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What qualities define a great branch manager?

The question is critical. Branches represent significant investments in both facilities and personnel, but that success of that branch can come down to the individual managing

The answer to that question, according to those who oversee branch networks and who are branch managers themselves, is multifold, including a person who works extremely hard, wears many hats, can balance pleasing members, employees and senior management, and who is also a natural leader, flexible, adaptable and has excellent time-management skills. Moreover, the branch manager must possess an entrepreneur's acumen as well as a coach's ability to teach, mentor and motivate.

All of that might seem back-breaking, yet the managers with whom The Credit Union Journal spoke generally indicated they love their job and wouldn't have it any other way.

Defining the Best

Barry Kane, vice president of branches for San Francisco, Calif.-based Patelco Credit Union, said roles are more defined at a large bank, but CU branch managers must be able to take on many tasks. Kane, who oversees 38 branches for the $3.5-billion, 210,000-member credit union, said a great branch manager is distinguished by the ability to keep both ears on two conversations at once - watching the branch, while at the same time making the members feel as if the attention is on them.

"The branch manager must be a natural entrepreneurial leader. Not a leader like the president, but someone who can lead the staff," he said. "We depend on our branch managers to run the show with a lot of independence. They wear a lot of hats, because in addition to what goes on in their branches, they must work with our business development people in visiting SEGs, chambers and community events. They have to operate in an economical manner and get a lot done in a high-productivity environment. They have to do so with the least number of people while still providing excellent service."

"That's a lot," Kane said with a laugh, "but if they have that entrepreneurial spirit, it's enjoyable."

Curt Rowe, manager of Patelco's Elk Grove, Calif., branch, located 10 miles south of the state capitol in Sacramento, agreed. "If you really like what you are doing, there are no difficult parts," he said. "The most challenging thing-I have eight employees-is to make sure they are being developed. Because you want them to succeed so bad, you want to be supportive and get them training. In a fast-paced environment, you want to make sure no one falls through the cracks."

Keryn Marlatt, senior vice president for WestStar Credit Union in Las Vegas, Nev., said a good branch manager is "totally focused on the member."

"He or she is always trying to figure out how not to say 'no,' " she said. "This is vital, because $400,000 in marketing can be wasted when people come to a branch if the manager and employees don't have your back."

Two of WestStar's branch managers mentioned the importance of relating to both members and staff, and passing on knowledge.

Jerry Hall said during her five years with the credit union, she has worked at all four of WestStar's Las Vegas branches (the CU also has a location in Reno). As is the case with many branch managers, Hall started as a part-time teller, then worked her way up as a full-time teller, loan officer and teller supervisor.

"The most important skill is working with my people," she said. "I put myself on their level because I was there before."

"It takes mentoring skills and time management skills," offered Geraldine Albores, who has been a WestStar branch manager for five months. "You have to plan time for everything, from serving members to coaching employees."

Albores started her financial institution career as a clerk at a bank in Hawaii and worked her way up the ladder before coming to WestStar as a teller supervisor in 2003. She said the best branch managers are excellent teachers who can deal with high expectations. "You become a jack of all trades when you become a branch manager," Albores observed.

Mountain America Credit Union recently opened its 42nd branch in Herriman, Utah. The $1.5-billion CU serves 201,000 members through its network of branches throughout Utah, plus locations in Phoenix, Albuquerque and Las Vegas. Teressa Rich, who has been a branch manager for Mountain America since 1984, said four qualities stand out.

"The most important thing is to be able to lead and motivate your employees to do what you want them to do," she said. "Second, the branch manager has to be able to delegate. Members always want to work with the manager when they have a problem. You have to be able to pass them along painlessly to others. Third is adaptability: you have so many changes all the time. You must enjoy change, or you are never going to make it. You must adapt to all the different environments."

Fourth? "Organization skills are very important. I wish I was better," Rich laughed.

Tara Mason is a regional manager for Patelco. In addition to running her own branch in Concord, Calif., for the past 11 years, she has worked with the managers of eight branches in her region- Contra Costa County, east of San Francisco-for six years. According to Mason, the branch manager must be a leader.

"The staff looks to a manager for where the branch is going to go. The manager leads by example. This means making eye contact with members when he or she is on the floor and being in tune with the members. If someone has a new baby, ask about it. Some feel Patelco, as a larger credit union, has lost that, but we are told to be our own entrepreneurs. Our tellers and our member service representatives know our members and are in tune with their lives."

Nature or Nurture?

Most of the with whom The Credit Union Journal spoke agreed that great branch managers are born, not made. While some practical knowledge can be taught, the most important components are within the person's personality long before he or she comes to a CU.

