If American bank branch managers feel they are not appreciated, they should see the responses to our latest contest for the presidency of Schmidlap National Bank. Our question: "Where should bank branch managers concentrate their efforts?"

We had far more re-sponses-and far more thoughtful ones-than we had expected. Here are a few:

Thomas J. Sposito 2d, senior vice president and head of retail banking for Third Federal Savings of Newtown, Pa., set the stage by asking that we first be clear on the "functionality" of branch staff.

"We view our branches as 'stores,'" Mr. Sposito wrote. "There are three primary functions of the store:

"First, point of sale.

"Secondly, our stores serve as the welcome mat or front door to the branch organization-the store manager is their relationship manager and constantly stays in front of the customer, regardless of what expertise we reach into the organization for.

"Lastly, we position our stores to dominate their local markets. A company should be able to out-local the big boys and out-big-boy the locals in its market.

"The main responsibility of a store manager today is listening and guiding the customer through a menu of alternatives, delivered by specialists where necessary," Mr. Sposito wrote. What store managers sell is trust in themselves, he wrote, not expertise in all areas.

"To dominate your local market, you have to have your ear to the ground and your eyes open," Mr. Sposito says.

"A blade of grass shouldn't grow in a store's local market that the manager doesn't know about."

Albert B. Murray, president and CEO of Lebanon Valley National Bank, Lebanon, Pa., emphasized that a manager can't possibly run everything, and so must have employees who can really do their jobs.

Customer service reps, for example. "Would you fly on an airplane if the pilot could do everything except land it?" Mr. Murray asked. "If not, why would you have customer service representatives who could open all kinds of accounts except loans, and who were either not trained or not authorized to approve such loans? I think it is important that we offer customers outstanding service; if we do not train our platform people to approve customer loans, woe be upon us!

"So there," Mr. Murray observed, "is a job that the branch manager need not do."

Similarly, "Do you think it is important to hire the right type of people to do the right type of job?" he asked. "If so, fire the branch manager and hire a qualified human resources director. ... There is another job that the branch manager need not do."

Mr. Murray poked fun at the idea that a branch manager has exclusive responsibility for the bank's image. Image "is not determined by one person's efforts, but by all our employees," he wrote. "Let's not give branch managers the excuse that they have to spend X number of hours in enhancing image.

Another good way for managers to waste time, he pointed out, is in managing tellers. "I think our tellers are pretty well trained and know their job," Mr. Murray said, "so they don't need all that much help."

What, then, should the branch manager do?

"We need leaders in our branches who are able to prioritize their time and give the greatest emphasis to selling our products, both within the bank, to our existing customers, and soliciting business externally from professionals, small businesses, and community organizations."

John A. Aloisio, executive vice president of Sterling National Bank, New York, carries this outside role of the managers a step further.

At "Sterling on Seventh," the bank's office in the city's "fashion center" on Seventh Ave., Mr. Aloisio wrote, "the former manager was so successful in determining what his customers-actual and prospective-wanted that we had to give him a private office to handle all the new relationships he developed-and hire a second manager for the branch. In the few short years that branch has been opened, its growth continues to be spectacular.

"At Sterling on Park (Ave.), our newest office, our clientele tends to include more professionals, such as attorneys and medical groups. If an attorney in the building needs to deposit a few million dollars to his attorney's account after closing hours, he just calls the manager. It gets done.

"In Forest Hills, the manager of our Queens banking center services an upscale community, with many senior citizens. They, believe it or not, want to stand on line every month to see the interest posted in their passbooks. But this manager also services the single largest borrowing relationship we have.

"The issue isn't how many hats should a branch manager wear, but how many tricks can he pull out of one hat, and will his particular audience love those tricks."

As these contestants demonstrated, many readers feel that the job of the branch manager is to be the eyes and ears of the bank, leaving day-to-day operations to experts.

However, others take a diametrically opposed viewpoint. They feel the branch manager is really the CEO of a specific portion of the bank, and should be recognized and empowered as such.

To determine who wins the Schmidlap presidency, in the second part of our report we will look at some of the respondents who feel this way.

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