When Zions Bancorp. announced in March that it would buy the California operations of Sumitomo Bank Ltd., Salt Lake City-based Zions acknowledged that combining the two banks would not be easy.
Two-thirds of Sumitomo's California customers are of Asian descent, and they would need to be persuaded to stick around. Meanwhile, Zions wants to convince depositors to switch their savings accounts to more transactional investment accounts, and it wants to retool Sumitomo's branch work force to become more sales-oriented.
All of this is in pursuit of boosting Sumitomo's lackluster 9% return on equity.
These challenges fall to Robert G. Sarver, who has been named to run the combined Zions-Sumitomo operation in California after the merger closes, which is expected in the third quarter.
"Sarver has a lot to do to build the California bank's performance," said Campbell K. Chaney, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill & Partners, Walnut Creek, Calif. "He's going to be one busy executive."
In a recent interview, the understated Mr. Sarver, 36, agreed that he faces "a fair amount of work" to integrate Sumitomo successfully.
Currently the president of Grossmont Bank in San Diego, which was bought by Zions in November, Mr. Sarver said his top priority will be to convince his Asian-descended customers that their service will not deteriorate because Sumitomo's Osaka, Japan-based parent has handed over the reins to a Utah regional bank.
"The first challenge for us is to convey to customers that we are interested in continuing relationships, and having a strong presence, and continuing to deliver a high level of quality service in the Asian community," Mr. Sarver said.
He is planning a host of changes. The first is to offer private banking services to Sumitomo's wealthy customers.
Zions also plans to be active in the Asian community and to advertise in Chinese in the Los Angeles and San Francisco markets, he said.
The bank will hire more multilingual employees in many of its 71 California branches, Mr. Sarver added.
In addition, Sumitomo's Japanese parent has agreed to act as a correspondent bank for Zions' customers, providing confirmation of international letters of credit and currency transactions with Asian nations.
"We need to continue the high level of personal services that these people are looking for," Mr. Sarver said.
He also plans a massive campaign to teach Sumitomo branch employees sales techniques. Sumitomo's sales force is unprepared to market Zions' formidable array of products and services, he said.
"The culture right now is very service- and customer-oriented, and that's good, but it's not quite as sales-oriented as I'm accustomed to," Mr. Sarver said.
"We're going to provide our offices with more products to sell, but we'll also have to reorganize the goals, incentives, and compensation to encourage people to sell more products," he added.
The stark difference between the ways Zions and Sumitomo conduct their retail operations could prompt some of the Japanese bank's employees to leave, Mr. Chaney said.
"While the Zions sales culture is obviously very successful, you're probably going to find a lot of turnover, either through attrition or through Zions pushing people," he said. "Sarver has to look at branch managers and say, 'This is what we expect of you-whether it's sales quotas or cold calls-and if you don't want to do it, let's discuss a separation package.'"
Mr. Sarver said Zions has not determined how many layoffs, if any, would result from the acquisition.
But he will have to try to convince Sumitomo customers, many of whom prefer to keep their funds in low-margin jumbo certificates of deposit, to move money to investment accounts. Success lies in simply illustrating the higher payoff and convenience associated with the new types of accounts, he said.
"We'd like to change the deposit mix of this bank," Mr. Sarver said. "We need to shift away from CDs and into investment accounts that pay a high level of interest." He said he would try to move customers toward products that do not require them to "come into the branch every 30 or 60 days just to process their transactions."
Analysts said that despite the obstacles, they are confident that Zions- which is to become California's fifth-largest bank, with $6 billion of assets, after the deal-would smoothly integrate Sumitomo. The $10 billion- asset banking company's well-oiled approach to acquisitions-it has completed 16 in the last three years-is to avoid trampling on a purchased institution's management and business style.
"The Zions people are perfect for that challenge," said R. Jay Tejera, an analyst at Dain Rauscher in Minneapolis. "They are extremely strong on customizing their operations in different areas, decentralizing authority, and melding the technologies of acquired institutions into their own."
Indeed, Zions often leaves a bank's name and management in place after an acquisition. In the case of Sumitomo, the bank's president and chief executive, Tomoyuki Kato, will join Zions as a senior executive. National Bank of Arizona, which was founded by Mr. Sarver in 1984 and bought by Zions 10 years later, is another example.
"Zions grants a tremendous amount of autonomy to us," said John J. Gisi, who has been president, chairman, and chief executive officer of National Bank of Arizona since it opened. "They believe that banking is a local business and that it is best for us to be making the day-to-day decisions."
Mr. Sarver was named president of Grossmont Bank after organizing an investment group, which included Zions chief executive Harris H. Simmons, to buy the small Southern California institution. With Mr. Sarver at the helm, Grossmont has doubled in asset size, to $900 million, during the past three years.
"He is a good banker, a good real estate guy, and he has a very solid set of skills," Mr. Simmons said.
It is not surprising that Mr. Simmons puts so much confidence in Mr. Sarver. In the early 1980s, after working in his father's thrift, the then- 21-year-old Mr. Sarver decided to start a bank himself.
"I decided there was a need to start a local business bank in Tucson," he said. "I guess when you're young and don't have a lot of inhibitions and responsibilities, you tend to take on challenges that otherwise might seem a tad too difficult."
After filing an application with the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency to open National Bank of Arizona, and scaring up $4.5 million in start-up capital, Mr. Sarver said the agency responded with a few inquiries.
"The major question involved what they thought was a typo, because my age was entered on the application as 21," he said with a laugh. "I guess that raised a few eyebrows."
In fact, the OCC refused to allow Mr. Sarver to run the bank. He was forced to find someone older, and recruited Mr. Gisi, who was then a senior vice president at United Bank of Arizona.
National Bank of Arizona became the only one in the state to increase quarterly earnings consistently during the 1980s real estate crisis, Mr. Gisi said. It also maintained excellent credit quality at a time when asset quality was cratering, according to Mr. Simmons.
"While others folded their tents and left the market, the National Bank of Arizona was the largest construction lender in the market, but they only had one foreclosure in the mid-1980s, thanks in large part to Robert," said Mr. Simmons. "He's a great mix of conservatism and boldness."