Was That Meeting Really Necessary?

If bankers were asked, "What do you do all day?", many would answer: "I sit in meetings."

Sometimes, meetings are extremely valuable. How else can you find out what is going on in the rest of the bank?

I remember sitting in on one where it was revealed that the branch officers were paying more for deposits than the lending officers were charging for loans.

That meeting paid for itself in no time.

Value as Motivator

Sometimes, meetings are valuable just because the people involved find out what is happening and feel more dedicated and driven because they feel they are an important part of the team.

But all too often, meetings happen only because the people running them feel they should have a meeting.

Moreover, the people attending feel they must speak -- even if they really have nothing to say -- lest the others think they have little interest or understanding.

Something to Do

And while few like to admit this, when banking was robust and overstaffing was not the crime it has become today, meetings had the important role of helping to fill the day.

This may seem harsh until it is remembered that a loan or investment, once made, earns interest every day.

Often, the officers who made it don't feel they must "earn their wings every day," as securities brokers or operations executives do.

Reed's Reaction

This being the case, it was fascinating to read a recent report in The Wall Street Journal.

It was reported that Citicorp chairman John Reed had thrown people out of a meeting because they came in with a proposition he thought was designed to "lead us through a single door."

Mr. Reed reportedly feels that meetings should "take up sets of alternatives, not just a story justifying whatever argument is being pitched," and that "as much as 80% of meetings are useless."

What about conventions and off-site meetings? Are they worth the time and expense?

Robert Morris Associates, the national association of bank loan and credit officers, obviously feels sensitive about this.

This fall it is starting a Washington conference on a Sunday and finishing it Tuesday -- replacing the traditional Monday-to-Wednesday format in order to save a day at the bank.

Also, the organization is offering to refund the registration fee to any participant who feels the meeting was not worth the investment.

Here is another question: Why hasn't teleconferencing, with all its benefits, replaced face-to-face meetings?

Many people report that, once they have met the other parties in a transaction, they can accomplish just as much by phone, and especially by videophone, as by renewed personal contact.

But others retort that the real benefits of face-to-face meetings come from the asides and informal gatherings, rather than formal discussions. Teleconferencing robs participants of these benefits.

Of course, one seldom-mentioned aspect of the failure of teleconferences to replace meetings is that travel and meetings are somoe of the perks of banking.

To remove them would lessen bankers' enthusiasm and reduce their dedication to work.

Are Travel Perks Affordable?

But are such perks are affordable in an industry where control of noncredit expense is so important for company survival?

Business travel is still important. As Roger Nelson, vice chairman of Ernst & Young, put it in Business Travel News, "There is too much emphasis on measuring the actual travel activity rather than understanding why companies are traveling."

Mr. Nelson added something that bankers and bank vendors recognize well:

"If you want to improve customer service in any industry, you have to spend more time with the customer. Whether that customer is 30 miles by car or 3,000 miles, it means you have to get out of your chair and get to the customer."

Travelers Get the Accounts

We have seen verification of this through frequent statements by vendors and bankers that they have won accounts in other banks' or vendors' territories.

They won the accounts because they were willing to travel. Frequently, they came in from hundreds of miles away before the local competitor was willing to cross the street.

In sum, it matters who shows up, not how far they had to travel.

But in our slimmer, "back-to-basics" banking industry, a lot of meetings and a lot of travel are going to disappear.

And maybe there will be a side benefit.

All too often, bankers agree on credits and policies because they like the smiling face across the table.

Sometimes is pays to stay home and look at the potential borrower's balance sheet and cash flow.

Mr. Nadler is a contributing editor of the American Banker and professor of finance at the Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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