How Union Bank's crisis-tested leader took control of virus response

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For the second time in his career, Greg Seibly is leading a bank during a period of profound crisis.

Ten years ago, during the Great Recession, Seibly was president and CEO of Sterling Financial in Spokane, Wash., a troubled bank on the brink of failure after taking steep loan losses. Today, just three months on the job as president of California-based Union Bank, he is part of a generation of bank leaders making its way through another emergency that this time includes a global pandemic and nationwide protests decrying racism and police brutality.

A cynic might be downbeat about a second round of intense crisis in a career. But Seibly isn’t a cynic.

“Look, none of us get a chance to say how the crisis gets foisted upon us,” said Seibly, 56, who is in charge of the bank's $74.1 billion-asset regional banking operation. “My view, which was a really fundamental building block at Sterling and now at Union Bank, is that you need to build that purpose-driven unity on a team, that’s No. 1, and then focus on issues that are of critical importance at that moment. For clients, colleagues and our communities, so much of it is about removing fear and making sure they know where you’re going and what you’re doing.”

Greg Seibly, Union Bank president and head of regional banking
“My view, which was a really fundamental building block at Sterling and now at Union Bank, is that you need to build that purpose-driven unity on a team, that’s No. 1, and then focus on issues that are of critical importance at that moment," says Greg Seibly, who like 2,500 of his Union Bank employees has worked at home during the pandemic.

While Seibly and other business leaders may have drawn on lessons learned during the financial crisis to help inform the current situation, going through another round of significant upheaval presents a new set of challenges, according to certified leadership coach and “thrive in chaos” expert Corinne Hancock.

“I think the second time around, it’s very hard,” Hancock said. “You have a lot of experience to go off from, so you can learn from [past] mistakes. But you also have to be careful, because it can cause you to not take action because you’re paralyzed by trying to seek consensus and [thinking about] the what-ifs.”

Leading through the financial crisis

When Seibly became president and acting CEO of Sterling Financial in October 2009, the $9.7 billion-asset bank was dealing with mounting loan losses in construction and real estate, so much so that it lost nearly $1 billion within an 18-month period.

As such, it was operating under a government cease-and-desist order that required it to raise $300 million of capital in less than three months. The bank met that goal — in fact, it raised a total of $730 million in private investment as part of an ambitious recapitalization plan — but it took 10 months to do it.

“I would say, at best, the future was uncertain,” said Seibly, who was appointed permanent CEO in 2010.

So he made it a point to lessen that uncertainty by being as transparent as possible, starting with the bank’s employees. He aimed to “build trust and stewardship” and establish “a common cause,” he said.

“When it’s about survival, everything gets stripped away because you have to get down to the basics of what needs to be done in this moment to survive,” Seibly said. “We literally had calls with 2,500 employees weekly. ’Here’s what going on. Here are the conversations we’re having with regulators. Here are the developments we’ve made.’ … We had to show a viable path toward success.”

Sterling was able to rebuild and, in 2014, sold itself to Umpqua Holdings in Portland, Ore., for $2 billion.

Into the fire

Now Seibly — who stayed with Umpqua for two years, then oversaw the Federal Home Loan Bank of San Francisco for three years — says he is taking a similar approach at Union Bank. The banking unit of the $166 billion-asset MUFG Americas, a unit of the Tokyo banking giant Mitsubishi UFJ Financial Group, hired him in early 2020 to replace Timothy Wennes, who left in mid-2019 to join Santander Holding in Boston.

Though officially based in San Francisco, Union Bank is led from Los Angeles, where Seibly is based. He has 3,800 direct employees, more than a third of MUFG Americas’ total 11,000-person workforce in the United States, Canada and Latin America.

Nine days after Seibly’s March 2 start date, the novel coronavirus was declared a global pandemic by the World Health Organization. Shortly thereafter, all three states in which Union Bank has retail branches — California, Oregon and Washington — issued stay-at-home orders.

Life was about to change.

Instead of taking a road trip with his boss, MUFG Americas President and CEO Steve Cummings, to get to know the bank’s various market leaders, Seibly hosted 15 virtual meetings in a week and a half.

“It clearly wasn’t what I expected when I went through the interview process,” Seibly said of the abrupt change in plans. “One of my first objectives was to get to know people, how they are positioned and what we can build together as a team. We had nine days to do that.”

Meanwhile, Union Bank set out to respond to the crisis. From mid-March to early April, the bank set up about 2,500 employees to work from home; adjusted branch operations to include measures such as closing all in-store branches, halting all in-person client meetings and staggering staff and shifts; and announced a commitment of $3 million to local communities affected by COVID-19, including $1.4 million to be directed toward economic development activities that sustain small businesses in low- to moderate-income neighborhoods.

It also launched a portal to accept Paycheck Protection Program applications (so far, it has approved about $2.5 billion in PPP loans), provided $125 in additional pay per work for front-line branch employees and created an “employee relief fund” for workers experiencing financial hardship.

In recent weeks, the challenges mounted after the May 25 death of George Floyd at the hands of police in Minneapolis. A Union Bank branch was burned down during protests in the San Diego area. A spokeswoman said the branch was not specifically targeted, but happened to be on a block where several other buildings were damaged or destroyed.

Opportunities ahead

Hancock said such crises present opportunities for leaders to clarify their mission, ask questions, get creative about solving problems and figure out how to use the chaos to their advantage.

“It’s so hard right now,” she said. “You’ve got to stay in the mindset of, ‘What is your mission? What is your focus as a leader? What are you actually trying to accomplish today based on current information?’ because it’s constantly changing.”

The way Seibly sees it, the current crisis offers key opportunities: a chance to support colleagues and clients, a chance to reaffirm the company’s commitment to the communities it serves and a chance to do a better job of “leaning in and stepping up” when it comes to racial inequities, of which banks have played a role in perpetuating.

He did not have specifics on how the bank would respond to the issue of longstanding racism, but he did say there’s “more to come” from the bank in focusing on African American communities.

The national unrest "is an opportunity for us to do better,” he said. “It’s an opportunity for us to close a chapter or at least address some of those issues in a different way than we have in the past.”

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