With the most recent mega-announcements, banking industry consolidation has gone into hyperdrive.
Banks with less than $10 billion of assets, hot commodities as recently as a year ago, are being left in the dust as the financial services market makes a clear statement that size counts.
We are witnessing a race to achieve nationwide coverage with organizational scale never fathomed before. What pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is motivating the biggest banks and insurance companies to negotiate these huge transactions? And what risks are ahead of them?
"Big is beautiful" has been an enthralling idea for years in America, and it has pervaded even the banking industry, which historically was built on the opposite premise. Many organizers of new banks had come to plan for the day when they would achieve sufficient scale - say, $100 million - to become merger candidates.
The looming year-2000 challenge and technological investment requirements, both perceived and real, produced ever more faith in the advantages of bigness. Size is expected to yield not only lower unit costs but also diversification of risk among countercyclical products and different geographies.
Such logic appears sound, but its promise has yet to be realized. Anticipated cost reductions or revenue boosts have rarely if ever materialized after big mergers. Achieving the cost savings promised to investors results in franchise destruction in many cases, and revenue growth as a result of new product sales across a broader customer base has been at best a partial success.
Is there anything that makes the current merger wave different? It is my opinion that the lesson learned from previous mergers is: "It's all in execution." The difference between a successful and unsuccessful deal depends more than ever on execution.
The assumptions behind Citigroup and these others combinations are theoretically sound: more customers, more "bang for the buck" in advertising a broader product line, one-stop shopping, lower costs, sustainable competitive advantage.
The big question is: Who is going to make this happen? How will these huge institutions marshal their resources to assure that as they consolidate and cut costs they do not throw the baby out with the bathwater by cutting costs to the point of debilitating revenue growth?
Do these institutions have the leadership needed to realize the revenue potential embedded in a national (and, in Citigroup's case, global) enterprise? Such execution challenges are beyond anything witnessed before.
One encouraging precedent is the Chase-Chemical merger. It was executed with forethought and attention to detail. As Citigroup and others contemplate their newly created opportunities, clarity and focus become critical. Goals need to be established for each of the thousands of business units under the giant organizational umbrella, and definitions of success must be set. A vision for the new entity needs to be articulated swiftly and concisely, with a set of values to guide the millions of individual decisions that will take place during the integration.
These visions and values may seem trivial in light of the vast operational issues to be tackled, but they are more critical than ever. In marshaling organizational resources to move in unison toward a single objective, vision and values create the context for decision-making down the line and define the new entity right off the bat.
Further, focus is needed to stabilize the work force and ensure that the best and brightest don't flee prematurely. Key team members and customers will both be essential to the success of Citigroup, and the retention of both must be an overarching priority. Merged entities typically underestimate the impact of the mergers on both groups, thus overestimating earnings potential and ignoring execution risk.
Star employees and customers are especially vulnerable to switching during merger transitions. The new organizations would do well to set strategies and execute retention programs for both critical segments.
Many of the institutions making megamerger headlines are not well known for their execution acumen, but attention to detail is what it is going to take to deliver on their ambitious promises to shareholders.
The "new giants" seem to have the potential to deepen their customer "wallet shares" and build competitive advantages through unprecedented cost efficiencies. However, many previous mergers failed to live up to those expectations due to lack of focus and weakness of execution. Many of us are wondering if things are really different this time, and the answers will be in execution.
Ms. Bird is senior vice president of strategic initiatives and Indiana/Ohio at Norwest Corp., Minneapolis.