Three Concepts that Drive Performance

The former top general in the Marine Corps, Gen. Jim Mattis, wrote in his memoirs, published last year, that “If you haven’t read hundreds of books, you are functionally illiterate, and you will be incompetent, because your personal experiences alone aren’t broad enough to sustain you.”

That’s bold. But given its source, it can’t be discounted.

“Thanks to my reading, I have never been caught flat-footed by any situation, never at a loss for how any problem has been addressed (successfully or unsuccessfully) before,” Mattis wrote in a 2003 email to a colleague. “It doesn’t give me all the answers, but it lights what is often a dark path ahead.”

In no industry is experience by proxy as important as it is in banking, thanks to a pair of peculiar dynamics. Banks use three or more times as much leverage as the typical company. They’re also exposed to the unforgiving vicissitudes of the credit cycle.

It follows that in banking, as in the military, though in an obviously less lethal context, there is little margin for error. To be a high-performing bank, your credit decisions must be right 99% of the time — a high bar to clear.

With this in mind, here are three concepts from three books that can help sharpen one’s decision-making and reduce the incidence of error.

Cognitive Dissonance
The study of behavioral finance gained traction after the financial crisis of 2008-09, which eroded confidence in the efficient market hypothesis — the assumption that markets operate best when they are most unfettered by rules and regulation.

Behavioral finance is predicated on the general rule that markets tend to produce rational outcome. More important than this rule, however, are multiple exceptions to it, called “behavioral biases,” which are so powerful that they can swallow the general rule.

The granddaddy of behavioral biases is cognitive dissonance. This is the “state of tension that occurs whenever a person holds two cognitions (ideas, attitudes, beliefs, opinions) that are psychologically inconsistent,” explained Carol Tavris and Elliot Aronson in “Mistakes Were Made (but not by me): Why We Justify Foolish Beliefs, Bad Decisions, and Hurtful Acts.”

An example is the belief that “‘Smoking is a dumb thing to do because it could kill me’ and ‘I smoke two packs a day,’” Tavris and Aronson wrote.

People don’t like hearing information that they disagree with. It’s why so many of the banks that got into trouble in the financial crisis of 2008-09 tended to minimize the ominous warnings from the risk managers, preferring instead to believe the lofty predictions of their revenue generators.

Deliberate Practice
If you want to get better at something, it helps to practice. But not all practice is equally effective.

“There are various sorts of practice that can be effective to one degree or another, but one particular form — which I named ‘deliberate practice’ back in the early 1990s — is the gold standard,” wrote Anders Ericsson in “Peak: Secrets From the New Science of Expertise.”

There is an assumption that after reaching a satisfactory skill level at something, the more you do that thing, the better you’ll be at it. But this isn’t necessarily true.

Research has shown that, generally speaking, once a person reaches that level of ‘acceptable’ performance and automaticity, the additional years of ‘practice’ don’t lead to improvement,” Ericsson explained. “If anything, the doctor or the teacher or the driver who’s been at it for twenty years is likely to be a bit worse than the one who’s been doing it for only five, and the reason is that these automated abilities generally deteriorate in the absence of deliberate efforts to improve.”

Deliberate practice has several characteristics that distinguish it from what Ericsson calls “naïve practice.” These include specific, well-defined goals; focused and intentional effort; regular feedback; and the willingness to get out of one’s comfort zone.

Level 5 Leadership
A central paradox lies at the heart of effective leadership: while leadership calls for confidence, it also demands humility.

Jim Collins encapsulates in the concept of Level 5 Leadership, which he developed in his book, “Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap and Others Don’t.”

Level 5 leaders display a powerful mixture of personal humility and indomitable will,” Collins explained. “They’re incredibly ambitious, but their ambition is first and foremost for the cause, for the organization and its purpose, not themselves.”

“The good-to-great executives were all cut from the same cloth,” he continued. “It didn’t matter whether the company was consumer or industrial, in crisis or steady state, offered services or products. It didn’t matter when the transition took place or how big the company. All the good-to-great companies had Level 5 leadership at the time of transition.”

Ultimately, there are no silver bullets to achieve exceptional performance — in banking or elsewhere — but concepts like these are fundamental building blocks that will accelerate one’s progress toward that goal.

Turning Goals from Wishes to Outcomes

Community banks should measure their goals and objectives against four tests in order to craft sustainable approaches and outcomes.

Community banks set goals: growth targets for loans or deposits, an earnings target for the security portfolio, an return on equity target for the year. But aggressive loan growth may not be a prudent idea if loan-to-asset levels are already high entering a credit downturn. Earnings targets can be dangerous if they are pursued at any cost, regardless of risk. However, in the right context, each of these can lead to good outcomes.

The first test of any useful goal is answering whether it’s a good idea.

One personal example is that about a year ago I set a new goal to lose 100 pounds. I consulted with my doctor and we agreed that it was a good idea. So then we moved to the second test of a useful goal: Is it sustainable?

As “Atomic Habits: An Easy & Proven Way to Build Good Habits & Break Bad Ones” author James Clear puts it: “You do not rise to the level of your goals, you fall to the level of your process and systems.”

