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I’m not just a banker anymore

Consolidation, pace of change, and business growth demand a new blend of delegation and hands-on involvement

I’m not just a banker anymore

At times, Paul Siebenmorgen feels like two people. “To the outside, in our communities, I’m a banker,” says the president and CEO of Farmers and Merchants State Bank, Archbold, Ohio. “But inside, nowadays, I really feel I’m more of a manager, delegator, leader, band director, educator, cheerleader, what have you.”

Siebenmorgen’s bank has expanded into five new communities in five years, and is approaching the $1 billion-assets mark. And he’s found his personal definition of  “community banker” has changed.

This evolution has been felt by many in the business, as was discussed with Siebenmorgen and four other members of ABA’s Community Bankers Council. The CEO who isn’t on the main banking floor—or even in the main branch—no longer seems an oddity. Strategy has grown to be a bigger piece of the job—even if daily demands push creative thinking to nights, weekends, and holidays. If the predicted consolidation among community banks comes to pass, the remaining leaders will find themselves increasingly coming to grips with an urgency to rethink how they work—and what they work at.

Jim Edwards finds himself torn between today and tomorrow. “The pace of change continues to increase, and I find myself running a traditional bank, and, at the same time, spending more time thinking about how things are changing and what are we going to do to stay ahead of what is coming in the next 90 days, 12 months, five years,” says Edwards, CEO of $1 billion-assets United Bank, Zebulon, Ga.

Even the daily grind is more grinding—just the sheer challenge of keeping current on more issues, according to Laurie Beard, president and CEO of $450 million-assets Founders Bank & Trust, Grand Rapids, Mich. “Sometimes it feels overwhelming,” she says. “Someone will ask, ‘Did you see that article in The Wall Street Journal this morning?’ And then I’ll realize that I haven’t even read the Journal yet. Haven’t gotten to it, and I used to always do that first.”

Beard’s concern isn’t a matter of routine missed—it’s evidence of a sense of frustration about keeping up, so she, as CEO, can best work with the board. “Obviously, you want to be conversant on issues, but you also want to be the one educating your board on some of them,” she says, “and for that, you have to be well-prepared yourself.”

In the runup to, and wake of, the Dodd-Frank Act, the role of the CEO in politics also has changed. Among bankers, there always have been “political junkies,” but no banker can afford to stick on the sidelines now, recognizes Charles Funk, president and CEO of $1.7 billion-assets MidWestOneBank, Iowa City, Iowa.

“Five years ago,” Funk says, “I hardly ever talked to our employees about the need to be active politically and to advocate and to lobby. Now, if they don’t get how important the political climate is, it’s because they haven’t been listening to me.”

Stepping away from the fray

Daily life is changing for CEOs. “Sure, I still do the PR stuff—kiss some babies; shake some hands,” says veteran banker Siebenmorgen. “I’m not a politician, but in a way, that is what we are. CEOs are always trying to sell something, and support our staffs in our communities.”

But Siebenmorgen has been very used to being a roll-up-your-sleeves bank president, and that is going away. There are only so many hours in a day—even considering how much night and weekend work he and other community bankers do—and the inundation of regulation makes it impossible for a CEO to know what a more specialized employee does.

“I sometimes feel a little guilty at conferences, when someone asks me how we handle this or that,” says Siebenmorgen. “I don’t have the foggiest. Once upon a time, I could have told you exactly, but I can’t anymore. We have people who do these tasks. It becomes a matter of knowing whom you can trust.” In fact, Siebenmorgen finds his time at such a premium that he has done things he once would have thought unthinkable, such as skipping a loan committee meeting. Formerly, he routinely sat in. “I’m sort of nosy,” he admits. But time pressures made him reconsider.

“I’ve got a lot of pretty good credit people, a seasoned lending force, and I’ve got a senior loan officer,” Siebenmorgen explains. “I find myself looking at the agendas ahead of time more, and sometimes I realize there’s nothing there I want to sit in on. And so, I’ll spend the hour doing something else.” (He notes that he does read the loan files before they arrive at the committee, “at night, at home.”)

Meetings have long been the bane of banking, one of the “meetingest” industries. And not every member of this roundtable discussion agreed with Siebenmorgen’s idea about skipping loan committee meetings.

“It’s not that the meetings are a waste of time, it’s that many meetings go far too long,” says

MidWestOneBank’s Funk. “Many meetings could start and finish in 30 minutes, but they run 75. That’s management’s problem. We’ve got to jump in and tell people to aim for productive meetings.”

