In my decades of working with bankers, I have learned that there's no substitute for the top executive who spends time with employees and customers.
I have seen many examples of banks doing well because those in positions of authority care about face-to-face contact. And sadly, I've seen banks flounder because top executives were poor communicators.
For nearly 20 years I ran a banking school for International Business Machines Corp. One of my frequent speakers was John Kley, CEO of County Trust Co. in White Plains, N.Y., about 25 miles northeast of New York City. The school was in Princeton, N.J., 50 miles southwest of the city.
One day John finished his class at 5 p.m. and said he had to leave to make a Chamber of Commerce dinner in White Plains at 6:30.
"Why is it worth it to travel so far?" I asked.
His answer: "Citibank and Chase have just opened offices in White Plains. They won't have any top officers at that meeting. I'll be there eating chicken and peas. And my customers and potential customers will be there, and they will notice this."
Gerry Lipkin, CEO of Valley National Bank in Passaic, N.J., tells how he gains advantages over larger competitors by meeting directly with potential large borrowers.
"They are impressed with having the CEO take care of them personally," he said. "I talk for five minutes and turn them over to a lending officer. I never see them again, but they feel special."
At that IBM school I saw a good example of top executives communicating with employees.
The head of IBM's banking department would come to Princeton for the 9 a.m. opening of the first day of our two-week school.
He would travel about 90 miles, just to say a few words and introduce me.
Why? It gave the school stature and made the students feel that this education was important.
I once taught a course in economics for the employees of Citibank at the same time a fellow professor taught a similar one for Chase. (Chase started its when it read about ours in The New York Times, but that's another story.)
I would stand up on the first day and introduce myself because no bank officer had the time to do it.
Meanwhile, Chase's class was introduced by chairman David Rockefeller. Guess whose students started with more dedication to what they were about to learn?
Bank people tell me that when they have finished a bankers' school, one of the most satisfying rewards was meeting with the CEO.
Another CEO once told me that he never spends Christmas Eve with his family. He said he spends that day in the check-clearing room, to show the people who have to work that he is with them and appreciates what they do for the bank.
Executives who have little contact with the rank and file might see their banks suffer as a result. The Wall Street Journal once reported that the decline of a New England bank began when the CEO stopped having coffee in the morning with his top staff people.
So you see, the greatest asset your bank has is you.
Now put down this paper and visit somebody. Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is a professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.