What good would my weight loss goal be if it wasn’t sustainable? If the approach I took did not change my habits and instead put me through a shock program, there would be little reason to doubt that the approaches and habits that led me to create this goal would bring me back there again. The only way to pursue my goal in a sustainable fashion would changing my habits — my personal processes and systems.

Banks often pursue goals in unstainable ways as well.

Consider a bank that set a goal in June 2018 of earning $3 million annually from its $100 million securities portfolio with no more than 5 years’ duration (sometimes called a “yield bogey”). Given a choice between a 5-year bullet agency at 2.86% and a 5-year, non-call 2-year agency at 3.10%, only the latter meets or beats the goal. A 3.10% yield earns $310,000 for this portfolio.

In June 2020, the callable bond got called and was replaced by a similar length bond yielding only 40 basis points, or $40,000, for the remaining three years. The sustainable plan would have earned us $286,000 for the past two years — but also $286,000 for the next three. To make earnings sustainable, banks always need to consider multiple scenarios, a longer timeframe and potentially relaxing their rigid “bogey” that may cost them future performance.

 The third test of a useful goal is specifying action.

The late New York Governor Mario Cuomo once said, “There are only two rules for being successful: One, figure out what exactly you want to do, and two, do it.”

In my case, I didn’t do anything unsustainable. In fact, I did not do anything at all to work toward my long-term goal. When I checked my weight six months later, it should not have surprised me to see I had lost zero pounds. A goal that you do not change your habits for is not an authentic goal; it is at best a wish.

My wish had gotten exactly what you would expect: nothing. Upon realizing this, I took two material steps. It was not a matter of degree, but of specific, detailed plans. I changed my diet, joined a gym and spent $100 to fix my bicycle.

The fourth test of a useful goal is if it is based on positive changes to habits.

Banks must often do something similar to transform their objectives from wishes to authentic goals. Habits — or as we call them organizationally, processes and systems — must be elevated. A process of setting an earnings or yield bogey for the bond portfolio relied on the hope that other considerations, such as call protection and rate changes, wouldn’t come into play.

An elevated process would plan for earnings needs in multiple scenarios over a reasonable time period. Like repairing my bike, it may have required “spending” a little bit in current yield to actually reach a worthy outcome, no matter which scenario actually played out.

If your management team does not intentionally pursue positive changes to processes and systems (habits), its goals may plod along as mere wishes. As for me, six months after making changes to my habits, I have lost 50 pounds with 50 more to go. Everything changed the day I finally took the action to turn a wish into a useful goal.

Capital, Digital Initiatives Set De Novos Up for Success

In 2018, Matt Pollock and a group of business leaders and experienced bankers organized a new bank to fill a gap they saw in the Oklahoma City market. And he believes their tech-forward approach sets them apart from competing financial institutions.

“A lot of [banks] fall into the same traps in how they approach client services and products and relationships, and they just don’t do a very good job,” says Pollock, the CEO of $110 million Watermark Bank, which opened its doors in January 2019. “So, we really focused on [building] the right team, with the right model that really drives the business community.”

Few de novo banks have formed since the 2008-09 financial crisis. Of the 1,042 community banks chartered in the eight years preceding that crisis, 13% failed and another 20% were acquired or liquidated, according to a 2016 Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. study. Overall, de novo banks accounted for 27% of all failures from 2008 to 2015, and exited at double the rate of small, established banks.

De novo institutions are particularly fragile: They don’t tend to be profitable in their early years as they invest in building their business and reputation in their markets. In today’s environment, low rates pressure net interest margins, exacerbating these challenges.

With that in mind, Bank Director used FDIC data to analyze the 24 de novo banks formed from January 2017 through December 2019 to understand how they’re performing today and how they might weather the current economic downturn. We examined efficiency, through the overhead and efficiency ratios, and profitability, through return on assets and return on equity, as of Dec. 31, 2019. We also included equity capital to assets and net interest margin in the analysis. Watermark came in fifth in our ranking.  

Today’s batch of de novo banks features higher capital levels, a requirement that has dampened new bank formation. (The FDIC doesn’t set a minimum capital threshold for de novo banks; expectations vary based on the bank’s market, size, complexity, activities and business model.)

If the recession deepens, those high capital levels could come in handy as banks find it trickier to raise more capital, says Nicholas Graham, senior managing director at FinPro. “Many of the de novos that formed over the past several years, in a very general statement, have not fully leveraged their capital to date,” he says. “Therefore, they have more capital right now, all else being equal, to potentially weather this storm.”

Stringent capital requirements led some bank organizers to acquire rather than start a bank from scratch. Not so for Watermark Bank. Acquiring a charter was too expensive due to high bank valuations toward the end of the cycle, says Pollock, and an acquisition would have bogged the founders down with legacy cultural and technological issues.

