At Westamerica Bancorp., a small business banker's most useless tools are a desk and chair.

Going head-to-head against giants like BankAmerica Corp. and Wells, Fargo & Co., the $2.3 billion asset supercommunity bank stresses a meet-the-customer culture which has a staff of 180 bankers toting pagers, cellular telephones, and portable computers.

"They're not doing us any good if they are in the office," said David Payne, chairman, president, and chief executive of the San Rafael, Calif.-based company since 1988.

Indeed, Mr. Payne pushes his people to be scarce around the office and constantly available to customers. In short, he is not looking for a traditional Stanford-trained banker ready to grind out intensive credit analysis. More often than not, he is looking for someone to carry out a sales culture that analysts and other bankers say is nothing short of cutting edge.

"It's not just a leave-your-business-card-on-somebody's-desk kind of sales culture," said Campbell Chaney, banking analyst at Rodman & Renshaw in San Francisco. "They are aggressively requiring high-quality calls from the CEO on down,"

Indeed, Mr. Payne made 22 calls himself last month. As for what he expects from his growing army of small business bankers, Westamerica is anything but ambiguous. The company hires high-energy sales-oriented people and demands that they do at least 18 calls a week, with two-out-of-three targeting prospects.

"All banks have tried to do what Westamerica is doing. I think they're quite unusual," said Robert Albertson, banking analyst at Goldman, Sachs & Co. "This is a company that is transforming their income statement through their sales culture."

But it wasn't always that way. When Mr. Payne, whose background was in publishing, came to the bank six years ago, his first job was to fix credit-quality problems. The bigger task, however, was overhauling the company's traditional banking culture.

"In the early stages of our (transformation) process, we came to realize that many of the people we had in our branches hadn't believed that making sales calls was part of banking," Mr. Payne said in an interview. "We went through a lot of turnover with people who said I got into this business because the prospects walk in the door and we open up accounts for them."

Pausing to chuckle at that banking philosophy, he adds: "My belief is nobody walks in the door anymore. If you want to do business, you need to be prepared to go out to the customer."

The result was a 50% turnover in the platform and offices that became notable for bankers who had little opportunity to break in their -chairs. He says the transformation has taken five years and only began to show results in 1991. Today, analysts and Mr. Payne credit the evolution with a 1.22% return on assets (triple what it had been when he took control of the company) and a 15.5% return on equity.

Today, the edict for small business bankers at Westamerica is clear: produce and prosper.

The company offers base salaries competitive with larger rivals, but ties total compensation to quarterly goals for both increased deposits and an incremental gain in profits. If both are met, then the banker's bonus grows. Moreover, there are no limits on how large a bonus can be.

"There are officers here who make double their pay," Mr. Payne said.

Westamerica also gives incentives to front-line people to monitor credits. Even though underwriting is centralized, bankers are expected to monitor changes that might be relevant to the creditworthiness of clients. They have a financial incentive. Any loan losses are deducted from their compensation.

For instance, if they call on a client who also has a real estate loan for an owner-occupied business that is suddenly half empty, the relationship banker is expected to know that. If the CEO of a business is getting divorced, the credit officer should be notified since the outcome could affect the future of the business -- and its creditworthiness.

While the cultural transformation is unique, the approach to small business banking profits is classic cross-selling. The company not only wants the business account, but the relationship with principals of the company and its employees.

Westamerica estimates that it now sells four products to an average business customer, a figure Mr. Payne expects to soon grow to six. "We've got all the bells and whistles that the big boys have," he said, listing services ranging from payroll management to account reconciliation.

While larger banks often see credit as the starting point of a small business customer, Mr. Payne insists that the company lead with the depository account -- generally the most lucrative part of the relationship.

That focus has paid off. In its service area, Westamerica has built a commercial demand deposit base of $262 million at yearend 1993, an enviable 19% share which is barely behind the $266 million of market leader BankAmerica.

In other areas, such as lending, price generally determines who wins the business. As a result, Westamerica has focused on businesses with needs of $500,000 to $25 million -- putting them at the bottom of the market that larger banks pursue.

Where they win the fight for customers, it is because of a people-oriented approach. "Their niche is very high service," said Rodman's Mr. Chaney.

That culture is stressed from the job interview to daily 15-minute sales meetings in every branch. Indeed, it is the about the only time that small business bankers are absolutely expected in the office.

The goal of the meetings is to review the previous day's sales calls, to review goals, and to discuss the status of new opportunities. All of that has to be done in a fast-moving format outlined in a 13-page guide stamped with the words "Sales Culture" on the cover.

Mr. Payne leaves little room for creativity in those daily sessions. The guide scripts what to discuss with questions like, "Have you tickled your calendar for follow-up?" It also advises what not to discuss, such as who's in and who's out.

The greatest danger to his sales-oriented approach is continually building his self-styled staff of overachievers.

"The challenge is in keeping high-quality people down in the trenches where it counts," he said. "Finding the right people is difficult. I can tell you that the banking industry doesn't grow them."

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