There's cost-cutting, and then there are efficiency gains. Understanding the difference helped William I. Cornett Jr. win a handsome promotion at Cleveland-based National City Corp.

Formerly head of retail banking at National City's outpost in Louisville, Ky., Mr. Cornett recently landed the top retail post at National City's lead bank. He did it by taking a leading role in the company's Vision efficiency project. Enlisted last fall in a campaign to trim annual expenses by up to $100 million, Mr. Cornett found the exercise to his liking.

"It gave me a chance to step away from daily responsibilities and look at where the company was going, and I got to work with employees and senior people throughout the company," said the executive, who is a member of the senior advisory board of the American Institute of Banking.

Mr. Cornett is one of many bankers advancing their careers with successful stints in efficiency crusades, which became priorities in the banking industry as the recession spawned loan defaults and stifled credit demand. But this executive says it isn't wild swings with an ax that get the job done.

Instead, Mr. Cornett says, it is the thoughtful elimination of obsolete or duplicative tasks and the paring of other activities that causes the workload to drop in ways that are not disruptive. "Costs are reduced, but not arbitrarily," says Mr. Cornett.

Listening to the Troops

The executive, 46, says there's only one way to cut costs in a way that fosters efficiency, and that is by listening to people on the front line. "These people know their jobs better than anybody else in the company, and they often have wonderful ideas," said the Louisville native.

Ironically, Mr. Cornett appears destined to spend less time with staff members. As head of the retail banking group at the $7.7 billion-asset National City Bank, Mr. Cornett will be overseeing marketing and business development, consumer lending, an 80-office branch system, and a purchasing and property management unit. He also will be bringing a new data processing center on line.

Although he clearly has moved up in the National City hierarchy, Mr. Cornett says he has been downplaying hierarchical thinking after his experiences on the efficiency frontier.

Taking Less for Granted

"I am more cognizant of the power of change, of questioning anything and everybody to see if there is a better way," says Mr. Cornett. "You can backslide very quickly if you stop listening."

The executive, a graduate of the Stonier Graduate School of Banking, Rutgers University, says the "immensely humbling" sport of golfing is his favorite recreation.

Mr. Cornett says he also enjoys working on community development projects and low-income housing programs, and predicts he "will be doing a lot of that" in Cleveland. He long was active in the Louisville Urban League.

In terms of management style, Mr. Cornett characterizes himself as a delegator and cheerleader who expects people to exercise their skills. And he by no means expects to give up human contact just because he has become a senior manager.

On a single day in July, Mr. Cornett toured 17 National City branches in Cleveland, and the executive says it was a pleasure.

"I like to be where the employees are," he says. "Once they perceive you want to be there and like to be there, they will tell you what needs to be done."

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