So, they decided to start fresh. “Let’s build our systems and our workflows exactly how we want to do it; we’ll have to roll up our sleeves, it will take a little bit longer, probably a little bit more work but in the end, it would be a benefit,” says Pollock. “We ran a very lean operation, opened with 12 people, got up and running, and we quickly got to a break-even faster than many others.”

Prioritizing technology sets Watermark and many of its de novo peers apart from those chartered before the 2008-09 crisis. And it allowed Watermark to rise to the occasion in issuing Paycheck Protection Program loans, despite high demand and a spare staff.

“We did as many PPP loans in 10 days as we did loan transactions in our first year of operation,” says Pollock. “There was some stress, but at the end of the day we walked away and said, ‘We have good processes and procedures, we have extremely talented people, and we’re capable of leveraging our platform and our operational capabilities that we have today to a much higher level,’” he says.

Flexibility and nimbleness give de novo banks an advantage. “They’re more quickly able to adapt and add new products and services that may be more beneficial in this time of uncertainty,” says Graham.

Savvy de novos are investing in the digital infrastructure needed for modern banking, says Rick Childs, a partner at Crowe LLP. But there’s one more attribute he believes strengthens a de novo: extensive banking experience on the board and management team.

“You can skin the cat a lot of different ways in banking, but if you don’t have a lot of capital to help you weather the lean years, and if you don’t have strong management and [directors] to make sure you’re not taking unnecessary risk,” it will be hard to survive, he says. “[If] you know how to react when a difficult time comes around, then the rest will follow.”

Top Performing De Novo Banks

Rank Bank Name Asset Size (000s) NIM (3/31/2020) Overall Score
#1 The Bank of Austin $202,738 3.36% 5.8
#2 CommerceOneBank $258,590 3.34% 6.2
#3 Winter Park National Bank $418,816 2.89% 7.0
#4 Tennessee Bank & Trust $272,173 3.25% 7.7
#5 Watermark Bank $110,423 3.40% 8.0
#6 Infinity Bank $110,145 4.41% 8.6
#7 Ohio State Bank $130,519 2.22% 9.5
#8 Gulfside Bank $97,154 3.14% 10.6
#9 The Millyard Bank $23,524 1.41% 11.2
#10 Beacon Community Bank $161,029 3.05% 12.1

Source: Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
Each bank was ranked based on profitability, efficiency, NIM and capital as of Dec. 31, 2019. The overall score reflects the average of these ranks.

Embracing a Challenging Environment to Evolve

New York University economist Paul Romer once said, “A crisis is a terrible thing to waste.”

With a nod to Dr. Romer, we believe banks have an extraordinary opportunity to embrace the challenging environment created by the Covid-19 pandemic to enhance critical housekeeping matters. Here are five areas where banks may find opportunities to declutter or reengineer policies, procedures and best practices.

Culture
One of the most obvious opportunities for banks is to focus on culture. Employees working from home has eliminated the ability to have typical office parties, barbeques and other events to build comradery. Remote and semi-remote working environments are challenging employees in many difficult ways. Fortunately, banks are finding simple, yet creative, ways to stay in contact with their employees and build culture through additional correspondence and feedback — electronic happy hours, car parades, and socially distant visits, for example. Creatively maintaining high engagement in challenging times will serve to improve communication and culture over the long term. As management consultant Peter Drucker once said, “Culture eats strategy for breakfast.”

Cybersecurity
Cybersecurity risk continues to be top of mind for bankers and regulators given the remote work brought on by Covid. Certainly, most banks’ cybersecurity risk management planning did not contemplate the immediate scale of remote work, but the extreme experience is an opportunity to drill down on underlying policies and procedures. Banking agencies have provided the general blueprint on sound risk management for cybersecurity.

This heightened risk environment provides executives with a perfect opportunity to note where their vulnerabilities may exist or be discovered, where cyberattacks focus and what works—or doesn’t —for your bank. Use the guidance provided to assess your bank’s response and resilience capabilities. Consider the overall map and configuration of your cyber architecture. Consider authentication requirements and permissions to protect against unauthorized access. Take the time to work with information technology experts to clean up access controls and response plans. This is an active situation that provides bankers the unique opportunity to learn and adapt in real time.

Compliance
Banks also face enhanced compliance originating from federal programs aimed at keeping businesses afloat. A worthy endeavor to be sure, but the rollout of some federal programs such as the Small Business Administration’s Paycheck Protection Program has far outpaced the guidance for banks tasked with implementation. The trickle of (often inconsistent) guidance on the documentation, eligibility and certification adds compliance challenges in reporting under the Bank Secrecy Act, fair lending under the Equal Credit Opportunity Act and unfair or deceptive acts and practices under the Federal Trade Commission Act, for example.

Compliance teams have an opportunity to shine at something they are already extraordinarily good at: documentation. They should document the processes and practices they deploy to demonstrate compliance, despite the uncertainty and pace at which they are expected to operate. This documentation can support real-time decision-making that may come up with regulators in the future, and can serve as a basis for improvement on future best practices and training. Compliance teams will discover new questions to ask, novel scenarios to address and gaps to fill.

