With many banks entering the complex realms of structured finance and asset securitization, executive search firms are increasingly challenged to find the right candidates for jobs.
"Finding good-quality bankers means good managers, communicators, and technicians, and that well-balanced executive is still very difficult to find," said Thomas M. Watkins 3d, a managing partner in the Dallas-based firm Lamalie Amrop International.
Lamalie Amrop boasts an impressive list of regional bank clients, including Columbus, Ohio-based Banc One Corp.; Minneapolis-based Norwest Corp.; PNC Bank Corp. of Pittsburgh; and St. Louis' Mercantile Bancorp.
These banking companies often seek experienced executives for posts in corporate finance, asset management, insurance, securities brokerage, and cash management.
"Regional banks, especially those in the higher tier, are looking for a potentially different person than they were a few years ago because they now have these massive franchises and they need leadership" to be able to compete, Mr. Watkins said.
Increasing pressure from investment banks forces commercial banks to offer much more complicated financial products. "If banks aren't sufficiently informed," Mr. Watkins said, "then they are going to have some difficulty managing new businesses. Even senior lenders today are expected to have more knowledge on a wider range of products than they were two years ago."
Mr. Watkins pointed to NationsBank Corp. and First Union Corp., both of Charlotte, N.C., as banks that have recently built strong capital markets operations. These businesses were largely constructed using people hired away from the big New York banks, he said.
Even smaller regionals, like Houston-based Whitney National Bank, are getting in on the act, Mr. Watkins said. Commercial banks with assets of $4 billion to $6 billion are seeking to hire executives with multidisciplinary experience. And they often hire them away from larger regional bank rivals.
The pressure to increase fee income has also affected the way banks hire, the recruiter said. Sometimes it makes more sense to acquire a small boutique firm in a niche business, like insurance or securities brokerage, rather than to recruit individuals, according to Lamalie Amrop's James B. Norton 3d.
Making smart acquisitions becomes a matter of survival, he added, so banks can increase revenues at a much higher rate than they have traditionally.
As a result, banks are slowly turning into financial services supermarkets, and that changes the nature of what a banker does, and who a banker is, the headhunters said.
For a bank establishing a commercial finance group, for example, Mr. Norton said, executive searches are now made nationally because unless the bank is based in New York or San Francisco, appropriate candidates won't be available locally.
And with increasing specialization, it gets more difficult to promote or fill posts from within the bank itself.
One big mistake made at banks, Mr. Norton said, is that they often prefer to transfer an experienced employee from one division to another, new one.
"History has proven, if someone has not been experienced in something, and you put them in a new job, the likelihood of failure is very high," Mr. Norton said.
It is crucial for banks to discuss the weaknesses and strengths of other organizations' sales techniques for a given product, he said, because it's difficult for a bank to do something it has never done before, whether in insurance, cash management, or another niche business.
In today's banking environment, he warned, there isn't time to go back to school to learn from mistakes.
"The quickest way to become more competitive is to bring in people who have been doing it successfully, and sprinkle them into the organization," Mr. Norton said. "The best investment a bank can make is in itself, or in businesses which will give them a similar return."