Friday, November 28, 2014

Bankers: You spend like drunken sailors.

As a former sailor, I take offense to the post title. As if I spent my family's food money on alcohol while on shore leave. I only spent my food money.

But the phrase is synonymous with spending money without direction or regard to consequence. And sometimes, we bankers fall into the trap of not considering our operating expenses as strategic investments.

On December 8th I am speaking at the Northwest Bank Executives conference in Seattle. My topic: Ten Things Banks Should Do, But Generally Don't. One of the ten is "not considering operating expenses as strategic investments".

As an example, let's take an average $1 billion in assets financial institution. The below table was drawn from a peer group analysis my firm performed for a client. Dollar amounts are annual averages for each expense category of 13 financial institutions with an average asset size of $1.0 billion. 

At a time when so many banks are challenged to grow revenues, marketing expenditures represent 2.1% of all operating expenses. And that includes professional services, such as consultants that have little to do with winning the next customer.

Strategically, this hypothetical bank spends $30.4 million per year. Now let's assume you had this thirty mil to execute a strategy to build your bank for a sustainable future. Whatever that strategy may entail, could you not find the resources to fund it?

But we are often bound by legacy. We have seven people in Deposit Ops, and need a new piece of technology or another person and therefore must increase our budget by 7%. Three percent increase in Loan Servicing, and another 5% in IT, etc. etc. etc.

What if you blew up your budget and started constructing an infrastructure, footprint, and employee base hyper-focused on executing your strategy? Instead of 20 branches staffed with six transaction processing pro's each, you need only 16 branches, strategically located, with four higher paid relationship building go-getters per branch. 

This hypothetical bank spends $1.2 million/year, or 4% of total operating expenses, on data processing (not including personnel). Can we allocate that sizable chunk into core and ancillary systems specifically designed to serve our core customers, as per our strategy, in a superior fashion to the financial institutions that spend wide and far to satisfy every constituency? Perhaps we should recognize the importance of the digital distribution system and appoint the appropriate executive to be its champion. 

As McKinsey director Somesh Khanna states in an interview titled "The Bank of the Future" on who should drive the digital strategy in a bank...

"I actually think that it’s less dependent on the role. It’s much more dependent on the person. If the person is someone that is able to visualize a future, get the organization rallying around a bunch of different objectives, and inspire people to actually pursue that path, it’s their real leadership capabilities that’ll come to bear to pull off digital agendas."

So you build your digital strategy around such a person, allocating an appropriate slice of the budget pie to develop your bank of the future for the benefit of your constituencies. Or is our digital strategy champion hyper-focused on installing ATMs that are ADA compliant?

I am not proposing an academic exercise. I am proposing considering every dollar you spend as an investment. And you should invest in your strategy, not your legacy. 

Can we shake our budget mentality, and view our operating expenses as investments into the bank we want to become? I hope so.

~ Jeff


  1. Doesn't $311,000 (or 1% of all expenses) sound like a lot for directors' fees? The marketing and professional services category is only 2%.

    Seems out of balance.

  2. If there were 10 paid directors (the CEO is not paid as a director), that would equate to $31,000 per director, probably a low-average number for a $1 billion bank.

    But your observation as to how low the marketing/professional services expense is seems right on the money. This doesn't include the compensation for the employees, but it does include professional services, such as an ALCO consultant's fee. So the low level of marketing spend is telling, especially during a time when banks are challenged to grow revenues.

    Thanks for the comment.

    ~ Jeff