Beleaguered Bankers Cautious About Taking Time Off

Doug Crisp's rule of thumb is: No calling the office during a vacation. The office always knows where he can be reached, but for his part, Mr. Crisp stays away from the phone.

"If I don't have people who can take care of 99% of the business while I'm away, I haven't done a very good job," said the senior vice president in charge of consumer lending at First Union Bank in Charlotte, N.C.

"But I notice I get more calls now than I used to. The pace of business has accelerated, and more things come up."

No Place to Hide

Indeed, the evolving pressures in the banking industry are changing the whole structure of the much-needed vacation. And now that the technology exists to keep in constant touch with the office - with fax machines, car phones, and so forth - many executives have no excuse to disappear for a week of well-earned time off.

Vacation time began to atrophy in the raging 1980s, when there weren't enough hours in the day to capture all of the runaway profits. Today, in the 1990s, the motivation for short vacations has changed. Profits are scarce, staffs are smaller, and executives are staying close to protect their turf.

According to a recent study of 500 executives commissioned by the Hyatt Hotels Corp., 53% of those questioned are taking shorter vacations, and 47% take work with them. A whopping 70% said their offices know how to get in touch with them at all times.

Weekends, Not Weeks

Bankers are not bucking these trends. "I see people taking a lot more long weekends away as opposed to the two to three weeks they took in the '70s," said David Cutter, vice president of marketing at West One Bank in Portland, Ore.

Mr. Cutter said he prefers the shorter breaks because he can look forward to more of them, and because he gets to leave his work behind. Longer jaunts would require that he communicate with the office.

"I just want to get away and come back refreshed," he explained. Despite the short time away he allows himself, Mr. Cutter manages to take spontaneous trips to a coastal cottage, and to Mexico for deep-sea fishing.

What Do You Leave Behind?

Deciding a vacation's length often depends upon the state of affairs one is leaving behind, reported a New York-based executive who requested anonymity.

At banks involved in mergers, many employees are grabbing all the vacation time they can before the inevitable layoffs begin.

At the more stable institutions, she has noticed, people are taking shorter breaks and keeping closer tabs on their projects.

Easing the Pain

But beyond the obvious need to keep on top of a project, staying close to the office is also a way of reducing the inevitable pain of reentry.

Sue Miller, executive vice president of Meridian Bancorp in Philadelphia, is another champion of the long weekend. It is just too overwhelming to return from an extended vacation and find your desk piled with work, she explained.

That's why even when bankers try to get away for a longer time, they usually stay in touch with the office. With fax machines, modems and portable PCs, beepers, and overnight mailing services, there is often no reason not to be in touch with the office.

"I will usually call in every other day," said Charles Rand, executive vice president at Crestar Bank in Richmond, Va. "We have a good voice mail that you can call from anywhere to receive and leave messages."

Absence Can Be Costly

What about those who choose to stray from the pack and take a large chunk of time - and not stay in touch with the office during their break?

One executive on the West Coast found that taking five weeks of carefully accrued vacation left her more stressed out than ever: She was demoted during her absence.

She had forgone any time off for two years to prepare for an overseas trip necessary to take care of pressing family matters.

"When I returned to work, I found that I was no longer reporting to the CEO," she said. "Projects that I had set up had been canceled, and work had been delegated to other people."

After learning the hard way, the executive has since heard other horror stories of bankers who have lost footing on the career ladder because of time off.

Maternity leave has become more hazardous for women, but anyone who stays away from the office for too long could be at risk, she warned. There are ambitious coworkers waiting in the wings for just such vulnerable moments.

"People aren't taking long vacation because of the turmoil in the industry," she said. "It's survival of the fittest. That's what is driving the climate of shorter vacations."

Will the Boss Help?

Before deciding to take more than two weeks at one time, she suggested that employees think hard about whether a boss will defend their territory during the absence. And the higher one's position, she cautioned, the less safety there is.

But in a few areas of the country that are showing signs of economic recovery, bankers are more apt to relax about time off.

The Southeast-based Crestar has been steadily expanding with purchases from the Resolution Trust Corp., and there is more than enough work to go around.

"We are all keeping awfully busy," said Mr. Rand. "People are throwing up their hands and going down to the Outer Banks (of North Carolina) to be out of touch completely. They just put on their bathing suits and live in the sand dunes for a week."

Friendlier Atmosphere

And Jim Daniel, president of Friendly Bank in Oklahoma City, said the vacation spirit is picking up in the Southwest.

"There is a little more enthusiasm in our part of the country," he said. "We've been through our recession and are coming out on the other side. The challenges are tougher now, and in all fairness to other employees and yourself, you've got to get time away to replenish and unwind."

But Mr. Daniel, who is also chairman of the Consumer Bankers Association, has yet to practice what he preaches in 1991.

He hasn't taken a vacation so far this year and said it will be late autumn before one can be scheduled. He is hoping to spend two weeks relaxing in a tropical paradise such as Maui, an idea that is a distant dream for many bankers in today's environment.

PHOTO : Executives Say They Loosen Up on Vacation

PHOTO : Longer-Term Benefits They Report

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