"It doesn't take a degree to be a branch manager, a lot of it is how you handle your people," assessed WestStar's Hall. "I'm not really strict, I'm laid back. We have the 'Fish Philosophy' (named after the famous fish market at Pike's Market in Seattle) here- it is OK to have fun at work. Nothing against anyone with a degree, but those with a degree tend to be more strict."

Patelco's Kane said job functions can be taught, and some parts can be "fine tuned," but managers must have "good judgment and the entrepreneurial spirit" to be successful.

"Some credit unions look for a certain amount of experience. They are looking for a number of years of loan experience or a number of tasks people have accomplished. We are looking for the entrepreneurial spirit and an aptitude to learn."

"We also look for initiative," Kane continued. "We need our branch managers to be self-starters. Some people overuse that word, but we really mean it."

"Leadership can be taught, but being a really great manager is something that is innate," chimed in Mountain America's Rich. "You have to really care for your employees."

Agreed Patelco's Mason: "You either have it or you don't. If you don't have that rapport with people, or the leadership skills with the staff, you won't be successful. People who don't do well as a branch manager want to be cradled or micromanaged. Thankfully, at Patelco, there are not lots of layers of management, so there is no micromanagement."

WestStar's Marlatt said she believes managerial skills can be taught, but her CU chooses to hire the right people for the position from the beginning. "Our interview is service oriented," she explained.

Rowe said Patelco offers teaching and training to its branch managers, and some things can be taught, but "having the innate skills makes it a lot easier."

WestStar's Albores said greatness lies within. "A manager must be willing to grasp responsibility. I'm willing to learn all the time and help my employees."

Groomed For Success?

Some CUs have instituted formal leadership programs to develop branch managers, but for the most part, most attain their posts the old-fashioned way: being identified early in their careers as a fast-riser and receiving guidance along the way from a mentor.

"For us, it starts day one with teller training," said Marlatt of WestStar's branch manager track. "We don't hire teller experience, we hire for sales and service. We do not have a formal program, but we plan to initiate a leadership series starting in 2006. We will send all managers to a Dale Carnegie series in November."

When it comes time to name a branch manager, Marlatt said the $175-million, 36,000-member credit union tries to hire from within, and the person can come from any position in the organization.

At Patelco, 80% to 90% of current branch managers came up through the ranks, said Kane.

"Most started as tellers, loan interviewers or maybe in the back office. We noticed which people always went the extra mile. Which ones volunteered for car sales, or to pick up overtime. Those are the people we keep our eyes on."

In recent years, Patelco began promoting people to the "branch supervisor" position. Kane said this is for employees who show the most flexibility with regards to picking up extra work, as well as the ability to run the branch almost without being asked.

"These people are candidates for branch manager spots when they open up," said Kane.

Mason said Patelco recognizes talent in individuals and promotes them from within. "We give them the tools-meaning some classes to take-but it is up to them how far they go."

WestStar's Hall said she was groomed to be a branch manager -starting when she was a teller supervisor. "I knew how to work with people, how to manage them. I used to own a Sears outlet store in Louisiana, so I had experience."

Albores, another WestStar branch manager, attributed part of her success to her "great mentor" during her days at First Hawaiian Bank. The branch manager there sent Albores to classes to help her career. "WestStar also will send you to classes, including CUNA Management School," she reported.

Mountain America's Rich said she likewise had a manager who groomed her in the early 1980s. Today, the CU has a two-year old leadership program for assistant managers to take.

Even with formal training, though, Rich said a CU must pick the right people for the position. "Hire for personality, train for skills. That's how members get the warm fuzzies."

Patelco's Rowe said he was sent to several seminars while he was coming up through the ranks in 1996 through '98, but leadership programs were not as formal as they are today.

"When I was first hired, there were no branch manager positions open," he recalled. "People could take self-paced training, which was based on the assumption people would go up one level each year. After two years, I was sent to supervisory seminars."

Today, Rowe is the manager of Patelco's largest branch.

Having Leeway

All the branch managers interviewed by The Credit Union Journal said they were given a chance to run their branches with their own style, within reason.

"Mountain America really empowers its employees," said Rich. "I am told to run my branch as if I am the CEO. We are told we won't be punished for making mistakes - unless we knew we were doing something wrong - because the only way to learn is by making mistakes. I empower my employees to make decisions. It needs to be that way, because then they can take care of members right away instead of waiting."

Marlatt said WestStar gives its branch managers lots of freedom, to which Hall and Albores agreed. "Yes, we get 100% leeway," said Hall. "It's almost like being an entrepreneur. We all know what the policies are, so management should let us run it 100%."

Albores, who has been branch manager for just five months, added, "There are, of course, policies and procedures to follow, but I am given a fair amount of leeway."

According to Kane, Patelco's branch managers have key goals to meet, but those deliberately are kept simple so the managers can focus on what is important.

