Recently, the pace of M&A activity has lagged. But experts don't expect the slowdown in activity to continue for much longer. With the Federal Reserve's decision in March to hold tight on interest rates, smaller and larger banks will continue to look to mergers and acquisitions to relieve margin pressure and to increase profits.
There are countless considerations banks must face during a merger. But one thing that should not be overlooked is something as simple as it is complex: integrating two different organizational cultures.
In 2014, as chief culture and experience officer, I helped oversee the merger between ConnectOne Bank and Union Center National Bank, both in New Jersey. My institution, ConnectOne, was being acquired by a bank with nearly double the employees and a retail network twice as large. Yet the merged institution would be a unified ConnectOne, with our acquirer assuming ConnectOne's branding and culture. We had six months to close the deal.
When banks are faced with the challenge of such an extensive organizational overhaul, it can be tempting to let culture initiatives take a backseat. But in the current regulatory environment, and with banks still hampered by reputational issues following the crisis, establishing and maintaining a healthy leadership, as well as a client-focused, culture is vitally important.
But how do you build a united culture out of two merging institutions with potentially conflicting business and workplace philosophies?
Our assignment at ConnectOne was to integrate our well-established core values, including considering the client's needs first, resolving consumer requests with a sense of urgency and maintaining a collaborative environment so lower-level employees have input in big decisions. Our culture effectively would overtake that of our acquirer, which had been more of a top-down organization.
For ConnectOne, we had to make sure the 16 additional merged bank branches were identical to the eight original ones, both aesthetically and operationally. We identified team members to be dispatched to the new branches to train and coach employees. Our entire team had to understand and buy in to the ConnectOne culture and deliver on the bank's core values in a consistent way.
During the merger process, I focused on aligning the effort to integrate the two cultures while overseeing a systems and brand conversion. This meant that as employees were trained on account openings and other technical processes that would take shape under the merged organization, they were also coached on how everything fit into the culture of client first, sense of urgency, and employee collaboration.
In some cases, overseeing culture meant making operational changes to provide the new clients we were taking on with the best possible experience. While the newly merged bank was running on ConnectOne Bank systems, we evaluated the different processes from both banks and put in to place the ones that best aligned with our culture. For example, we quickly changed our debit card issuance process to continue to provide our new clients with an enhanced experience. This provided them a smooth experience through the conversion, while being more efficient for the bank as a whole.
The path was not always easy. Our biggest obstacle to completing the integration in the branches was staff bandwidth — getting the right employees to where they needed to be. Looking back, I would have considered hiring additional staff before the merger so that we had more employees equipped to train and manage the conversion.
An advantage in our favor was buy-in from the corporate suite. A commitment to maintaining, revitalizing or even redefining culture needs to come from the top of your organization. When senior management is willing to identify culture as a priority, it trickles down. Employees get on board and ultimately become your brand ambassadors — the day-to-day folks who interface with your clients and demonstrate that this is who we are and this is why you bank with us.
If there's no buy-in from leadership, there will be no buy-in from your employees. Culture is meaningless unless everyone believes in it.
The importance of culture has often been overlooked in our industry. Tackling and prioritizing elusive questions for building out culture can seem daunting to a bank facing a major change. Who are we as a bank, as a company? How do we make sure our employees represent our brand? How do we ensure our culture transfers to our clients and customers?
But in today's climate, these questions are vital for banks to consider at any stage of growth. Falling into the trap of traditionalism won't cut it anymore. Today's banks need to be more innovative, more creative and more willing to think outside the box to define and differentiate themselves.
To many, it may seem like a lot of work and something that doesn't take priority over the pending financial matters bankers are faced with day in and day out. However, the alternative — not committing to culture and not putting in the work — can be very costly.
Perhaps most importantly, banks facing a merger need to realize that culture doesn't just become "real" once that press release goes out or that new name is on the door. Keeping culture authentic is a daily task — one that evolves with your employees, your services and your organization as a whole.
Maria Fusca Gendelman is the senior vice president and chief culture and experience officer at ConnectOne Bank in New Jersey.