Regulatory clashes, bad hires, battle scars: Lessons from Bankers of the Year

Learn something and pass it on.

That’s the spirit behind this slideshow, which sought to pick the brains of our five Bankers of the Year for epiphany moments in which someone told them something wise, or experience taught a hard lesson, that stuck with them through their careers.

Sometimes mistakes — a botched relationship with banking regulators, or a rushed hire — were the best teachers, our 2018 honorees say. The key to benefiting from gaffes is admitting them and correcting them, according to two of the bankers.

Other times, a pearl of wisdom from a wise colleague made the mission clear or the path to success smoother. Spouses and parents, whether they are in banking or not, can chime in with good advice or encouraging words at just the right time, some honorees say.

Yet another says just being curious, every day, got her to the next level.

School is in session in the following items, with the lessons learned by the Bankers of the Year arranged by their sources of inspiration:

Mark Turner of WSFS Bank
Disconnect with regulators
Looking back on his 12-year tenure as WSFS Financial’s CEO, Mark Turner says he most regrets the way he handled the Wilmington, Del., bank’s transition from one regulator, the Office of Thrift Supervision, to another, the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency, after the OTS was eliminated in 2011.

“I was not as mature as I should’ve been in handling that change,” Turner says. “We had such a good relationship with the OTS, and the OCC came in, and they were much tougher than the OTS. All these credits that we thought were good credits, [the OCC] told us that we had to classify them as not good credits. I was very defensive.

“The OCC was tougher because they were coming in and taking over in the middle of a crisis. It took me six months to a year of being defensive to come to the realization that this was no way to go about developing a relationship with a new regulator … and once I did it was really empowering. A good standing with regulators is a strategic advantage.

“If I had taken a different approach from the outset there would have been less anxiety on the organization. I can say now that the OCC has made us a better organization.”
Compass image to evoke advice and support
Direction from mentors
Sometimes the most profound advice is short and simple, two Best in Banking honorees told us.

Joe Evans, the chairman of State Bank Financial in Atlanta, said that when he first stepped into a bank CEO role in his early 30s, his then-Chairman Bill Anderson offered him what he considers among the best counsel he ever received: “A CEO has only two primary responsibilities: people and direction. If you get those two things right, the rest will fall into place.”

Laurie Stewart, the president and CEO of Sound Community Bank in Seattle, mentioned a very specific recommendation she got from a colleague that proved to be pivotal for her: “Very early in my career I believed the path to management was via lending. A great banker advised that, in his opinion, understanding operations and data processing would be instrumental. It was great advice. I became a VP of operations including all technology about six years later.”
Skip Hageboeck, City Holding Co.
Wise words from family
Two other honorees praised loved ones for timely, irreplaceable input.

Skip Hageboeck (shown above) had a tough decision to make in 2001 while he was working for Roche Diagnostics, a research and medical diagnostics firm. His former boss Gerald Francis presented Hageboeck with an enticing opportunity to fix a struggling West Virginia bank. The bank needed a chief financial officer, and Hageboeck liked the idea of reentering the banking industry after a short hiatus, but the job at City National Bank of West Virginia in Charleston meant uprooting his family away from his home state of Indiana.

Hageboeck ended up joining City in 2001 and becoming president and CEO of its holding company in 2005 — but the biggest career move of his life might not have happened except for a push from his wife.

“I turned the job down initially. As we discussed the many challenges we would face in such a move, my wife, Samantha, said, ‘Take the job — you will regret it if you don’t — and it will all work out OK.’ In hindsight, hers was the best and most pivotal advice I received on what was indeed a really tough decision. And she was right. We discovered that City was an incredible company of great people, and have loved our life in Charleston, W.Va.”

Harris Simmons, the chairman and CEO of Zions Bancorp., didn’t have to look far for guidance, either. His predecessor — and dad — Roy Simmons set him straight early.

“My father was a truly great banker and an even better dad, and he told me many years ago that what he found most satisfying about this profession is that it provided so many opportunities to help people,” Simmons says. “I think about that often. It’s a reminder to me that we have both the opportunity and the obligation, as stewards of our clients’ savings, to find ways to prudently and profitably put these resources to use in helping others succeed and in building great communities.”
Harris Simmons
The worst of times
No one wishes for a crisis, especially the crisis of a decade ago, but survivors come away smarter.

“As challenging as the financial crisis was, it was a school like none other,” Zions’ Simmons says. “The greatest lesson I learned was the importance of focusing on the basics, including having a strong capital position, and maintaining appropriate diversification in your loan portfolio. It’s costly and painful to be repairing your roof after the storm’s begun.”
Joe Evans, former CEO of  State Bank Financial, winner of Lifetime Achievement for Banker of the Year 2018
A bad hire
State Bank’s Evans (above) said that in the early '90s, he paid dearly for a hasty hire to fill a key role after a bank acquisition.

“When after a few weeks on the job, things weren't working out as I expected, I asked management psychologist Dr. Frank Merritt to go assess the situation,” Evans says. “Frank reported back that the person was ill-suited to the position, and further, had I done a more thorough pre-employment analysis, I could have known that before offering him the job.”

Evans blamed himself for the problem and set out to become better at hiring. “My failure here had been unduly disruptive to the employee and his family as well as to the bank,” Evans says. “Subsequently, I have been working with Dr. Merritt now for almost three decades to develop best-in-class evaluation skills, both for myself and all my hiring managers. I believe we have become very good at this, and I think State Bank's talent management competency has been a major contributor to the success we have enjoyed.”
Laurie Stewart of Sound Community Bank
Asking the right questions
Sound Community’s Stewart says her goal is “to try to learn something new every day, and much of it comes through firsthand experience.”

“Often the best lessons are found in projects or initiatives that are less successful than originally planned,” she says. “By diagnosing the whys, there is much to be learned.”

“The culmination of many years of banking experience helped me hone my ability to look for risks and mitigation of that risk,” she says. “We do this in lending, but it applies to all areas of banking. The lesson learned is failure to consider risks, or failure to ask the question ‘What is the worst that can happen?’ leaves me ill-prepared to deal with a subsequent failure.”