"We stress relationship, service, sales, rather than the other way around," he said. "Branch managers can come up with their own promotions, they do their own staff organization and scheduling. It's all how they want to meet their goals."

Mason acknowledged Patelco gives its people plenty of freedom.

"We have policies and procedures we have to follow, but management lets us run our branches. We have resources we can go to if needed, but when our branches are running successfully, they let us go."

Said Rowe: "With Patelco, it comes down to a comfort level based on the manager's experience. I've been a manager since 1999. I had a lot of questions then, but since I came up through the ranks, I knew what to expect. As time goes on, the regional manager allows me to do more things as I see fit."

Compensating Managers

Being a branch manager is not an 9-to-5 job that involves doing the same thing every day, said Rich of Mountain America. As is the case with many CUs, Mountain America gives its branch managers a base salary plus incentives.

"It is good to have goals the branch needs to achieve," she said. "The sales part puts the fun into the job."

Kane said Patelco bases branch manager pay on three levels of branch size, with each size having a different salary structure. "This is merit-based pay, according to goals and performance. Plus, branch managers have a goal that earns an incentive."

Mason pointed out Patelco does not reward individual branches. "If the entire credit union makes its goals, everyone shares in the reward. I like that, because it doesn't pit one branch versus another, smaller branch against larger. There's less animosity."

Patelco's Rowe said compensation for branch managers should be based on the success of the staff. "If my employees are successful, the branch will be successful."

He acknowledged, however, that "success" is hard to measure. "I don't want to say compensation should be based on sales. Everything is a sales environment, but if employees give good member service, sales will come."

WestStar's Hall said the branch manager has one of the toughest jobs at any CU. "Before the member walks out the door, we have to satisfy them. Hopefully, we do this without getting the top vice presidents involved," she said.

Albores said upper management at WestStar makes her happy with non-monetary compensation. "Everybody gets paid, everybody has incentives, but if someone higher than my immediate boss says, 'Hey Geraldine, great job.' It feels so good."

Battling Burnout

Since being a branch manager can be a stressful life, how do the people cope, and how do the CUs keep them from burning out or moving on? From the manager's perspective, having a good staff is the key.

There are two things that are difficult about being a branch manager, said WestStar's Albores. First, dealing with some members; and second, building a great team. The latter requires hiring people with a "team player attitude," she advised.

"We want to make them feel coming to work is a good thing because they are coming to a happy place. That's the hardest part. Some people only come to work to get paid. You don't want that. You want them to serve the members and have fun."

The people in charge at any financial institution must deal with complaints, Albores continued. As others we spoke to for this story pointed out, members with an issue usually ask for the branch manager. She said the key is to make the members happy, even if the response goes beyond policies.

"You need to coach employees to be independent. The manager cannot do everything. Get to know each employee, know their strengths and weaknesses, then you can delegate."

Marlatt said WestStar emphasizes a fun, family-oriented work environment. She said managers are empowered to do fun things with their staff, which helps ward off burnout. Hall said the support she gets from WestStar makes a difference.

"I don't let anything get to me. I deal with things right away," she reported. "When you push stuff aside, it piles up and then you get burned out. As long as credit unions give their branch managers a good team, and as long as attitudes are right and everyone is working hard, it flows good. Management always supports my decisions."

For Mountain America's Rich, being put in the middle is the toughest part of her job. She might not agree with the views of those in upper management on a particular topic, but she must present those views to her employees as if she does.

On the other hand, Rich said she finds being a branch manager "challenging," but not "difficult."

"I have been here 28 years, which is typical - all the managers have been here a long time. I think it's because of (CEO) Gordon Dames," she said. "I like to see the successes of our branch. I like the friendly competition between branches, working with members and getting the whole team moving in one direction."

Kane had a simple answer when asked what Patelco does to keep its managers from burning out: "They don't burn out," he replied. "We have an excellent retention rate. The vast majority of our managers have been with us for more than 10 years. The variety of the job is good, so there is no burnout. And we all are working in the same direction, so the bureaucracy is not overwhelming. We have a lot of fun - bowling, lunches, outings - and we talk a lot."

For Patelco's Rowe, having good time-management skills is the key to avoiding burnout. "Not just for myself, but for the entire branch." He counsels managers to delegate and not take too much on themselves.

In her 11 years as a branch manager, Patelco's Mason has found there is no one thing that is the most difficult-the fact managers simply must "do it all." Mason said she finds happiness in working with her employees, and she avoids burnout by turning the page at the end of the day, and by being active in her church.

"I enjoy my staff. I have fun with them. I like motivating them, and that motivates me," she explained. "When I'm outside Patelco I'm outside. I leave my job behind, and that helps me be successful."

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