As a founder and managing principal at Castle Creek Capital, a private equity firm that invests in community banks, John Eggemeyer has a unique perch from which to observe what’s going on in banking.
The San Diego-based firm has approximately $900 million under management, and usually has between 20 to 25 banks in its investment portfolio at any given time, according to Eggemeyer.
“We have the opportunity to look at a lot of different ideas,” he says. “I don’t consider myself to be an originator of any particularly interesting ideas, but I am an observer of a lot of interesting ideas that other people have worked with and made success of — or not made success of.”
Eggemeyer may be selling himself a little short. Prior to starting Castle Creek in 1990, he spent nearly two decades as a senior executive for several large U.S. banks. He also sits on the boards of many of those portfolio companies, and that combined experience gives him a very strong sense of what drives success in banking.
Eggemeyer will moderate a panel discussion at Bank Director’s upcoming Acquire or Be Acquired Conference focusing on subtle trends that bankers need to be talking about. The conference runs Jan. 30-Feb. 1, 2022, at the JW Marriott Desert Ridge Resort and Spa in Phoenix.
In today’s banking market, Eggemeyer believes that success begins with the customer. Period. End of sentence.
“It’s critical that you understand who your customer is and what your customer wants,” he says. “I think we’ve learned from the fintech community that they have segmented the customer [base] and identified very clearly the customer that they’re going after. And they have built their service model around the needs and wants of their customer group. And I think that has been harder for banks to actually do from an intellectual standpoint.”
Increasingly, success in banking is also a matter of scale. Not necessarily scale in the size of the organization, but scale in product lines or customers. “The businesses that have the greatest value, and the customer segments that offer the greatest value, are those that are the most scalable,” Eggemeyer says. “And again, I think in the fintech world, they have figured out how to apply technology to the needs and wants of the segment that they’ve gone after, and that has allowed their businesses greater scalability. … Businesses that are the most scalable offer the greatest opportunities for generating incremental returns.”
A cynic might argue that applying technology to scalable customer segments is fintech’s game, not banking’s. But Eggemeyer disagrees. “I’m not sure that fintechs are better positioned to apply technology to financial services than our banks,” he says. “So much of the technology that one would apply either operationally or in serving the customer is available off the shelf. You just have to be committed to making that transition.”
A third driver of success is talent; Eggemeyer says there is “an acute shortage of highly skilled trained executives” in the banking industry today. Talent and institutional knowledge has left as the bank space as the industry has gone through a number of difficult economic periods, he says, and banks managed their expense base in part by shortchanging the training and development of younger employees.
“I’ve watched this over a lot of cycles having spent over 50 years in the business. The great era of training in the bank industry was pre-1986,” he says. “And [since] that period of time, we have successfully downsized our investment in the development of people. And I think now we’re facing that challenge.”
In 1968, Eggemeyer was hired by the First National Bank of Chicago while still pursuing his undergraduate degree at Northwestern University. The bank had a program that hired up to 10 undergraduates a year for an extensive training program, then put them through an MBA program — in Eggemeyer’s case, at the University of Chicago. He spent 10 years working for the bank and was never in the same position for more than two years. That experience provided him with a very broad introduction to the industry.
The U.S. economy has changed greatly since the late 1960s. Graduates from top MBA programs today have many more options to choose from if they’re interested in a career in finance, including investment banking and private equity.
“It’s much harder for banks to compete for that level of talent,” Eggemeyer says. “And I don’t think there’s anything that you can do about that, other than look harder for the talented people who are not necessarily aspiring to [work in] private equity. And they may come from less traditional backgrounds, unlike the program that I went through at the First National Bank of Chicago. I just don’t see that happening very much in banking today.”