David S. Hickman once told his wife that if he had to make his living selling, he'd starve.

Years later, the former certified public accountant and now chief executive officer of United Bancorp Inc. spends much of his time peddling trust services and motivating employees to sell everything from mortgage loans to packaged accounts.

And he's not going hungry.

"Many people go into banking because they don't have to sell," said Mr. Hickman, who joined Tecumseh, Mich.-based United in 1983. But to survive competition from larger banks, credit unions and brokerage firms, Mr. Hickman said community banks could no longer wait for business to walk through the door.

"We did some in-depth planning back in 1990 and we determined that if we were truly going to stay an independent bank, we've got to get off our butts and do some work," said Mr. Hickman, 57.

That meant cold-calling customers, setting monthly and yearly sales goals, and generally convincing employees to think like salespeople, not bankers.

The decision has paid off for United, the parent company of United Bank & Trust. Today, the company manages $769 million in mutual funds, mortgages, sweep accounts, and other assets for customers - more than twice what it managed seven years ago.

And while some of that growth can be attributed to new product offerings - mutual funds and mortgages among them - Mr. Hickman said the employees' commitment to selling that has really transformed the bank.

"A sales culture is an attitude," said Mr. Hickman, who also ran a manufacturing company before launching his banking career. "It's an expectation that says, 'I'm a banker, and that means I sell.' "

Of course, not all community banks have adopted that attitude. In fact, while many talk about becoming more sales-oriented, few have actually done so.

"Sales does not come naturally or easily to a lot of bank employees," said David Holub, senior vice president at $650 million-asset Security National Bank in Sioux City, Iowa. But as Mr. Holub put it, if his bank doesn't get more aggressive in selling products and services, "the competition will and we'll lose our relationship position."

In hiring employees, for example, Security National looks for salespeople, not bankers. One top employee sold office equipment and automobiles before being hired to sell personal banking products.

Those banks that have adopted sales cultures expect all employees - from the front-line tellers to the back-room accountants - to sell. At Security National, employees are asked to make six investment referrals and three mortgage referrals a month and are given bonuses for those that lead to sales.

United Bank's tellers are trained to "be inquisitive" so that if a customer is complaining about the rate of return on a certificate of deposit, the teller may suggest that the customer buy mutual funds instead.

"We want people who aren't afraid of their own shadows," said Mr. Hickman. "We tell them, 'If you don't want to sell, we don't want you to work here.' "

Those that do sell are well rewarded. United Bank pays $800,000 a year in commissions and pays at least six of its employees straight commission with no limits.

"I hope they make more money than I do," said Mr. Hickman. "It hasn't happened yet, but I won't be the least bit upset if they do."

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