Saturday, March 26, 2011

Book Report: The Lords of Strategy by Walter Kiechel III

B+ This book, written by a journalist and former editor of Fortune magazine and editorial director of Harvard Business Publishing, tracks the growth and philosophical evolution of strategy. It focuses on three strategy firms in particular: Boston Consulting Group ("BCG"), Bain & Company, and McKinsey & Company. In its entirety, I would suggest that it would be a very beneficial read for banking industry consultants, and a beneficial read for executives at community FIs.

How business is done is often, if not mostly, evolutionary. Understanding how  we moved from the days when small businesses in small towns dominated the landscape, to how merchants operated in our large pre-industrial revolution cities, the emergence of large industrial firms, the birth of the corporate man, to where we are today is important to understanding today's business climate.

Management "fads" came and went. These fads were often touted by strategy firms and their army of elite business school educated consultants. This book tracks the evolution of strategy from its early days in the 1960's at BCG to where we are today. Strategy's emergence, and its evolution, being driven by what the author terms the "fiercing of capitalism", i.e. the escalation of competition beyond a few firms and the shortening of competitive advantage driven by technology.

This created fertile ground for strategy's ascendancy and the firms that touted its virtues. Understanding the genesis of strategy and its evolution is an important step in its development and implementation at community FIs and is the basis for my recommendation for the book.

From my perspective, it was interesting to note how strategy became in vogue and how our pre-eminent strategy firms differed in their approach. Creating teams to ponder in a conference room, ruminating how strategy should be formulated and executed is foreign to relatively small consulting firms like mine. We don't develop techniques in our firm's interior. Instead, we develop it across the table from clients, while on the phone with colleagues, or at conferences listening to experts and gauging bankers' opinions.

My world is foreign to BCG's, but it was instructive for me to learn of their methods. Knowing how they do it can only help me do it better. I think it can help you too.

Here is what I liked about the book:

1. Gave detailed descriptions of how strategy came about at BCG, and how it grew and flourished not only at that august firm but also Bain and McKinsey;

2. Introduced the key players in strategy's development, not only at the above firms but also at Harvard Business School;

3. Described strategy through each stage of its evolution, and used interviews with key players in the evolution.

Here is what I didn't like:

1. Focused only on three strategy firms and Harvard Business School. Did other B-schools or consulting firms participate in a material way?

2. The author gave me several vocabulary lessons, such as when he said an author "continued to sound the tocsin" (sound the alarm). Fortunately, I read it on a Kindle and could highlight and get definitions for the difficult words. This is probably a pet peeve of mine, and I should be more thankful that I can now use "tocsin" in a sentence.

But the book is very well put together and thorough in its review of how strategy came to be. I found it a very worthwhile read and recommend it to you.

~ Jeff

Book Report note: I will occasionally read books that I believe are relevant to the banking industry. To help you determine if the book is a worthwhile read for your purposes, I will review them here. My mother said if I did not have something nice to say about someone, then don’t say it. In that vein, I will only review books that I perceive to be a “B” grade or better. Disclosure: I will typically have the reviewed book on my bookshelf on the right margin of this blog. If you click on any book on the shelf and buy it, I receive a small commission; typically not enough to buy a Starbucks skinny decaf latte with a sugar-free caramel shot, but perhaps enough to buy a small coffee at Wawa.

Thursday, March 24, 2011

Banking: Data hungry and decision challenged?

I had lunch today with a client's regional manager. We discussed many things, but one thing he told me stuck... they used average balances to determine their highest priority customers. Many of my comrades in the community FI blogosphere feed on data, some good, some bad. But using average customer balances to determine your best customers is unfortunately very common... bad use of data.

Similar to the above, a client of ours requested that my firm identify their top 100 customers by coterminous spread. We distributed the list. They reviewed it quizzically. The senior management team did not know half of the customers on the list. Their perception of their best customers also revolved around balances.

Financial institutions have in their possession more information about their customers than any other industry, with the possible exception of medical. How do we collect it, parse it, and use it? My guess is we don't do a very good job of harnessing this information to identify top customers, profitable products, or strategic opportunities.

I teach at the ABA School of Bank Marketing Management. One of my courses is Profitability & Strategic Issues. I distribute a questionnaire to determine what information students' FIs use to make strategic decisions. The below chart identifies their response to one of the questions.

Forty three percent of respondents reported that their institution did not use marketing data for strategic planning. Another 11% reported using it sometimes. This is astounding but consistent with past years' responses. Marketing data about customers, products, and markets should be critical to strategic decisions. Yet frequently, this data remains within the confines of the Marketing Department. Trapped as bits and bytes in the FIs MCIF or similar system, only to be busted loose to help with the next product promotion.

Aside from information trapped within our core processing and ancillary systems, there is ample data available for strategic decision making in the public domain and primary research conducted by industry professionals. Are we identifying the necessary data points to make important decisions?

