My goal here is to provide some tangible evidence of an intangible phenomenon called culture and management style, as practiced by CB&T Bank, the lead bank of Synovus Financial Corp. in Columbus, Ga.
Synovus, which has a 106-year history and $5.8 billion of assets, has 32 decentralized, separately chartered banks, and Total System Services Inc., the second largest credit card processor in the country, each with its own board and chief executive officer.
Combination Creates Value
CB&T's culture is a unique blend of unparalleled people commitment, a well articulated and well understood cohesive vision (philosophy), supporting strategies, and tactics that lead to consistently high performance. All of which adds up to enhanced value to shareholders (stakeholders, to be exact). The capstone of this culture is the socalled "value chain."
It is never easy to articulate what a given culture means. To be fully appreciated, it must be experienced like taste or beauty. I acquired my impressions at CB&T by visiting various people and facilities, observing program execution, and the like.
No Parking Perks
I saw no assigned parking spaces for senior management. The artifacts and mementos from the history of the bank was in a tastefully displayed museum.
I interviewed senior officers, attended the finance committee meeting as well as the weekly general meeting of all officers, at the crack of dawn, in the bank's large auditorium, addressed by the holding company chairman, James Blanchard, on leadership. This presentation evoked in me the zeal and inspiration engendered by a Billy Graham or Tom Peters.
One of the remarkable aspects of CB&T culture is that the recognized stakeholders are not only the shareholders, customers, employees, and the communities served, but also suppliers, and even the regulators.
In fact, two state regulators were present at the finance committee session and a luncheon I attended. The conversations at these gatherings seemed frank, factual, and unguarded.
The Value Chain
The first link of the value chain is people -- the basic foundation of the company. Senior management sets the tone, not only with words, but by actions. The people seemed to like to work with each other, and as a team. In the words of Steve Melton, executive vice president, "We love to work with each other." This simple statement epitomizes the essential spirit of this people-driven company.
The People Method
How does CB&T develop, or create, good people? By starting with good people -- by hiring the best they can, and then encouraging them to be entrepreneurial, take some risks, and not be satisfied with the status quo. The bank strives to build an attitude among officers and people to achieve excellence and an edge over competitors.
While they care about high performance, they don't expect work to be the No. 1 priority in their lives. Family comes first. However, when required, they will work long hours, late nights, and weekends, but that is not the standard practice.
Special Brand of Leadership
The cornerstone of the philosophy is to encourage people to develop leadership skills, which are critical for ongoing success in the 1990s and beyond. They teach what is known as servant leadership -- to be interested and concerned with others, to give credit to others, and not to manipulate others solely for gain and recognition.
They make a strong commitment to training on the job, at the bank's "university," and through outside sources. They believe that training people fosters professionalism, expertise, and the tools to work smarter, not necessarily harder.
What Are Good People Worth?
Training also increases employee confidence; they get energized to carry bigger loads, that helps them to pull their associates along with them.
Good people are nurtured and rewarded. To quote Steve Melton once more, "We don't have many people we can pay what they are truly worth." In addition to competitive salaries, the bank offers excellent health benefits, profit sharing, stock purchase programs, etc. A wellness program offers premium reductions for good health, and charges higher premiums for smokers.
The prevailing style in the bank is "management by walking around." Management is always aware that people do the business, and true customer service happens in the trenches and not on the executive floor. The net results is that the bank enjoys a 44% share of the deposits in its served markets.
The second link in the value chain is a shared philosophy -- a culture that stresses teamwork. CB&T communicates this expectation in a number of ways: meetings, training, newsletters, incentives, awards. What results is a reasonable unity on what is critical, and what is not, for the bank and its stakeholders.
While there is a common approach to problems, CB&T is dead set against being locked into a single culture, defined, for example, by "we are the biggest and best" or "the not invented here" syndrome. The stress is on continuous quality improvement and flexibility, not to stifle growth.
They also strive to make decisions as close to the customer as is feasible, by empowering people. As a consequence, they offer superior customer service, resulting in consistent financial performance year in and year out, and uninterrupted dividend payments. They call this philosophy "high performance with grace and charm."
The third link is strategy (the mission of the bank), which stresses quality services that exceed customer expectations. This is well communicated to customers and employees alike.
The core emphasis is relationship banking, not deals, with both long-term customers and long-term employs, since the two are closely interlinked.
This strategy of relationship banking is over and above all the specific strategies they have underway, such as growth in fee income and targeted products.
Says John Flournoy of Flournoy Co., one of the 50 top multifamily housing developers ($100 million in revenue), on the bank's culture and management style, "The most important thing that I find about CB&T is that they do not flinch in bad times, of which I had my share.
They are always willing to stay with me and work with me by learning the idiosyncrasies of my business. They do what they say, and do not make me any type of deals or proposals, even if they do not understand them, by first learning it, and dealing with it with empathy. The bank has helped me to make a lot of money, which in turn has helped the bank as well to earn plenty.
"CB&T has one of the most outstanding bank cultures that I have encountered during 35 years in business," saidin., He calls CB&T lenders "courageous" because they "give me a feeling of confidence, comfort and security, since they are willing to take calculated risks.... Nothing makes me more nervous than a nervous banker.
The fourth link of the value chain is tactics, which include the annual planning process with goals and objectives for all business and departmental units. To assure continuous delivery of quality service, they have begun a Total Quality Initiative, which is in its initial stages of implementation.
The fifth link is performance -- the financial results based on the strategies jointly arrived at by all concerned. It also includes incentive plans, data sharing among affiliates, recognition, awards, to constantly encourage people to work on performance.
The net result is value to customers, shareholders, and the other stakeholders alike. This value chain and the trust that binds them provides the bank a unified, well articulated philosophy, with priorities in order for the long-term and not abandoned when times are tough.
Sending the Message
Communicating these values to officers and employees is a constant way of life at CB&T. Meetings are frequent, and awards of all kinds are handed out, both for performance within the bank and in outside activities.
To sum up, CB&T begins with clear, well orchestrated direction; institutionalizes a shared vision and culture to support this direction; motivates and inspires its people with a "we care" attitude and bottom-line focus; empowers them to take some risks to grow; and internalizes a sense of purpose and urgency on the question, "Are yesterday's solutions compatible with today's market-competitive realities?"