Operational Planning
The best time to consider the impacts of Covid on your bank’s operations is while events and memories are fresh. Banks all over the country are experiencing what a handful of institutions may go through in the wake of a natural disaster: devastation, uncertainty and a need for banking support. This is the time to review your bank’s disaster recovery and business continuity plans, specifically including pandemic planning, to assess the plans against reality.  

To help, the Federal Financial Institutions Examination Council released an updated statement on pandemic planning suggesting actions that banks can take to potentially minimize a pandemic’s adverse effects. This is an chance to improve business continuity planning for similar future events, understanding that they may not be as deep or prolonged as the coronavirus. Exercising the plans in real time, compared to a scheduled test, can reveal helpful improvements that will only strengthen the bank.

Customer Experience
Coping with remote work and providing banking services outside of a branch provides the opportunity for banks to consider strategies around technology and financial technology partnerships. Customers have been rerouted to electronic avenues, and many seem to have embraced technology to deposit checks, access accounts online and transact business.

This evolution offers banks the opportunity to adapt and recognize the use of financial technologies. Many customers will understandably return to branches to conduct some of their business when they reopen, but may require them less. Banks may want to consider how they can satisfy future customer demand and improve the customer experience more broadly. These are just five areas where we see opportunities for banks of all levels and complexity to enhance their policies, procedures and best practices as they prepare to move forward.

Leading Through Crisis

In the early 2000s, The LEGO Group was on the verge of collapse.

It sounds hard to believe today, since the company is one of the largest and most successful toy sellers in the world. But in 2003, the Denmark-based company was on the brink of insolvency, with massive debt and a negative cash flow of DKK $1 billion.

LEGO needed new leadership. It promoted Jørgen Vig Knudstorp, a former consultant, to CEO. Along with Chief Financial Officer Jesper Ovesen — a former banker — Knudstorp gradually righted the ship by instilling organizational discipline and forming a strong financial foundation for the company.

The new executives were brutally honest with LEGO’s board and employees about the challenges the company faced. To survive, everyone needed to focus on turning things around, correcting the company’s problems so they could plan its future.

That required clear thinking and a dose of reality.

“Before LEGO could even begin to reignite a sense of what was possible for LEGO, they first had to persuade people that decades of unfettered growth offered no assurance that the company would ever get its groove back,” writes David Robertson in “Brick by Brick: How LEGO Rewrote the Rules of Innovation and Conquered the Global Toy Industry.”

Crises come in all shapes and sizes. They can be small and isolated in a single company, like LEGO’s need to refocus itself after years of mismanagement. Or they can be caused by broader, external factors that affect industries and economies.  

No matter the source, crises call for strong leadership. The coronavirus pandemic is just the latest example.

Carla Harris, vice chairman of wealth management and a senior client advisor at Morgan Stanley, shares what leaders today must do to weather the current crisis in a discussion that kicks off Microsoft’s Envision Virtual Forum for Financial Services.

First, great leaders are visible, says Harris. “There’s something powerful in being able to see the person that you’re following.”

They’re also transparent and empathetic. Employees and other stakeholders “want to see empathy, but they also want to see confidence and positivity,” she says. It’s an uncertain environment, and we’re all feeling a wide range of emotions due to the health and economic consequences of this crisis.

“One of the biggest learning moments for me as a leader was watching financial services leadership during the financial crisis. There were some leaders who didn’t really say anything to their people, and there were some leaders who were out front every day,” she says. Harris has spent over three decades on Wall Street, joining Morgan Stanley in 1987. “There was a regular cadence that people came to rely on, and that was frankly empowering.”

While the unfolding crisis is unique even among crises, with an especially broad range of potential outcomes, leaders have arguably never been better equipped from a technology standpoint to take action. Companies may be locked down for the most part, with employees largely working remotely, but leaders can still communicate directly with staff. For example, Boston-based State Street Corp. uses video conferencing technology to host virtual forums where employees can interact with senior executives to get answers to their questions.

Harris also recommends that leaders be flexible in today’s environment and open themselves up to input from diverse viewpoints. Strategic goals may shift in response to the Covid-19 environment, or leaders may need to consider new ways to achieve their objectives. “Don’t have rigid views of what you think things are going to look like on the other side” of this crisis, she says. “This is the time now to be an inclusive leader, and the hallmark of being an inclusive leader is to solicit other peoples’ voices.”

I’d suggest one addition to the actions Harris outlines, based on my conversations with business leaders like Horst Schulze, the co-founder and former president of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co.

Lead with purpose.

There is no one-size-fits-all personality for leaders, and leadership skills are developed over time. But all great leaders share one trait: They have a vision and inspire employees to achieve it.

“We need leadership,” says Schulze. “Leadership implies, ‘I have a destination in mind.’ It means, ‘I show my people the destination, and I show them how it’s beautiful for them, how it’s great for them, how it’s exciting for them, how they should join me in reaching that destination.’”

Great leaders are rare. But in times like these, they can be the difference between surviving a crisis or thriving despite it.

