Since I coined the term "super community banking" in working with U.S. banks, I assumed it was an American innovation. The people at Credit Agricole might beg to differ.
The seventh-largest bank in the world, with assets exceeding $350 billion, Credit Agricole is the largest and most profitable in France. Roland Fiszel, the general director, said super community banking - if not in so many words - defined its winning strategy.
"We are organized much differently than the other large banks in France," he said. "There are some smaller banks that are more like us, but they are regional, not national."
With its agricultural-cooperative roots, Credit Agricole was for a long time not taken seriously as a banking competitor, let alone a national consumer banking force. Its management believed it could capture market share through local service and putting the customer first, and it did.
"While our competitors remained centralized and hierarchical, we became decentralized in the delivery system with 64 regional banks, and centralized in functional and specialty businesses," the executive said. "This strategy gave us a competitive advantage and helped our regional banks become more customer and profit oriented than large institutions."
The super community definition rings true. The local operating banks own the central bank, which is the opposite of our holding company structures. Credit Agricole banks are everywhere in France and have been for almost a century. Though the company was privatized in 1988, the structure is that of a cooperative with mutual ownership; individuals do not truly own the equity.
The national or centralized part of Credit Agricole functions as a funding warehouse for the network. Deposits under one year of maturity stay in the regional banks. Longer-term deposits go to the central bank, which in turn lends them back as needed for mortgage, agriculture, commercial, and other longer-term loans. The central bank lends the funds to the regional banks, and the regionals in turn lend to the customer, setting the price and handling the servicing and collecting locally.
Aside from the unique funding program, the system operates much like other super community banks. The central Credit Agricole deals with regulatory compliance and liquidity, meaning that the Bank of France - the nation's central bank - does not directly supervise the constituent banks.
Complementing the extensive local distribution, Credit Agricole has centralized specialty businesses such as credit cards, mutual funds, insurance, and leasing. The ownership of these businesses is split fifty- fifty between the central bank and the applicable regional bank.
Credit Agricole now consists of 69 banks, down from 98, and expects to end the century with 40 to 45.
"Is it inevitable that you will end up with a single institution?" I asked Roland Fiszel.
"No way. We want more economies of scale. We will never be only one bank."
He said the current asset size and 2,000 employees seem about right for the long term.
"We have determined that fewer than 40 banks will create institutions that are too large and will be reluctant to share their deposit base and accept the national bank's authority. We are trying to trade between the necessity of economies of scale and staying close to the customer."
"Different regional banks organize differently, reflecting regional and CEO style differences," Mr. Fiszel said. "They retain autonomy on their organization, compensation, pricing, etc.
"Only large loans and corporate loans are centralized. All other activities take on the character of the chief executive of the individual bank. Some are more centralization oriented and some less. Their banks reflect that."
It all sounds familiar to anyone who has tried to achieve the super community balance.
Ms. Bird, chairman of the New York consulting firm Finexc Group LLC, was recently named chief operating officer of Roosevelt Financial Group, St. Louis.