In 2021, $26.5 billion Arvest Bank Group hired Laura Merling from Google to lead a multi-year transformation effort at the Bentonville, Arkansas-based bank.
Merling, Arvest’s chief transformation and operations officer, had never worked in a bank. But she thrives off the challenge to drive change at an incumbent organization with years of history — a familiar effort after starting her career at Ford Motor Co. with an internship in the 1980s. “That’s probably where transformation means the most; it has the broadest impact,” she says. She’s worked at startups, too, but there “you might be transforming an industry or an individual product.” And that’s it.
But transforming an established bank like Arvest requires rolling up your sleeves to address “people, process and technology,” Merling says. All three components are critical elements as she guides the organization through a five-year map that sets clear but flexible goals for staff.
A successful transformation effort requires everyone’s involvement; it’s not just a task delegated to IT. At Arvest, Merling blends skills from other outsiders as well as legacy staff with deep experience in banking. But as much as Merling’s role requires execution, it also requires one action that seems so simple: Listening to employees. “Listening gives you a good idea of where to start … And when they see the impacts — ‘you’ve heard me, and then you did something about it’ — [that] makes a big difference.”
She’s also working with technology partners such as Google Cloud and Thought Machine to modernize the bank’s technology infrastructure. “What it lets us do is create custom products in a more interesting way, and it lets us have that flexibility to define them,” she says. “That will be important as we look forward in the future, both to how we serve customers, but also as new regulations come through.”
In this edition of The Slant podcast, Merling shares her background and how she’s leveraging her outsiders’ perspective at Arvest — and what she’s learned in her 18 months as a newbie banker. She also explains how small achievements help drive progress toward the bank’s ultimate vision to build “the leading community-focused bank serving small and medium business customers.”
This episode, and all past episodes of The Slant Podcast, are available on BankDirector.com, Spotify and Apple Music.