Strengthening Corporate Culture During Covid-19

Before Covid-19, watercooler talk was an integral part of office culture. Groups of workers would gather in the breakroom for coffee and chat about their day, or the latest Netflix binge, or what they planned to do over the weekend. But today, with so many now working remotely and the rest encouraged to socially distance themselves from their coworkers, office culture has temporarily — and perhaps permanently — changed. For many, the big looming question is whether we return to that environment at all, given the potential for cost savings and the possibility of a second and third wave of the coronavirus later in the year.

But employees still need to interact with one another to foster relationships and collaborate. They also need to connect with managers, and create and maintain bonds with mentors.

The technology to enable this existed before the coronavirus struck the U.S., but many companies are only now shifting their practices to take advantage of it. These tools include video conferencing, and scheduling and productivity applications offered by providers like Microsoft Corp., Slack Technologies, Zoom Video Communications and Alphabet, the holding company for Google.

The savviest companies are finding ways to be more effective in the transition. One of these is State Street Corp. Christy Strawbridge, senior vice president and transformation director, shares the Boston-based bank’s experience in a discussion that took place as part of Microsoft’s Envision Virtual Forum for Financial Services.

Most of State Street’s employees are working from home and returning to the office isn’t a top priority, says Strawbridge. “We are not going to be rushing people back into the office; we’re going to help [them] work from home effectively,” she says.

It’s a stressful time, so the company is keeping communication lines open.

“Senior leaders are communicating formally and informally on a regular basis,” Strawbridge says. Employees can dial in to live, virtual forums hosted by senior executives — even CEO Ronald O’Hanley — to get answers on everything from technology needs to mental burnout. “It keeps us all connected,” she says. “It keeps us up to date on what’s going on.”

A number of companies now host virtual employee happy hours and other events using video communications technology. These intentional social interactions are vital to maintaining corporate culture, says Strawbridge. “We’re not running into each other in the elevator, so we need to be more deliberate on those social interactions,” she says, “because they’re not happening ad hoc.”

“It’s really important, now more than ever, that we stay connected,” she adds.

Employees are also encouraged to take time off. Maybe they can’t take the cruise they planned or visit Disney World with their family but taking time to do simple things — a day off for a hike, for example — can help prevent burnout.

Agility has grown increasingly important as the banking industry responds to the shifts and changes the coronavirus crisis has brought to bear on the U.S. economy. Financial institutions are rapidly deploying new technologies and practices to better serve customers and enable employees to work safely. Strawbridge points out that for State Street, their strategic goals remain the same but the path to achieve those aims is being adjusted.

“[Some] priorities have shifted in this environment, so we need to pivot work to other people on the team who might be more freed up,” says Strawbridge. “We have really uncovered the art of the possible here. We are realizing that there were things that we thought maybe we couldn’t do, or would be hugely challenging, or would take us three years to do — and we’ve done them in two months.” She credits more effective communication and collaboration — along with employee initiative — with these achievements. “We have a laser focus on prioritization in this environment that we can’t lose when we go back.” 

The company is empowering and engaging employees to solve problems — something Strawbridge believes will help State Street weather, and emerge stronger, from the crisis.

The foundation for a strong culture was built before the pandemic, but smart companies will foster and strengthen it during this crisis.

How One Bank CEO is Navigating the Covid-19 Pandemic

Like most of his peers throughout the banking industry, Dennis Shaffer, the CEO at Sandusky, Ohio-based Civista Bancshares, is confronting challenges unlike anything he has faced in his long career.

The Covid-19 pandemic is ravaging the U.S. economy, leading to the highest levels of unemployment since the Great Depression and a likely recession of unknown depth and duration. That is forcing CEOs like Shaffer to make decisions about sustainability and workforce deployment that were unimaginable six months ago.

The $2.5 billion bank serves a three-state area that spans big chunks of Ohio as well as southeastern Indiana and northern Kentucky. Civista’s profitability has already been impacted by the pandemic: Net income in the first quarter was down nearly 18%, to $7.8 million year over year.

But Shaffer says the bank’s mortgage loan originations are at record levels and several construction projects that it financed prior to the pandemic are still going forward. The bank processed 2,141 loans under the SBA’s Paycheck Protection Program, totaling $262 million. Shaffer estimates that over 300 of those loans were to new and very grateful customers that could lead to expanded business relationships in the future.

Civista has also reached out to borrowers that have been hard hit by the downturn and offered them 90-day loan modifications. In the first quarter, the bank modified 66 loans totaling $39.9 million, according to its first quarter earnings report. These were primarily deferral of principal and/or interest payments. Since March 31, it has received requests to modify an additional 727 loans totaling $410 million.

“The bank’s doing fine,” he says. “Our main emphasis has been keeping our customers and employees healthy and also continue to do business as normal as possible for our customers.”

The biggest challenge that Shaffer and other bank CEOs face today is economic uncertainty. If he knew how deep and long the recession will be, Shaffer could better estimate the impact that will have on Civista’s balance sheet.

This is my 35th year in banking and I’ve never seen anything like this,” he says. “We’ve gone through recessions where a business goes from making $1 to maybe 70 cents. Well here, they’ve gone from $1 to some of these businesses making nothing.”

