that level of commitment: 42% don’t have a formal D&I program, according to Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey.

Rockland, Massachusetts-based Independent Bank Corp. details its “Inclusion Journey” for 2020 through a nine-page document that’s posted on its website. For the $13 billion holding company, which operates Rockland Trust Co., this includes conducting an assessment to identify strengths and weaknesses throughout the organization, and establishing a D&I council co-chaired by senior vice president and Director of Human Resources Maria Harris.  

“We have a responsibility to create an environment where respect, understanding and innovation are at our core,” says Harris. “Every colleague is critical to our growth as a company, and we are committed to a culture of teamwork, inclusion and employee engagement.”

Resource groups build awareness and address the needs of female and LGBTQ employees. In response to current events, the bank has offered webinars on self-care during the Covid-19 pandemic and conducting open discussions on racism. “These have been very beneficial for folks to better understand systemic racism and how to become an ally,” explains Harris. All new employees receive D&I training, which focuses on unconscious bias and related behaviors. 

Just 22% of survey respondents say their bank tracks participation in D&I focused training; even fewer — 10% — measure employee resource group participation and formation.  

Rockland Trust tracks applicants, hires, transfers, promotions and terminations, says Harris. It also measures employee tenure, participation in professional development programs and conducts exit interviews. All of this data informs the bank’s D&I goals. 

“Our current initiative to advance front-line professionals of color was created to address findings from our data, which demonstrated that although minorities were participating in our internal career pathing program, they were not advancing at the same rate,” she explains. “We wanted to proactively change that within our organization.”

For many companies, focusing on D&I helps strengthen the culture, while attracting talented employees who will ensure its success. 

That requires leadership.

 “Trying to lead an organization without taking measurements is like trying to coach a football game without yard markers,” wrote Ritz-Carlton founder Horst Schulze in his book “Excellence Wins: A No-Nonsense Guide to Becoming the Best in a World of Compromise.” 

Bank Director’s 2020 Governance Best Practices Survey reveals that too many directors — 48% — don’t fully buy into the idea that diversity on the board has a positive effect on corporate performance. Connecting the dots, one can assume that they don’t place a lot of value on building an effective D&I program within their bank, either.

Level 5 Banking

Over the past six months, nCino has partnered with the team at Bank Director on a unique and immersive study of banking. It was originally intended to peer into the future of the industry, but the more we looked ahead, the more we realized that the future of banking is not a revolution, but an evolution. 

Banking is undergoing a vast and vital transformation. The distribution channels of today may soon be obsolete, and technology and innovation are moving ever faster. But this doesn’t mean that the traditional tenets of prudent and profitable banking are outdated. If anything, we found that technology accentuates their importance.

Leadership. Leadership is the most important tenet in banking, but what is leadership? Interviews with dozens of bankers across the country suggest that one keystone character trait is more important than any other: an insatiable curiosity and indomitable will to never stop learning. Best-selling business author Jim Collins refers to this in his book “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t” as Level 5 leadership.

One industry leader who displays this trait is Brian Moynihan, chairman and CEO of Bank of America Corp. “Brian has a deep knowledge because he wants to learn about different things, not just about banking,” says Dean Athanasia, president of consumer and small business at Bank of America. “He looks across every single industry. He’s looking at Amazon, Walmart, the brokerage firms. He’s looking at all these companies and breaking them down.”

Growth. The second tenet we examined is growth. Mergers and acquisitions have been the principal vehicle for growth in the banking industry since the mid-1980s. But as the consolidation cycle has seasoned and digital distribution channels offer alternative ways to acquire new customers and enter new markets organically, we must accept that there are many avenues to growth. 

We’ve seen this firsthand at nCino, as institutions of all sizes successfully leverage our technology in the pursuit of growth and efficiency. But the day has not yet arrived that technology alone can help a bank grow. This is why the majority of banks view it as a way to supplement, not replace, their existing growth strategies.

Risk management. Another tenet we examined is risk management, a core pillar of prudent and profitable banking. Robust risk management is necessary for banks to avoid insolvency, but an equally important byproduct is consistent performance. The banks that have created the most value through the years haven’t made the most money in good times; their real strength has been avoiding losses in tough times.

Technology can help by improving credit decisions and making it easier to proactively pinpoint credit problems. But it must be paired with a culture that balances risk management and revenue generation.

“There are always going to be cycles in banking, and we think the down cycles give us an opportunity to propel ourselves forward,” says Joe Turner, CEO of Great Southern Bancorp, a Springfield, Missouri-based bank that ranks near the top of the industry in terms of total shareholder return over the past 40 years.

Culture. Culture and communication go hand-in-hand, and those financial institutions that are most successful are the ones that empower their employees with information, technology and autonomy. We learned this lesson the hard way during the financial crisis, when the banks that got into the most trouble were the ones that stifled the flow of information about unsavory business practices and questionable credit quality.