Indeed, Siebenmorgen says he’s come to the point where, once his reason for being in a meeting has been accomplished, he leaves.

Sometimes, he adds, “I’ll get up thinking that the meeting is going to go another hour or so. But I’ll look around and see everybody else wondering why the meeting still has to go on when I’m leaving. And that tells me it was scheduled for too long to begin with.”

A key aid for keeping meetings shorter and on point at Community National Bank, Waterloo, Iowa, is Market President Stacey Bentley’s insistence on a prepared agenda. If there’s no agenda, “we do not have the meeting,” she says, and that has cut down a lot on time drain at the $228.4 million-assets bank. And when the meeting is held, the agenda focuses efforts.

Open doors, and shut ones

The quintessential community bank president was like a local Harry Truman—the buck stopped at his or her desk, and the door was always open for employees, customers, and community members.

Is that still doable? Roundtable bankers differed significantly in their policies and preferences.

“I don’t have a door,” says Founders Bank’s Beard, “so the commitment is pretty sincere on my part.” But this isn’t just an accident of architecture. Beard explains that when the bank began 21 years ago, this attitude was part of the culture the founders intended would set it apart from competitors.

“That’s part of being a community banker,” agrees Bentley. “It does throw a wrench in things at times, but I feel that it’s part of my job. I want to be accessible to customers.”

“There are times when I have to shut my door to focus on something or to take a conference call, but other than that I’ll usually be fairly open and accessible,” says United Bank’s Edwards. “Now, internally, most of the time you learn pretty quickly who is going to come to you with real issues, and who may be worrying you to death and complaining. You need to deal with that, and not let that happen.”

But Edwards wants to be in touch with what’s going on, and “you need to have that kind of accessibility, and you can’t do that on a tight schedule—at least I haven’t figured out how.”

“This isn’t Wall Street—this is community banking,” says Funk.

Farmers and Merchant State Bank’s Siebenmorgen believes in accessibility, but finds the best way to grant it, and yet control his time, involves a two-part approach.

First, he says, remember that “it’s hard to hit a moving target. So I try to walk around the bank and get through every department, every day I’m in the bank.” He starts his day on foot, coffee in hand, unless he has a morning meeting. This is more efficient than having “someone coming into your office, sitting down, and wasting 20 minutes of your time [on preliminaries]. If you walk around, you can answer many questions quickly.”

Others also are big believers in what consultant Tom Peters calls “management by walking around,” but Siebenmorgen goes a step further back at his desk.

He insists that those who want to see him personally make an appointment. “People don’t go for a haircut without an appointment,” says Siebenmorgen, “so why do barbers’ schedules command more respect than ours do as bankers?”

Tips for survival

Roundtable bankers shared ideas on getting through the day and, in particular, email:

• Dispense with the pleasantries. “One of my biggest time wasters is emails—the unnecessary ones or the ‘Okay, thanks’ kind. Just be done with it. We need some kind of email etiquette or something,” says Stacey Bentley of Community National Bank, Waterloo, Iowa.

• Three strikes and you’re out. Paul Siebenmorgen of Archbold, Ohio-based Farmers and Merchants State Bank, has a rule: Send garbage three times and you go on the spam list.

• Ignore it; it’ll be there later.

Several bankers set specific times of day when they do not check email, and concentrate on other tasks.

• Don’t “meet” by email. Laurie Beard of Founders Bank & Trust (Grand Rapids, Mich.) objects to people who carbon copy others into an email conversation when she initiated it. “This not seeing each other and meeting face to face drives me nuts.”

• Watch your attitude. “It’s easy to get depressed about all you have to deal with, and feel as if you had the weight of the world on your shoulders. But step back sometimes and remind  yourself that it is a privilege to be able to lead a company like a community bank. Many people work hard through their careers and never have such opportunity,” points out Jim Edwards of United Bank, Zebulon, Ga.

Steve Cocheo

Steve Cocheo’s career in business journalism has taken him to all 50 states and nearly every corner of banking in institutions of all sizes. He is executive editor of ABA Banking Journal, digital content manager of ababj.com, and editor of ABA Bank Directors Briefing. He coordinates the popular Pass the Aspirin and First Person features and wrote the booklet series Focus On The Bank Director. He is the only journalist to have sat in on three federal banking exams, was a finalist for the Jesse H. Neal national business journalism awards, and a winner of multiple awards from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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