Shaffer faced up to that challenge by taking a hard look at the bank’s capital structure and factoring in nightmarish projections.

He started with evaluating whether Civista had enough capital to sustain losses that could be at “historical levels.” During the last recession, the bank sustained $54 million in losses over a four-year period. In his analysis, Shaffer decided to double that — and compress four years to two. He also assumed the bank would continue paying its dividend and wouldn’t lay off employees.

After they factored in all those assumptions, “we were still above 8% on a Tier 1 [capital] basis, so we feel pretty good about that,” he says. The mandated regulatory minimum is 6%, which would give the bank the capacity to absorb even more losses, although Shaffer hopes to avoid falling that low. That analysis gave Shaffer confidence that Civista could take a hard punch in the recession and still carry on. It also answered the question of whether the bank need to raise additional capital.

“We felt we didn’t need to,” he says. “We think we’re really strongly capitalized. I think our stress testing has proved that.”

Shaffer believes the loan modifications and Paycheck Protection loans have bought many of Civista’s customers valuable time, but he won’t know yet for a couple of months how many of those businesses will sustain themselves through the pandemic. “Sales [won’t be] 100%, but are they going to be 90% or are they going to be 50%?” he says.

Another challenge Shaffer has encountered is running the bank with a distributed workforce. Seventy percent of Civista’s employees are working from home, most of them since early March. (Shaffer comes to the office every day because he feels he needs to be visible to the employees working there.) While he had some apprehensions at first, he’s pleased with the bank’s productivity.

Still, Shaffer has to decide when to bring most of those people back into the office. Ohio has already begun to reopen its economy, but he intends to normalize the bank’s operations more gradually. Civista’s branch lobbies have been closed since March ­— just the drive-through lanes are readily accessible — and Shaffer plans to maintain the status quo through May and perhaps extend it through June.

He also doesn’t see an immediate need to repatriate the majority of Civista’s office employees. “We’ll phase that in and probably do that gradually,” Shaffer says. As other businesses with more pressing needs bring their people back, the bank can afford to wait.

“I just think it benefits the greater community because it eliminates more people coming back into the workforce,” he says. “We can do our part there.”

COVID-19: A Make-or-Break Moment for Customer Loyalty

It seems like the world is spinning faster these days. COVID-19 has caused dramatic shifts in the way people live their lives and manage their finances. Add record job loss to the mix, and you get a groundswell of people relying on their banks more than ever. It’s a make-or-break moment, as customers form new habits in response to their new reality.

Ryan Caldwell has a bird’s-eye view of how customers are relying on their financial institutions’ data and digital tools in this moment of crisis. As the CEO of MX, a Utah-based fintech, Caldwell helps financial institutions collect, analyze, present and act on data. Right now, the data is telling him this moment offers an opportunity for banks to cultivate loyalty. At the same time, it presents big risks for banks that don’t rise to the occasion.

In a recent interview, Caldwell told a story that serves as an interesting corollary for two approaches banks might take to navigate the crisis.

Driving down the streets of Lehi last week, Caldwell noticed construction in the parking lot of a Chick-fil-A. He was curious so, at the stoplight, he opened their app and placed an order. When he pulled up to the window, the Chick-fil-A manager confirmed his order and handed it over with sterile gloves. The receipt was in the app. It was an optimal, socially distanced experience.

Caldwell asked the manager about the construction. In a time when most restaurants are struggling to stay afloat, Chick-fil-A, Caldwell was told, is converting half its parking spots into mobile ordering stations. They’re experiencing exponential growth in mobile usage and, without customers spending 45 minutes in the store, they’re able to operate at redline capacity. They’re busier than ever.

Shortly after his Chick-fil-A experience, Caldwell had an experience that better aligns with refrains we’re hearing in the news about how restaurants are getting slaughtered without dine-in customers.

Caldwell’s family frequents a local pancake place, but the restaurant has no mobile app and a terrible website. Still, when your four-year old daughter has been cooped up in the house for weeks, you run out of options. So Caldwell placed a phone order and ventured out.

When he pulled up, the restaurant looked deserted. He parked and went inside to pay for the order — touching door handles and PIN pads along the way. The pancake place’s manager had a completely different problem from Chick-fil-A’s: without dine-in customers, they had virtually no business. Caldwell says everyone in town loves this place’s pancakes — a lot more than they like Chick-fil-A — but it didn’t matter how much people love it if they don’t have a safe, easy way to get to it.

The restaurant analogy easily applies to banks. The ones that provide a modern mobile experience are not only processing basic transactions for their clients, they’re using data to provide helpful insights and peace of mind in this crucial time. They’re able to increase engagement and help their customers figure out just how much is safe to spend on toilet paper stockpiles. They play a key role helping customers tackle daily struggles.

Banks that aren’t leaning into technology risk losing out on these opportunities. Worse, they may not see that loss until we’re on the other side of this crisis.