Since then, we’ve also seen a clear connection between a bank’s culture and its performance. “We’ve actually done a correlation analysis between employee engagement and client satisfaction scores in different departments,” says Kevin Riley, CEO of Billings, Montana-based First Interstate BancSystem. “It’s amazing the correlation between engaged employees and happy clients.”

Capital allocation. In an industry as competitive as banking, there aren’t many ways to produce extraordinary results. Running a prudent and efficient operation is table stakes. True differentiation comes from capital allocation — distributing an organization’s resources in a way that catalyzes operating earnings. The best capital allocators don’t view it as a mechanical process. They see it instead as a mindset that informs every decision they make, including how many employees they hire, how much capital they return or which third-party technology they choose to implement, among others.

Ultimately, navigating a bank through such a dynamic time is no easy feat. Leaders must embrace change and technology. That isn’t an option. But this doesn’t mean that the timeless tenets of banking should be discarded. The institutions that thrive in the future will be those that blend the best of the old with the new.

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.

How Peoples Bancorp Prevailed Through PPP

“You only learn who has been swimming naked when the tide goes out,” wrote Warren Buffett in his 2004 annual letter.

He was referring to operations that trade derivatives. You don’t really know the value of what you hold in opaque markets, he explained, until it’s tested in hard times.

The same can be said about banking.

Rarely has the industry faced an environment as acute as today.

The scope and speed of this downturn are without modern precedent,” said Federal Reserve Chairman Jerome Powell earlier this week. It’s “significantly worse than any recession since World War II.”

It’s hardly an exaggeration to say that bankers bear much of the burden of saving the economy from oblivion. “If doctors and nurses are first responders to those who are sick,” says Robyn Stevens, chief credit officer at Peoples Bancorp, “bankers are the first responders for businesses, communities and economies.”

Stevens would know.

Within its three-state footprint spanning Ohio, West Virginia and Kentucky, Peoples was the top-performing bank in the first round of the Paycheck Protection Program measured by dollars of PPP loans approved per assets.

“A culture is tested when times get tough,” says Ryan Kirkham, general counsel at the $4.5 billion bank based in Marietta, Ohio. “You find out whether it is real or just lip service. We passed the test.”

The success of Peoples in the first round of PPP reveals a flaw in one of the principal narratives that has emerged from the unfolding crisis — that banks with the most advanced technology were the ones best positioned to manage the onslaught of loan applications.

It’s not that Peoples Bank hasn’t invested in technology in recent years, because it has. But the secret to its success in the first round of PPP was simple elbow grease.

Personnel from the top of the bank to the bottom volunteered to enter data into the Small Business Administration portal to process customer loan applications.

“Banks had to decide whether they were going to do it automated or whether they were going to do it manually,” says CEO Chuck Sulerzyski. “Peoples tried an automated approach but then opted for manual.”

“Many of our most senior executives have done data entry until 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 at night,” he adds. “We did over 100 of these loans on Easter Sunday. And when they shut banks over $1 billion out from 6 p.m. to midnight one evening, we had a couple dozen people volunteer to work midnight to 4 a.m. putting in the entries.”

This success reflects a culmination of a decade’s worth of effort, spearheaded by Sulerzyski, who joined the bank from KeyCorp in 2011.

The 62-year-old CEO spent the previous four decades working up the corporate ladder at multiple prominent banks. He worked at Citibank during the Walter Wriston era. He was at Chemical Bank when Walter Shipley was CEO. And he spent eight years at Bank One, working closely with President Don McWhorter and CEO John B. McCoy.

Sulerzyski has been there and done that, in other words. One lesson he’s learned along the way has been the importance of culture and customer relationships. It’s a lesson that has paid off in spades over the past three months.

“From a competitive standpoint, a lot of the large banks struggled with PPP,” Sulerzyski says. “One of the large regionals couldn’t do any loans the first few days. Another one started, but then had to shut down. Each of the bigger banks we compete against had their own degree of difficulties with this. Because our customers were well taken care of, CPAs and attorneys started referring business to us and it kind of snowballed on itself.”

Sulerzyski’s team speaks in single voice on this.

Our commitment to our communities and the importance that plays resonates with our employees,” says Thomas Frawley, senior vice president, consumer lending. “They start the call as a banker and end the call as a counselor, listening to the fears of our customers while assuring them that we are going to do our best to help them.”

“We have several associates who are working day and night,” says Ann Helmick, director of enterprise risk management. “They are doing this for the good of the client. For most, there will not be a personal gain.”

“It is easy to come up with a mission, vision and values. And when times are good, it can be easy to live by those values,” says Jason Phipps, regional president. “It is when a company or person faces adversity that you find out who a person or who an organization really is.”

One can argue all day long about the importance of scale and technology, and how it could soon be a principle competitive differentiator in banking. But technology is only a tool to help bankers ply their trade. The soul of any organization, and the true source of performance, lies instead in the people who run it.

“Bankers may have got a bad rap during the last crisis,” says Stevens, “but ours have been heroes during this one!”