For example, if considering branching, one would think the key data points are as follows: Are their enough of the types of customers within a certain community that we typically target and have success with? How many competitors are in the community and what is their branch size? Are branch deposits growing or declining in the community? Are businesses growing and in what industries? Are new housing developments on the horizon and are average home prices increasing? Are branch sites available in locations with adequate traffic?

Most if not all of the data mentioned above is either publicly available or can be obtained from private sources such as local realtors and from the FIs own marketing databases. But if your experience is similar to mine, you understand many branch decisions are made based on anecdotal data or because somebody we know owns the prospective branch property.

As succeeding in financial services becomes more challenging, making informed strategic decisions will be critical to our success. The days of throwing grass into the air to determine wind direction is no longer adequate. Important information need not be out of our reach. Much can be obtained freely via public sources, or can be mined from our own systems. When making decisions with long-term impact, FIs must identify the information needed to make informed decisions and collect and analyze it. Successful execution of the strategies to lead us into a successful future depend on it.

How does your FI use data to make strategic decisions?

~ Jeff

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Core Deposits Drive Value

The title of this post is common community FI phraseology. I hear it often, and use it often. My epiphany came when I performed research for a client that subscribed to the Return on Equity school of thinking. This FI had a high percentage of funding coming from CD's and FHLB borrowings, a relatively low loan to deposit ratio, and focused on generating profits within the investment portfolio.

The FI performed very well on an ROE basis. Its relatively low net interest margin, due to high funding costs and low yield on earning assets, was more than offset by very low operating costs. The FIs CEO lamented at his low trading multiples. I decided to dig into why his multiples were so low. It turned out that the best indicator for trading at high multiples was a low cost of deposits. I performed this research about ten years ago.

Dial forward to today and I decided to test again if the cost of deposits as value driver is still true. The results are in the table below. I searched for profitable banks & thrifts with at least 1,000 daily trading volume that had non-performing assets to assets less than 3%. The search yielded 101 banks and 30 thrifts. Not a large number but in order to get reasonable values I had to control for inefficient trading and asset quality.

Banks in the top quartile (best) cost of deposits traded at a 17.4% premium to bottom quartile performers in price to earnings multiples and a 35.5% premium in price to tangible book multiples.

Thrifts top quartile performers traded at an 18.9% and 30.2% premium on price to earnings and price to tangible book, respectively.

But could this be relating to their margin or yield on earning assets? I tested for yield on earning assets and the answer was no, there was no positive correlation between trading multiples and yield on earning assets.

There are imperfections to this analysis, though. Upon review, larger banks with greater trading volume also trade at higher multiples. This is probably the result of a greater pool of institutional investors due to volume requirements. Additionally, although trading multiples are beginning to show signs of improving, the overall trading of the banking sector has not returned to normal.

But ten years ago my analysis demonstrated that FIs with better deposit mixes and therefore lower cost of deposits enjoyed greater valuations. And today, the results are very similar. So why do so many FIs doggedly stick to asset-based business strategies?  Some, such as Sandy Spring Bancorp (see slide below), have been generating value from the liability side of their balance sheet and continue to do so.

According to Sandy Spring's latest investor presentation, the bank pursues a "strategic focus on small business, middle market and affluent retail customer relationships". Anecdotally, most small and mid-sized businesses do not borrow. So serving them, one would think, would require a focus on deposit relationships.

It appears as though Sandy Spring is winning, having 23% of their deposits in non-interest bearing DDAs and a cost of deposits of 0.49% in the fourth quarter. They trade at a 16.2x earnings multiple and at 130% of tangible book. It should be noted that Sandy Spring is headquartered in Maryland, a state that has experienced its fair share of credit challenges, hence the relatively low price to tangible book multiple from other top quartile banks.

Do you believe core deposits drive value? If so, why, and if not, why not?

~ Jeff

Special note: I am not making stock recommendations here. So don't call your broker to make a trade based on what I write. If you saw the performance of my stock portfolio, you would know what I mean.

Disclosure: My company has served as a strategic advisor to Sandy Spring within the past twelve months.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Experienced Bankers Wanted for Mediocre Bank

"He's not ready" is the response I often hear when I ask why a sharp banker is not part of the FIs senior leadership team. I hear it from senior leaders, industry executive recruiters, and industry consultants. But when I hear this, let me share with you what my internal voice is saying: "I want to make myself feel better by diminishing your perception of the value this clear up-and-comer can bring to our team."

If the talented individual we are speaking of is not yet good enough to serve in a similar role to me, then, ipso facto, I must be more talented than him. That is one reason I was so impressed with a southeast bank president that said to me "look around, you don't see many executives over the age of 45 because they don't get it [the new way of doing business]." This CEO must not have bought the "he/she's not ready" line.

