While growing up, Austin Adams watched his father, a "small town banker" in his native Boone, NC, and knew one thing for certain: He didn't want to follow in his father's footsteps.
"I saw a guy who worked long hours for not much money," Adams says. "I tried not to do that for a long time."
The efforts to find a way in the world that had nothing to do with banking led Adams through a shot at professional golf, a brief consulting career and a three-year stint as a college professor. But even through two "highly unsuccessful" years playing on the minor league golf tour in Florida and the Caribbean, Adams, a stickler for details with an eye toward the eventualities of life, built a safety net by earning his M.B.A. from Appalachian State University.
In 1973, after teaching finance and accounting at Tusculum College in Tennessee, Adams gave in to the inevitable.
"I went to work for Northwestern Bank, a bank in North Carolina," he says. "I was 28, and I've been at it ever since."
"Been at it" is a euphemism. What Adams, 58, has done is rise steadily, his career growing to keep pace with an unprecedented era of expansion in the U.S. banking industry. In February, Adams was named executive vice president and head of technology and operations for Chicago-based Bank One, the nation's fifth-largest bank holding company, with assets of more than $265 billion.
In his new job, the former First Union Corp. executive vice president is charged with, among other things, integrating the different technology systems from the seven banks acquired by Bank One over the last few years. The goal is to allow Bank One's customers, wherever they are and whatever their banking needs, to see the bank's services, from mortgages to brokerage to online bill paying, as a seamless and efficient entity.
To some, the task of integrating such a bewildering array of operating systems, customer touchpoints and service platforms would be tantamount to unraveling a Gordian knot. To Adams, who was named head of First Union's technical operations within a month of it acquiring Northwestern in 1985, it is simply a matter of improving the process while always keeping an eye on the ultimate goal of "seamless" customer service.
"It is not only the technology that we have to consider, it is the customer base," he says. "Even today when some of Bank One's customers reside in one state and want to do business in another state, they are on two systems. They may have to open a separate account in another state when they want to do business there.
"At Bank One we see the opportunity to overcome these kinds of obstacles. We kind of visualize our institution as one without state boundaries. It is a reasonable objective that the customer, wherever he is, sees us and is able to transact with us through whatever channels he might want to use-Internet, telephone, whatever."
Research across the banking industry indicates much the same thing, that customers are telling banks they want an "integrated approach" to managing their money and are using the diverse and growing banking services available to them. To Bank One and other mega-banks, the challenge of successfully streamlining services while remaining efficient and, at the same time, personal to each customer, is ongoing.
"I don't think we have, as an industry, grown from a traditional, limited banking product set to the less traditional banking products we now offer, like mutual funds, annuities, brokerage," Adams says. "As an industry we certainly haven't integrated those products and made them appear as seamless to the customer."
Part of the problem, he says, is overcoming some deep-seated traditions of the banking culture.
"Banks are organized and the internal management incentive is focused on the line of business and product rather than the total customer relationship," Adams says. "Changing that remains our challenge."
But those goals, which would be mouthed by almost any banker, are more easily stated than reached, particularly in a corporate climate where executives have strong, and sometimes divergent, feelings about which systems and applications need to go and which to stay.
So how does Adams go about a decision-making process that can be costly while leading his bank in a direction some will inevitably question, no matter what that direction is?
Adams approaches his decisions through what he calls "a decision matrix."
Simply put, the matrix asks a few simple questions. What decision needs to be made? Who is accountable for driving the decision? Who has the right to have input into the decision? Who within the organization are the "ultimate decision makers?" When is the deadline for making the decision?
Within those questions, as simple as they might appear, there is, Adams says, ample ground for debate and dispute. For example, the "ultimate decision makers" should number "no more than four people" who represent both sides of the discussion. Often, in choosing who those players will be, there are egos to consider and turf battles to be fought.
Still, he says, it is better to build the "focus and frustrations" of the decision-making process "into the determination of the matrix" than to drag those concerns over to the decision being made.
"There is often an interesting discussion of that matrix until it is finalized," Adams says. "Hammering out the decision process is, indeed, key to a smooth transition. In the absence of that, there will always be executives who want to revisit issues, who say, 'Wait a minute. I was told something different. Let's go back and reconsider that.'"
Once the "decision matrix" is in place and everyone understands it, the process of actually making the decision becomes almost natural, he says.
"It really is not about technology. It is all about process and people," Adams says. "Certainly we need to have skilled technology people and solid technologies that we can rely on. But, in the end result, whether we are successful is all about people and process."
For example, Bank One recently made a decision to choose between two deposit systems that were already in place. The decision, which Adams says was "a difficult one," was fed into the process after a "decision matrix" had been agreed to.
"I was asked over and over again, 'Was the right decision made?'" Adams says. "This is the perfect example because, while I do believe the right decision was made, a bad decision would have been better than no decision."
In melding two organizations, such as when Bank One and First Chicago merged in 1998, the very "nature of the transaction makes it difficult to maintain a crisp, sustainable decision-making process," he says. "Management from both organizations will have strong feelings about products, systems and personnel. There is a propensity to debate. All of this lengthens the decision-making process."
But Adams brings to any such debate the belief that banking benefits "when technology is gained and maintained in a synergistic way throughout a corporation. When people ask me who Austin Adams is professionally, I tell them that is far and away my strongest belief," he says.
At First Union, which like Bank One, began the rapid acquisition of other banks shortly after federal
legislation in 1985 re-moved the restrictions on banks acquiring banks in other states, there was a philosophy of rapidly integrating and assimilating any acquired institutions.
"Even with the largest acquisition it was never longer than 12 months before all the systems, products, procedures and policies were integrated," Adams says. "That has very significant cost advantages. You rid yourself of duplicate systems, while at the same time providing enhanced product functionality to your customers."
Bank One's philosophy has been "somewhat different," he says.
Bank One dubbed its philosophy an "uncommon partnership," meaning acquired institutions sometimes retained their different systems and procedures. While the "uncommon partnership" had the "advantage of providing flexibility in decision making," Adams says it "did not call for consistent, rapid integration and consolidation of computer systems and networks."
One of the upshots of the "uncommon partnership" is that Bank One currently has seven different deposit systems.
In hiring Adams, James Dimon, Bank One's chairman and chief executive officer, acknowledged his corporation's need to find a path other than the "uncommon partnership."
"He knows our industry, he knows our systems needs and he knows the importance of creating a single, efficient platform," Dimon said of Adams in February.
After arriving at Bank One, Adams instituted a new organization called Technology and Operations. The organization has five functional areas: information technology, national enterprise operations, production assurance, service excellence, and conversion and integration.
An Internet Business Group, responsible for the full integration of information technology resources and efforts, was also formed.
In a May letter to Bank One employees, Adams outlined his plan and promised "significant service improvements by mid-July."
To that end, Adams has been on the go, visiting Bank One's facilities, talking with personnel, and researching systems, policies and procedures.
"The reason I joined Bank One is that it is truly a wonderful company," he says. "Jamie Dimon is an outstanding leader. We have a franchise and a customer base. We have tremendous geographic reach. I am very excited about accelerating the customer base."
Raad Cawthon is a freelance writer in Pensacola, FL.