Why ESG Will Include Consumer Metrics

Imagine a local manufacturer, beloved as an employer and a pillar of the community. The company uses 100% renewable energy and carefully manages its supply chain to be environmentally conscious. The manufacturer has a diverse group of employees, upper managers and board. It pays well and provides health benefits. It might be considered a star when it comes to environmental, social and governance (ESG) parameters.

Now imagine news breaks: Its product causes some customers to develop cancer, an outcome the company ignored for years. How did a good corporate citizen not care about this? You could say this was a governance failure. Everyone would agree that it was a trust-busting event for customers.

ESG, at its root, is about looking at the overall impact of a company. The most profound impact of banks is the impact of banking products. Most bank products are built for use in a perfect world with perfect compliance, but perfect compliance is hard for some people. Noncompliance disproportionately affects the most vulnerable customers ⎯ people living paycheck-to-paycheck and managing their money with little margin to spare. That isn’t to say that these individuals are all under or near the poverty line: Fully 18% of people who earn more than $100,000 say they live paycheck to paycheck, according to a survey of 8,000 U.S. workers by global advisory firm Willis Towers Watson. There is growing recognition that bank products need to reflect the realities of more and more Americans.

Years ago, Columbus, Ohio-based Huntington Bancshares started working on better overdraft solutions for customers whose financial lives were far from perfect. Currently, the $123 billion regional bank will not charge for overdrafts under $50 if a customer automatically deposits their paycheck. If the customer overdrafts $50 or more, the bank sends them an alert to correct it within 24 hours.

Likewise, Pittsburgh-based PNC Financial Services Group recently announced a new feature that gives PNC Virtual Wallet customers 24 hours to cure an overdraft without having to pay a fee.  If not corrected, an overdraft amounts to a maximum of $36 per day.

“With this new tool, we’re able to shift away from the industry’s widely used overdraft approach, which we believe is unsustainable,” said William Demchak, chairman and CEO of the $474 billion bank, in a statement. The statement alone reframes what sustainability means for banking.

The banks that become ESG leaders will create products that improve the long-term financial health of their retail and small businesses customers. To do so, some financial institutions are asking their customers to measure their current financial realities in order to provide better solutions.

For example, Credit Human, a $3.2 billion credit union in San Antonio, is putting financial health front and center both in their branches and digitally. Their onboarding process directs individuals to a financial health analysis supported by FinHealthCheck, a data tool that helps banks and credit unions measure the financial health of customers and the potential outcomes of the products they offer. The goal of Credit Human is to improve the financial health of their customers and eventually make it a part of the overall measurement of the product’s performance.

Measurement alone will not build better bank products. But it will provide banks and credit union executives with critical information to align their products with customer well being. With the implementation of overdraft avoidance programs such as PNC’s Low Cash Mode, the bank expects to help its customers avoid approximately $125 million to $150 million in overdraft fees annually. PNC benefits its bottom line by driving more customers to its Virtual Wallet, nabbing merchant fee income and creating customer loyalty in the process. PNC’s move makes it clear that they believe promoting the long-term financial health of their customers promotes the long-term financial health of the company.

Banks need to avoid appearing to care about ESG, while failing to care about customers. The banks that include customer financial health in their ESG measurement will survive, thrive and become the true ESG stars.

ESG: Walk Before You Run

Covid-19 and last year’s protests over racial injustice added to the mounting pressure corporations face to make progress on environmental, social and governance (ESG) issues — but banks may be further ahead than they believe.

“ESG took on a life of its own in 2020,” says Gayle Appelbaum, a partner at the consulting firm McLagan. Institutional investors have slowly turned up the heat on corporate America, along with community groups, proxy firms and ratings agencies, and regulators such as the Securities and Exchange Commission, which now mandates a human capital management disclosure in annual reports. Customers want to know where companies stand. Prospective employees want to know if a company shares their values. And President Joe Biden’s administration promises to focus more on social and environmental issues.

Big banks like Bank of America Corp. and JPMorgan Chase & Co. have been responding to these pressures, but now ESG is trending down through the industry. With the right approach, banks may find that these practices actually improve their operations. However, smaller community and regional banks can’t — and probably shouldn’t — merely copy the ESG practices of their larger brethren. “People have to think about what’s appropriate for their bank, given [its] size and location,” says Appelbaum. “What are they already doing that they could expand and beef up?”

That means banks shouldn’t feel pressured to go big or go home when it comes to ESG. Begin with the basics: Has your bank reduced waste by encouraging paperless statements? How many hours do employees spend volunteering in the community? “When you sit down and talk to bankers about this, it’s interesting to see [their] eyes open,” says Brandon Koeser, senior manager and financial services senior analyst at the consulting firm RSM. The pandemic shed light on how banks support their employees and communities. “The reality is, so much of what they’re doing is part of ESG.”

Robin Ferracone, CEO of the consultancy Farient Advisors, tells companies to think of ESG as a journey, one that keeps strategy at its core. “You need to walk before you run. If you try to bite [it] all off at once, you can get overwhelmed,” she says. Organizations should prioritize what’s important to their strategy and stakeholders. ESG objectives should be monitored, revisited and adjusted along the way.