This attitude is not exclusive to executive ranks. I recently recommended an acquaintance of mine to a regional business banking executive who agreed to take a look at his resume. The result: doesn't have business banking experience. This was true, but knowing the "type A" nature of this individual, I had little doubt he would be successful learning "credit", knocking on doors, and building relationships. Instead, this bank wanted an experienced banker. To which my internal voice said: "experienced at doing commercial real estate transactions and scoffing at directives asking him to build a full relationship."

Another version of the above is when I hear "he doesn't understand credit." I have heard this from FIs currently experiencing credit problems. Apparently it is worse to hire someone that must learn credit than to hire one that has already proven challenged in the endeavor.

Dave Martin, an industry consultant with NCBS, recently wrote in an American Banker opinion piece (see link below, may require subscription) "when we put the wrong person in a job or allow the wrong person to stay in a job, we undermine our businesses." But personnel issues are frequently cited by FI executives as to why they are not succeeding in this strategic initiative or that. And they are not willing to make the necessary changes to move their business forward. Instead, they are in search of "experienced bankers."

Arkadi Kuhlmann, founder and CEO of ING Direct USA, was quoted in a recent Harvard Business Review piece on hiring practices by Fast Company cofounder William Taylor (see link below), "if you want to renew and re-energize an industry, don't hire people from that industry. You've got to untrain them and then retrain them. I'd rather hire a jazz musician, a dancer, or a captain in the Israeli army (see link below to my post on hiring a vet). They can learn about banking. It's much harder for bankers to unlearn their bad habits." If you believe the concept of hire for attitude and train for skill is true, how do you remake your employee base?

First, the FI should clarify the strategy. Understanding where you are going is a critical yet under appreciated step in identifying the people needed to get you there. It requires vision and a roadmap to achieve the vision. Do you know where your FI is going?

Second, you must identify key positions that are important cogs in the wheel to executing strategy. I already made reference to banks that want full relationships with their business customers yet their lending team is chock full of commercial real estate transaction folks with little interest beyond their current pipeline. But if relationship building is the strategy, are your branch personnel up to it?

I have witnessed FIs build confusing and inefficient workarounds to the shortcomings in branches. One reason is that experienced branch managers tend to come from the old school, where taking care of customers once they come in the door is job 1, followed closely by ensuring the branch balances and branch cash is not off. Well, last I checked, not nearly as many customers are coming into branches anymore.

FIs pursing the "relationship" strategy fail to recognize that a relationship occurs between two people. If you hire for attitude in the branches, and get a good go-getter with a positive outlook as branch manager, but proceed to pay her minimally with little upside, she will seek promotions out of the branch. This recently happened at the branch where I bank.

Branch manager is often a destination position for those that were promoted through the teller ranks and have no need to be the bread winner. For those type A people we may want in the branches, branch manager is frequently a waypoint position until something better comes up. Not a particularly effective way to execute on a relationship strategy. But branch managers are critical to our strategy.

The manner at which we hire and fire in FIs reminds me of the different styles of George Steinbrenner and the Pittsburgh Steelers' Rooney family. Steinbrenner would make key hires relatively quickly, and would fire them if they didn't work out. The Rooneys, on the other hand, invest significant time into hiring the right people and stick by their decisions (see link below). In banking, I have witnessed us hiring like Steinbrenner, and firing like Rooney. I suspect we should choose one method or the other, and use execution of our strategy as the measurement of whether a person will work out for us.

For community FIs to remain relevant to customers and prospective customers, we must choose a strategy that delivers either a competitive advantage through differentiation or cost leadership. Fortunately, there are still opportunities to deliver cost leadership for some of us, although I would deem it to be a difficult slog to have lower costs than the very large FIs. If we want to differentiate, then how? Most strategy sessions I attend require that the community FIs people be superior in the manner at which we execute strategy. So I ask you, who is executing your strategy?

Do you believe in the "hire for attitude" philosophy or the "hire experienced bankers" one?

~ Jeff

Dave Martin's American Banker piece, "If he hollars 'bad fit', let him go."

William C. Taylor's Harvard Business Review piece, "Hire for Attitude, Train for Skill"

My blog post "Be all that you can be"

New York Times piece "Rooney Method: Build Methodically and Await Rings"

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Bank Shorts: Schmidlap National Bank Exit Interview

A client lost his temper with his regulator after one of the more youthful examiners threatened to force the bank to write down the entire consumer loan portfolio based on the information that was given to him. The result, an informal enforcement action. There is a lot of tension between examiners and the examined these days, and I thought this would make an appropriate time to launch an animated series, Bank Shorts.

We shouldn't lose our temper with regulators. Below is my perception of how a difficult exit interview between a fictitious banker and examiner in charge would go. Notice the composure maintained by the banker. I was impressed with his performance. Also note who is sitting in the desk chair versus the visitors chair.

Hats off to Bryan Allain, at for giving me the idea regarding these shorts. He has created movies at his blog. He is a witty guy and you should visit his blog, in spite of him being a Red Sox fan.


~ Jeff