Compensation Considerations in a Merger of Equals

2021 has been a very active M&A year for regional banks, with some organizations combining through a merger of equals.

As the term suggests, a merger of equals is when two banks of comparable size merge to form a larger new company. There is a lot to consider in these situations to ensure the combination effectively unlocks value for stakeholders. Developing the human capital strategy and compensation program at the pro forma bank is a key factor for the management teams and boards of directors to consider. It is critical they get this right in order to retain and engage critical talent through the key milestones in the merger and beyond. In this guide, we identify some of the key compensation-related items that must be addressed in a merger of equals.

Leadership Structure and Executive Team
In a typical acquisition, the executive team of the acquirer often stays in place and the executive team of the target may take on newly created executive roles or leadership roles in a subsidiary business. In a merger of equals, the combined executive team is typically comprised of executives from both legacy organizations. Companies should identify the best talent to lead the bank well before the close of the merger so they can seamlessly execute on the integration and develop a retention plan.

Companies must also determine if they will combine the roles of CEO and chairman of the board, or if the roles will be split between the two legacy CEOs. It is common in a merger of equals to split the roles for a defined time period. This approach gives the pro forma bank the benefit of the leadership of both legacy CEOs as it navigates how to effectively operate as a new organization and create a harmonized organizational culture.

Compensation Philosophy and Competitive Market
It is important for the newly formed entity to have a cohesive compensation philosophy promoting a “one company” mindset among employees who are from different legacy organizations. The compensation philosophy should guide how the bank now pays its employees, including mix between fixed and variable compensation, mix between cash and equity compensation and where compensation is positioned relative to the market. If the two legacy banks have different compensation philosophies, the pro forma bank should develop a strategy to harmonize these philosophies in the near-term. For example, it set a goal to pay all corporate employees using the same mix by the anniversary of the close of the merger.

The combined entity will also need to define its new competitive market. Clearly, it will need to compare itself to larger institutions than the legacy banks, but it should also consider if there are other differences that should define the competitive market, like if the two legacy banks operated in different geographies or had different operating characteristics. It is paramount that the board compensation committee and management teams identify relevant criteria to define a competitive market that best reflects the combined bank’s business.

Retention and Success Awards
Once the banks establish the compensation philosophy and define the new leadership team, it is important to consider how ongoing compensation programs can incent and retain the new team. A common approach to tie the new team together is by providing a long-term incentive award, often referred to as “success awards.” A portion of the award typically vests based on performance linked to achieving deal-based objectives such as synergies or systems conversions. A portion of the award may also vest over a period of time to provide an additional retentive hook. Success awards with performance conditions are better received by external investors and proxy advisory firms. The combined entity should also consider retention risks among the executive team, including the ability to trigger change in control severance and current equity holdings. This may influence which executives receive additional awards or larger success awards.

A merger of equals can be an exciting but also uncertain time for an organization. Early planning on the new bank’s compensation philosophy, leadership team compensation program and success and retention award approaches can help alleviate some of the uncertainty and allow the executive management team to focus on successfully completing the integration. A well thought-out program can combine the best of both legacy organizations into a harmonized compensation program that supports a “one bank” strategy and culture.

Survey Results: Crisis Reinforces Need for Talent

Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, banks have relied on their employees to counsel customers and process billions of dollars of Paycheck Protection Program loans — not to mention working behind the scenes as they adapt to a virtual work environment.

The crisis reinforces the old adage that good talent is hard to find. “Hire right,” investor Ray Dalio once wrote. “The penalties of hiring wrong are huge.”

Bank Director’s 2020 Compensation Survey, sponsored by Compensation Advisors, confirms that talent can be difficult to find in key areas. More than 70% of directors, CEOs, human resources officers and other senior executives responding to the survey point to skills that are particularly difficult to hire and retain, such as information security, technology, lending and risk.

But hiring less-skilled staff also proves challenging: Half indicate that it’s “somewhat” or “very” difficult to attract and retain entry-level employees who fit into the organization’s culture. What’s more, concerns around recruiting younger talent have risen slightly in the past three years: 30% cite this as a top-three challenge this year, compared to 21% in 2017.

Yet, 79% believe their bank offers an effective compensation package that helps attract and retain top talent.

This apparent disconnect could stem from the generation gap between bank leadership and younger staff. Two-thirds of survey respondents are over 55, while more than half of their bank’s workforce is 45 or younger. One can infer that these employees, mostly Gen Z and millennials, primarily occupy entry and mid-level positions.

The survey was distributed in March and April, as the coronavirus forced banks to rapidly shift operations to work-from-home arrangements and adjust branch procedures. Ninety-two percent of respondents indicate their bank instituted or expanded remote work, and 80% introduced or expanded flexible scheduling in response to Covid-19. As the industry emerges from this crisis, how will this impact corporate culture moving forward, as well as expectations from prospective employees?

Key Findings

Covid-19 Response
In addition to adapting to remote and flexible work arrangements, more than half expanded paid leave to encourage staff to stay home if they showed symptoms of the virus. In addition, 81% have limited service to drive-thru only, and 78% limited in-person meetings to appointment only, in order to keep customers and staff safe.

Top Compensation Challenges
The top two compensation challenges that respondents identify remain the same compared to last year: tying compensation to performance (48%), and managing compensation and benefit costs (44%).

Few Measure D&I Progress
Stakeholders have increasingly paid attention to corporate efforts around diversity & inclusion. However, 42% of respondents say their bank lacks a formal D&I program, and doesn’t track progress toward hiring and promoting women, minorities, veterans or individuals with disabilities. Of the metrics most frequently tracked by banks, 58% look at the percentage of women at different levels of the bank, and 51% at the percentage of minorities. Less than half track the gender pay gap, participation of women or minorities in development programs, or participation by employees in D&I-focused education and training.

CEO Retirement
More than 20% expect their CEO to step down within the next three years; an additional 7% are unsure whether their CEO will retire. This metric is, naturally, age dependent: For CEOs over the age of 65, more than half are expected to retire.

CEO, Board Pay Increased
Median total CEO compensation increased in fiscal year 2019, to $649,227. Pay ranged from a median of $251,000 for banks under $250 million to $3.6 million for banks above $10 billion. More than 70% measure CEO performance against the bank’s strategic plan and corporate goals.

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