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Lessons About Banking And America From Three Conferences

by Charles Wendel

Financial Institutions Consulting

(Reprinted with Permission)

The fall conference schedule has just ended for me. This year I spoke to three financial services groups with distinctly different audiences and, to some degree, interests. Both some of the differences and the commonalities are worth noting.

My conference circuit began in Orlando with the Equipment Finance and Leasing Association national conference. FIC just wrote a report for this group's Foundation titled "Rise of Banks in Equipment Finance," and I was moderating a panel with two bank group leaders, Walter Rabin of Signature Bank and Paul Menzel of Umpqua. Over the past 12-24 months, many senior bank managers seem to have finally realized the value, both economic and cultural, that equipment finance groups bring to a bank. Acquisition activity is high while other entrants are jumping into the business by hiring experienced executives who develop opportunity from the ground up. Equipment finance people tend to be strong salesmen in part because they rely upon commissions rather than salaries for what they earn. (They "eat what they kill.") They also operate with a more specialized focus than many commercial bankers, distinguishing themselves by their industry knowledge, product specialization, or some other characteristic.

Appropriately, at this meeting, bank lessors seemed to be feeling good about themselves. Their ability to generate high NIM while suffering minimal losses appears to be resonating with senior management. Further, more managers are putting in the compensation and related structure to encourage cross selling, an elusive goal for decades.

The American Banker Small Business Conference could not have been held in a more fun environment, namely New Orleans. The meeting even featured a rousing (what else could it be) jazz bank entering the hall playing "When the Saints Come Marching In." The conference itself highlighted some important areas including sales leadership, the use of big data, and increasing non-bank activities in this space. I spoke on a panel (with Bill Samuelson of People's United and Marty Roussel of Raiffeisen Bank of Austria) discussing how to set, monitor, and enforce metrics. Interestingly, I know banks that operate with five metrics and others with 20, different philosophies that can both work. One key to effective use of metrics is operating with a feedback mechanism and ensuring that consequences/rewards are tied to them.

While, no matter what, New Orleans is a joyous place, the atmosphere at the conference suggested the frustration of some of the attendees. After decades of effort, the leaders of only a few banks really "get" small business, meaning few banks are truly committed to it and understand its long-term value to their institution. Yes, they say the right things, but top management's actions betray them. Too often, the heads of business groups operate with a two-steps forward, one-step back reality. Small business execs should operate with the same high level of energy and enthusiasm that the leasing execs now have; however, these bankers seem to spend too much time looking over their shoulders. Of course, this has opened up a huge opportunity for those few banks that do "get it" as well as for an increasing number of non-bank players.

The final conference I spoke at was the BAI Retail Delivery Conference in Denver. Tom Doherty of The Private Bank joined me on a panel to discuss growing commercial loans. In many cases smaller banks continue to operate in a manner that gives local lenders too much autonomy. Many smaller banks avoid implementing a consistent approach to the market, instead allowing bankers to define their own jobs and spend too much time on non-sales activities. Senior management has to make some tough decisions in order to achieve productivity gains, and often they decide to punt.

One theme that carries over across all three conferences centers on technology and how bankers can make technology decisions. During the first conference I was struck by how many quality vendor options existed for banks to consider. By the time of the third conference at which 100+ vendors showed their wares, my confusion had grown. Every company has a Big Data or technology based product, including FIC. From what I can tell most of the products offered have substantial value, but bankers operate with limited dollars and limited mindset. Both the vendors and the bankers have a big issue here: every vendor (FIC included) has to target and differentiate its offer and quantitatively demonstrate its value; bankers have to develop a screening process that allows them to eliminate those offers which are lower priority and partner up with the handful of players they need now, knowing that their future needs may change.

Now, what's do these conferences have do with America? Leaving the last conference in Denver to head to yet another airport, I got into a conversation with Yubo, my taxi driver and an Ethiopian refugee who had first lived in Columbus, Ohio and moved to Denver, which he prefers. Much of his family had been killed in Ethiopia, and he arrived in the U.S. 15 years ago, becoming a citizen five years ago. He spoke of going back to Ethiopia to visit his family six months ago. Friend and family thought he was wealthy and now with the CIA. Many expressed great anger about the U.S. and its foreign activities. Yubo defended the U.S. and told them that if the U.S. ever fought the Ethiopians he would be on the U.S. side. He had become an American and saw himself as one. When we get frustrated about the hassles of banking, we need to come back to some of the essentials of life like the freedom that Yubo treasures and that we need to make sure remains.

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Disclosure: I have no positions in any stocks mentioned, and no plans to initiate any positions within the next 72 hours.