Stakeholders are watching. Glacier Bancorp CEO Randall Chesler was surprised to learn just how closely in a conversation with one of the bank’s large investors two years ago.

“One of our investors asked us, ‘Have you looked at this? We see your score isn’t very good; are you aware of that? What are you going to do about it?’ And that was the first time that we started to dig into it and realized that we were being scored by ISS,” says Chesler. (Institutional Shareholder Services provides an ESG rating on companies, countries and bonds to inform investors.)

It turned out that $18.5 billion Glacier was doing a lot, particularly around the social and governance aspects of ESG. The Kalispell, Montana-based bank just wasn’t telling its story. This is a common ESG gap for community and regional banks.

Glacier worked with consultants to develop a program and put together a community and social responsibility report, which is available in the investor relations section of its website, along with other governance documents such as its code of ethics. This provided the right level of information to lift Glacier’s score. “Our benchmark was, we want to be at our peer-level scoring on ESG,” says Chesler. “[We] ended up actually better. And we continue to watch our scores.”

“Community banks have the social and governance aspects covered better than many industries because [banks are] heavily regulated,” says Joe Scott, a managing director at Kroll Bond Rating Agency. Where they likely lag, he says, is around the environment; most are just beginning to assess these risks to their business. And it’s important that banks get this right as stakeholders increasingly focus on ESG. “We’re hearing that, beyond equity and debt investors, larger depositors — particularly corporate depositors, institutional depositors, state treasurers’ officers [and] others like that — are incorporating ESG into their considerations on who they place large deposits with. That could be a theme over time— other kinds of stakeholders factoring in ESG more and more.”

A Guide to Getting CEO Transitions Right in 2020 and Beyond

Banks need to get CEO transitions right to provide continuity in leadership and successful execution of key priorities.

As the world evolves, so do the factors that banks must consider when turnover occurs in the CEO role. Here are some key items we’ve come across that bank boards should consider in the event of a CEO transition today.

Identifying a Successor

Banks should prepare for CEO transitions well in advance through ongoing succession planning. Capable successors can come from within or outside of the organization. Whether looking for a new CEO internally or externally, banks need to identify leaders that have the skills to lead the bank now and into the future.

Diversity in leadership:
Considering a diverse slate of candidates is crucial, so that the bank can benefit from different perspectives that come with diversity. This may be challenging in the banking industry, given the current composition of executive teams. The U.S. House Committee on Financial Services published a diversity and inclusion report in 2020 that found that executive teams at large U.S. banks are mostly white and male. CAP found that women only represent 30% of the executive team, on average, at 18 large U.S. banks.

Building a diverse talent pipeline takes time; however, it is critical to effective long-term succession planning. Citigroup recently announced that Jane Fraser, who currently serves as the head of Citi’s consumer bank, would serve as its next CEO, making her the first female CEO of a top 10 U.S. bank. As banks focus more on diversity and inclusion initiatives, we expect this to be a key tenet of succession plans.

Digital expertise:
The banking industry continues to evolve to focus more on digital channels and technology. The Covid-19 pandemic has placed greater emphasis on remote services, which furthered this evolution. As technology becomes more deeply integrated in the banking industry, banks will need to evaluate their strategies and determine how they fit into this new landscape. With increased focus on technology, banks must also keep up with leading cybersecurity practices to provide consumers with the best protection. Succession plans will need to prioritize the skills and foresight required to lead the organization through this digital transformation.

Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG) strategy:
Investors are increasingly focused on the ESG priorities and the potential impact on long-term value creation at banks. One area of focus is human capital management, and the ability to attract and retain the key talent that will help banks be leaders in their markets. CEO succession should consider candidates’ views on these evolving priorities.

Paying the Incoming and Outgoing CEOs

Incoming CEO:
The incoming CEO’s pay is driven by level of experience, whether the CEO was an internal or external hire, the former CEO’s compensation, market compensation and the bank’s compensation philosophy. In many cases, it is more expensive to hire a CEO externally. Companies often pay external hires at or above the market median, and may have to negotiate sign-on awards to recruit them. Companies generally pay internally promoted CEOs below market at first and move them to market median over two or three years based on their performance.

Outgoing CEO:
In some situations, the outgoing CEO may stay on as executive chair or senior advisor to help provide continuity during the transition. In this scenario, pay practices vary based on the expected length of time that the chair or senior advisor role will exist. It’s often lower than the amount the individual received as CEO, but likely includes salary and annual bonus opportunity and, in some cases, may include long-term incentives.

Retaining Key Executives

CEO transitions may have ripple effects throughout the bank’s executive team. Executives who were passed over for the top job may pose a retention risk. These executives may have deep institutional knowledge that will help the new CEO and are critical to the future success of the company. Boards may recognize these executives by expanding their roles or granting retention awards. These approaches can enhance engagement, mitigate retention risk and promote a smooth leadership transition.

As competition remains strong in the banking industry, it is more important than ever to have a seamless CEO transition. Unsuccessful CEO transitions are a distraction from a bank’s strategic objectives and harm performance. Boards will be better positioned if they have a strong succession plan to help them identify CEO candidates with the skills needed to grow and transform the bank, and if they effectively use compensation programs to attract and retain these candidates and the teams that support them.