NORWICH, N.Y. - Daryl Forsythe can tell you everything you need to know about building jet engine ignition systems. But he's still figuring out how to rev up a bank.
Six months after taking the helm of upstate New York's NBT Bancorp, the former general manager of a BF Goodrich Aerospace Division plant is piloting the $1 billion-asset bank through a corporate restructuring designed to restore a level of profitability the bank hasn't seen since the 1980s.
Mr. Forsythe readily acknowledges that he probably still knows more about the engine on a Boeing 747 about the minutiae of banking. But he still believes his experiences running four manufacturing plants - not to mention his stellar reputation among area businesspeople - will help him lead a banking franchise burdened by heavy overhead costs and a battered community image.
A business is a business, after all. And with his conservative gray suit and squarish metal glasses, he already looks the part.
"You still have to be a leader and a manager," he said. "You're either a good leader or you're not. Those skills are transferable to any industry."
When he joined NBT as president and chief executive in January, Mr. Forsythe brought with him almost 30 years of experience as a manager in the aerospace industry, most recently supervising the production of gas turbine engine ignition systems used in Boeing 727s, 747s, and most U.S. military aircraft.
He acquired "a working knowledge" of the bank during a six-year stint on the board of directors starting in 1988. But "sitting on the board and sitting in this office is a world of difference."
"It was a big decision to give up a pretty successful job in another career to join an industry that isn't stable," he said. "Yeah, there were a few sleepless nights. It was a big step, both for me and the bank."
He and NBT officials concede that the choice of the 51-year-old Mr. Forsythe to head their bank was an unusual decision.
Though "he's not what I would refer to as a traditional banker, I personally observe him to be a very good banker," said NBT director Andrew S. Kowalczyk Jr., a Utica lawyer. "His management credentials were superb, and from the standpoint of a community bank he fit the profile of precisely what the board was looking for. After six months, we are more than pleased with his performance."
What led bank officials to turn to Mr. Forsythe was the need to repair damage caused by the bank's seeking to grow beyond its means and leaving its hometown image in the dust.
In the late 1980s, officials of NBT were dissatisfied that it remained small despite decades of steady growth and domination in their small city. Seeing little room for expansion in the immediate Norwich area, with its population of about 13,500, they decided to build a large regional institution to leverage the bank's excess capital.
Under the stewardship of former president and chief executive Donald Stone, NBT bought four banks in the northern part of the state from Irving Trust Co. for $46.4 million in 1989.
The new banks, with about $300 million in assets, almost doubled NBT's asset size but spread its branch network toward Canada, about four hours from its home base near Pennsylvania.
And the pricey deal forced the bank to delay needed maintenance on the newly acquired branches while overhead costs mounted and net income dipped.
"We had some serious digestion problems from that," Mr. Forsythe said. "It took us several years to get that under control. If we had to do it over again, we'd have to think real seriously about it for a lot of reasons."
In December 1990, Joseph Butare took over and brought in a new management team to promote lending and revamp operations. But even a 1994 restructuring, which included closing three branches and cutting 10% of the staff, failed to boost the bank's lackluster earnings and poor returns on equity and assets, according to a First Albany Corp. research report.
The board had had enough, realizing that "growth for growth's sake" had gotten the bank into trouble, Mr. Forsythe said.
"We were starting to become a regional bank and lose our focus on the communities," Mr. Forsythe said. "It became obvious after a few years that that strategy was going to be difficult, if not impossible, to put into place."
Deciding not to renew Mr. Butare's contract, the board asked Mr. Forsythe, already a director, to step in as the new president.
But Mr. Forsythe's usefulness to the bank isn't limited to management. The bank's rapid growth in the late 1980s and early 1990s also drove a wedge between it and its community, particularly after it dropped the word "Norwich" from the subsidiary bank's name in 1989.
The repercussions soon spread to some members of the community, who saw the bank's growth and change in attitude as proof that their bank was abandoning the hometown, according to Martha Brower, spokeswoman for the Chenango County Chamber of Commerce.
"It was no longer the Norwich bank," she said. "It had become this larger institution." The bank that people loved and saw as their community institution "had grown out of proportion, and they may have thought it would forget about Norwich."
And the bank's marketing strategy even reflected that, as it tried to create a regional image for itself, she added.
"It didn't feel as if the bank was in reach," Ms. Brower said. "The way they communicated to the community was giving wrong signals. They were trying to project themselves as a very large organization."
That left NBT officials with a severe image problem on top of their structural problems.
"The climate prior to my coming in was not a good situation," Mr. Forsythe said. "It had kind of deteriorated over the last 18 months for different reasons. The board was looking for someone who could turn that around and was a known commodity."
And his lack of banking experience was not a major problem because the company already had a "seasoned group of bankers," Mr. Forsythe said.
"They didn't need someone in office who had spent his whole career in banking," he said. "We're filling in the considerable spaces (in knowledge) here in the present position."
For example, he said, there are still "a couple of basic banking things that I need to focus on," such as making "sense out of investments in a volatile rate environment."
Now bank officials are seeking to boost NBT's returns on equity and assets from 7.83% and 0.76%, respectively, to above 12% and 1%. And they hope to bring down the efficiency ratio, which measures the cost of producing a dollar of revenue, from its current 71%.
Meanwhile, the bank has returned to its pre-1989 name, adding the name of each town to the name of the branch.
And after consolidating loan decision-making with a centralized group of lenders several years ago, officials over the last 18 months have restored lending authority to the branch level, though the central support remains.
"If someone asked me today what we're trying to be, we're trying to be a good community bank," Mr. Forsythe said. "We're not going to be a regional bank, even though we're stretched across the state."