Banks without data aggregation have no way of knowing how their customers’ behavior is changing in response to this crisis. They can’t see it when social distancing and closed branches cause customers to download new apps, apply for a loan from a fintech or find a new way to move money.

“Banks are completely blind to changing consumer habits regarding digital banking if they don’t have aggregation,” Caldwell says. “So I think a lot of banks may think they’re going to come out of this at the end even stronger, but they are not realizing they’ve already lost a battle. It’s just a question of time before that lingering account dwindles down to the low balance, and then it either sits as a zombie account or it goes to zero.”

In times of rapid change, banks can’t afford to fly blind by using lagging indicators based on last month’s reports. Caldwell says leading indicators — the tiny tremors in behavioral changes that only artificial intelligence can detect — will be crucial in helping customers and de-risking the bank.

And banks need to get their data and digital experiences in place fast. The healthcare industry’s response to COVID isn’t to take 18 months building a new hospital from the ground up, Caldwell says. Healthcare administrators triage; they set up tents in parking lots and do whatever they have to do to provide help where it’s needed most.

It is possible for banks to play catch-up quickly. Fintechs have come out in droves to support banks with accelerated launches and discounted services. For MX’s part, they can set up a data-driven mobile app that sits alongside the bank’s existing app in a matter of weeks.

“You don’t have time to retrofit your ancient hospital,” Caldwell says. “If you want to take good care of your customers and not let them down, you need to launch something in the next few weeks. The world you live in right now is a world where that is not only possible, but it’s requisite.”

Four Interesting Insights from Two Very Interesting Bankers

The greatest benefit of being a writer is that you get to talk with lots of interesting people. It’s a constant education. Particularly if you appreciate the opportunity and structure your conversations accordingly.

My style is to conduct broad interviews across a range of topics, whether all the topics are germane to the piece I’m working on at the moment or not. This has helped me construct a mental model of banking, but it also means that a lot of material is left on the cutting room floor, so to speak.

With this in mind, I decided to revisit some of the conversations I’ve had with bankers over the past few months to share the most interesting insights.

Foremost among these is a series of conversations with Robert and Patrick Gaughen, the CEO and president, respectively, of Hingham Institution for Savings, a $2.6 billion bank based in the Boston metropolitan area.

Since the Gaughens gained control of Hingham in 1993, following a two-year proxy contest with its former managers, it has generated a total shareholder return of more than 5,400%, according to my math. That’s more than double the total return of other well-run banks like JPMorgan Chase & Co. and PNC Financial Services Group.

One thing that strikes you when talking with the Gaughens is the depth and sophistication of their banking philosophy. All bankers understand banking. But some understand it on a deeper level than others — that’s the Gaughens.

They approach the industry as investors, or capital allocators, instead of bankers. This seems to be a product of the fact that both Robert Gaughen and his father — Patrick’s grandfather — practiced law before becoming de facto bankers in order to protect investments they had made in banks.

This may seem like a vacuous nuance, but it isn’t. It’s always tempting to subordinate the process of capital allocation to operational processes. After all, if your operations aren’t profitable, you won’t have excess capital to allocate.

What true capital allocators appreciate, however, is that the distinction between capital allocation and operations is nebulous. Everything can be viewed through the prism of capital allocation — from how many employees you hire to which technologies you implement to whether you increase your dividend or repurchase stock.

In this respect, capital allocation is less of a mechanical process than it is a mindset, concentrating one’s attention on measuring the return on each incremental decision.

Another interesting insight that came up in our conversations is the importance of studying other industries. Not only the importance of doing so, I should say, but why it’s so important to do so.

The drive to constantly learn is something that many people preach, but few people practice. This is an element of leadership that can’t be overstated. It serves as the common denominator underlying the performance of the most successful CEOs in banking.

It’s well known that banking is an acutely competitive and commoditized industry, and that those characteristics compress profit margins. But there are two other forces that lead to a lack of differentiation as well.

As Patrick points out, high consultant reuse and an overbearing regulatory schema contribute to a high degree of homogeneity in terms of the way banks are run. The net result is that studying other banks can be less fruitful than one might think.

This isn’t to say that a mastery of banking isn’t critical — it is. But after accumulating a critical mass of knowledge about best practices within banking, the incremental return from intermittently studying other industries, it seems, will exceed the return of concentrating exclusively on banking.

The final point that both Gaughens stress relates to the importance of skin in the game, or executive and director ownership of stock. In their case, their immediate and extended family owns upwards of 40% of Hingham’s outstanding stock. This provides a powerful incentive to care not only about the return on their capital, but also the return of their capital.

Many companies talk about the mystical benefits of alignment between executives and shareholders, as well as having employees that act like owners. But there is simply no substitute for having actual skin in the game. It hones one’s appreciation for the virtues of extraordinary banking, from efficiency to risk management to disciplined growth.

None of this is to say that the Gaughens have everything figured out; they would be the first to admit they don’t. But their philosophy and approach to banking is not only unique, but also tried and true.

