It was as serious a group as I have ever addressed.

The Community Bankers Association of Illinois held a seminar on "Direction for Directors for 2000." Audience members had driven as much as four hours to make it to Springfield by 9 a.m.

Sandra McAvoy, the education director, said she expected about 200 directors to attend, but more than 300 showed up for talks on prospects for the economy and the banking industry and discussions on such topics as remaining independent and enhancing shareholder value.

Still, when I asked directors "What is the mission of your bank?" they were mute. I then asked, "How many of your banks even have a mission statement?" Only four or five raised their hands.

The response was similar to that I received when I announced a contest in this column a few months back to pick the best community bank mission statement. I got only two letters. Compare that with the response when I asked whether it was a good idea to have dress-down days. I got about 35 letters.

When I ask bankers what their mission is, I get generic answers, such as, "To serve the community, provide a stimulating and satisfactory place for the employees to work, and to make enough money so the institution can survive."

The two respondents to our contest expanded effectively on this basic theme. Sue Ellen Nolan, branch operations manager at Harleyville (Pa.) National Bank and Trust Co., put it this way: "Never 'no' your customers; always know your customers.

"No matter what your size, it's your mission to keep your image as a respected, independent, community-oriented financial institution," she wrote.

Charles N. Funk, president of the Des Moines region of Brenton Banks of Iowa, sent me this response:

"Because I have never been particularly effective at creating mission statements, I instead came up with "the way we do business in Des Moines" as my sort of mission statement. You can go to any Brenton-Des Moines location and find these simple statements posted in the lunchroom, bathroom, etc.

  • "1. We will greet each person who enters our building with a warm welcome and a smile.
  • "2. We will provide solutions for our clients that enhance their financial well being while at the same time building shareholder wealth.
  • "3. We will treat each other with respect at all times and will be honest and ethical in our dealings with our clients and with each other.
  • "4. We will capitalize on our unique position as 'Iowa's largest Iowa-based bank.'
  • "5. 'Fun' is not a dirty word.
  • "6. Brenton-Des Moines is a team."

At the Springfield directors meeting, I didn't give up. I pleaded for more detailed mission statements, and the three responses I was handed after the meeting just stated that a community bank "must provide personal services," "treat people like people," and "know who your customers are."That got me thinking. Why do people serve on community bank boards? One reason could be that directors learn so much about their communities and economic conditions in general by being on a board. This, many have told me, offsets the negative aspects, such as exposure to liability suits. I once sat on the board of a real estate investment trust. I certainly didn't join for the modest board fees. It was for the intrigue of learning what a board does and for the ego lift of having been asked.
Maybe there is more. I'd love to know why directors out there accepted the invitation to serve on a bank board. Please reply to Paul Nadler, 14 Friar Tuck Circle, Summit, N.J. 07901, or fax (908) 273-7309. Whoever sends the best answer will not only serve as president for a day of Schmidlap National Bank, we will make him or her a board member too. Mr. Nadler, an American Banker contributing editor, is professor of finance at Rutgers University Graduate School of Management.

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