The best bankers can come from walks further removed from banking than one might expect.
Take Robert S. Johnson, who after 18 months as a personal banker for Wells Fargo & Co. in Colorado has risen to be the sixth-ranked salesperson among the roughly 220 in the state. He sells eight or nine banking products a day; the minimum standard is five.
His experience? He was the Army's No. 1 tank gunner, which prepared him for the selling battlefield at least in terms of mentality.
"If you aren't No. 1 in war, you're dead," said Johnson, 30. "Anything I do, I'll try to be No. 1."
In recruiting for the highest-level positions and on down the ranks, banks increasingly have been snaring talent from outside the industry.
At executive levels this is especially prevalent in the marketing area, where banks often try to emulate advertising and product management methods used in retailing or consumer goods.
For example, in 1996 Washington Mutual Inc., which launched a marketing blitz in California after acquiring several thrifts there, recruited its head of marketing, J. Bradley Davis, from the Minneapolis retailer Dayton Hudson.
"While banks have by and large remained more traditional and have hired from within the industry, they have started bringing people in with wider views of the world," said Peter W. Kelly, managing partner at Rollo & Associates, an executive search firm in Los Angeles.
At the branch level banks often look for drive and personal skills that translate to strong salesmanship.
They also tend not to hire competitors' personnel because that way "you get to train individuals to work exactly how this bank wants them to work," Mr. Johnson said.
New York broker-dealer Sanford C. Bernstein & Co. prefers that candidates for investment manager jobs not have conventional experience in that area, said John C. Wilson, managing director of financial services for Korn/Ferry International.
"One of their best producers is a former rabbi,'' Mr. Wilson said.
Mr. Johnson's college experience did not prepare him for banking he studied sports broadcasting. After finishing school in 1992 he joined the Army to pay off his student loans.
His proficiency behind the guns of a tank helped him rise to sergeant. After finishing his armed forces duty in 1997, he failed in an attempt to run his own business selling health and life insurance and had to deliver pizza to support his wife and two children.
"That's how low my life had gotten," he said. "I was ready to try anything."
Mr. Johnson's brother, a teller at Norwest Bank (Wells Fargo, which merged with Norwest in November, has not renamed its Colorado operations yet), suggested that he apply for work at the bank. The interview went well, and he got the job.
"Although I had never even thought about joining the banking world, I'd say it was designed for me and I was designed for it," Mr. Johnson said. "In high school my friends said I was destined to be a used-car salesman."
Mr. Johnson concedes that his Army experience did not hone his interpersonal skills. Last week a manager admonished him for being too blunt in telling a customer that the bank would not reverse a fee.
"I get just as angry as the customer when they yell at me," Mr. Johnson said. "I need to be able to not say, 'Don't bounce the check, you idiot.' "
Beyond smoothing out his customer service skills and becoming the top salesperson in Colorado, Mr. Johnson says his long-term goal is to become head of Wells Fargo's operations in the state.
"You've got to be ambitious."