When the Earnings Get Tough, the Mergers Get ‘Strategic’

Pressure on earnings and a continued evolution in bank operations could give rise to more “strategic mergers,” according to presenters during the first two days of Bank Director’s 2020 Acquire or Be Acquired Conference.

Deal activity, specifically “strategic mergers,” could accelerate in 2020 because of slowing growth and continued momentum in the space, say presenters ranging from the heads of investment banks to CEOs who had undertaken or announced their own transformational mergers. Factors like declining interest rates and a decreasing number of potential partners could motivate executives to look to acquisitions to leverage capital, add growth or find scale and efficiencies.

Community banks across the country are grappling with the realization that superregionals like BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks decided last year to combine to form Truist Financial in a bid for scale — and what those decisions mean for their own prospects, says Gary Bronstein, a partner at Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton. In a nonscientific, real-time poll conducted during one session, 48% of respondents believe their bank will be an acquirer during the year, with a plurality seeking to either acquire core deposits or gain scale.

One reason could be that loan growth among small and mid-cap banks has been slowing since 2015, says Keefe, Bruyette & Woods President and CEO Tom Michaud. His firm is modeling no earnings per share growth for these banks in 2020 because of net interest margin compression. At the same time, banks’ net income has been bolstered by share repurchases: excluding buybacks, earnings per share would be lower by 6% in 2020, and log no growth in 2021.

Bigger banks have been thinking about how to achieve meaningful, strategic change that can jumpstart internal transformation and external results. Enter the “strategic merger,” Michaud says, which his firm defines as transactions where the target owns 25% or more of the pro-forma company. Many of these recent deals have been among regionals and were structured as mergers-of-equals, which helped define M&A activity in 2019.

The MOEs are back. That was a popular method of consolidation in 2019, and I believe we’re going to see more of it,” he says. “It is the major theme as to how this industry is consolidating.”

Indeed, for the second year in a row, the conference coincided with an MOE announcement — this time, between Winter Haven, Florida-based CenterState Bank Corp and Columbia, South Carolina-based South State Corp. to form a Southeastern institution with $34 billion in assets.

The financial attractiveness of these deals is undeniable, say investment bankers and executives: the no-premium deals carry low dilution and quick tangible book value earn-back periods as well as double-digit earnings per share accretion and enviable returns on tangible common equity. The logic seemed to resonate with attendees: 61% of respondents during the nonscientific, real-time poll conducted during a session indicated they would consider an MOE during the year.

“These deals are being structured to make these companies more profitable … and to build better companies,” he says.

Michaud wasn’t the only presenter convinced that MOE interest and momentum will continue this year. Joe Berry, managing director and co-head of depositories investment banking at Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, points out the potential stock outperformance of certain MOEs and other strategic mergers, especially after they announce capital actions.

But recording the eye-popping results from a strategic merger only comes about after the “soft issues” are hammered out, Berry says. The MOE announcement between TCF Financial Corp. and Chemical Financial Corp., which occurred during the 2019 Acquire or Be Acquired conference, was motivated partially by a desire to achieve scale to serve larger credits, says David Provost, executive chairman at TCF Bank. The bank is now based in Detroit and has $45.7 billion post-merger. But first, executives needed to negotiate a “reverse divorce” to determine the new name and headquarters location.

It then comes down to who gets the dog, and you both love the dog. That’s the CEO title,” he says. Deal filings indicated that Provost “was going take the dog for 18 months and then [President and CEO Craig Dahl] was going to take the dog. In the end, I decided to give up the dog and create $1 billion in value for shareholders.”

The MOE catalyst has not been limited to regional banks. Randy Greene, president and CEO of Richmond, Virginia-based Bay Banks of Virginia, says an MOE transformed his bank. The 2016 deal allowed two more-rural based banks to combine and move to a more-urban area; Bay Banks now has $1.1 billion in assets.

But bankers contemplating an MOE must also ensure that internal expansion doesn’t erode the strategic financial gains of the deal. BJ Losch, CFO at $43.3 billion First Horizon National Corp., says the bank is trying to “become bigger without becoming big” as part of its MOE with Lafayette, Louisiana-based IBERIABANK Corp.

An MOE allows a bank to “build Star Wars from an IT perspective, but then you become big —like the bigger banks that you want to be more nimble than,” he says.

The MOE spared Memphis, Tennessee-based First Horizon and IBERIA from needing an “upstream” buyer, says fellow panelist Daryl Byrd, IBERIA’s current president and CEO, who will serve as the pro forma bank’s executive chairman. The dearth of potential buyers has emerged as a competitive dynamic for institutions of all sizes, including the $31.7 billion bank.

“It’s a musical chair game and you don’t want to be left without a chair. And we recently lost two very big chairs,” he says.

Michaud points out that many of the companies involved in these strategic mergers are “really good banks in their own right,” deserving of their independence. These executives do not need to find a merger partner but believe the transactions’ defensive attributes will allow them to keep up with digital transformations and changes in the bank space down the road.

He says executives are asking, “‘If we don’t do this, what’s the industry going to look like in three to five years? How relevant are we going to be and how much are we going to … make sure our shareholders have a long-term play here?’”