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Roleplaying as Chief Strategy Officers

On January 25th, Jonathan and I returned to the studio to record the latest podcast for The Bank Account. We’re trying to live up to our commitment to podcast more often in 2019 then we did in 2018; nothing like setting a low bar!

We first briefly discuss the latest IRS regulations for the taxation of Subchapter S banks and the reactions that we’ve seen from our clients on tax reform. Generalization appears virtually impossible, as we’ve seen reactions ranging from terminating Subchapter S elections, doing transactions and forgoing Subchapter S elections, sticking with the status quo, and, as Jonathan puts it, “Sub S or Die.”

We then turn to a hypothetical scenario that both Jonathan and I think about from time to time; what if we decided to cease providing legal services and instead attempted to become bank officers. What would our first steps be as a new Chief Strategy Officer of a hypothetical depository institution. Jonathan suggests beginning with the question of whether the institution is a true “community bank,” with a provocative definition for the term. Per Jonathan, a “community bank” is one whose existence is self-justified, as an irreplaceable benefit to the community it serves. (Jonathan than proceeds with an approach that even he admits might be better suited for a visual presentation.)

I suggest instead that the first question should be what is expected/desired by the institution’s shareholders. Depending on the shareholder base and their expectations for the institution, different strategic approaches are called for.

Please click to subscribe to the feed on iTunes, Android, Email or MyCast. It is also now available in the iTunes and Google Play searchable podcast directories.

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The Football Fan’s Guide to M&A Transactions

With both college and professional (not to mention fantasy) football in full swing, we find many conversations with clients drifting to topics from the
gridiron at this time of year.  Given that many of us are devoting a significant amount of our personal time to following our favorite teams, many times business points are best illustrated at this time of year by using football analogies.

Certain sports agents have posited that the highest achieving football coaches could easily run Fortune 500 companies but instead chose to coach football for a living.  While that point is debatable, we can certainly draw from the talking points of today’s best coaches in setting a framework for approaching a merger transaction.  While we can’t deliver Nick Saban, Bill Belichick, or Kirby Smart to your boardroom, use these sound bites to your advantage in setting the tone for how your board addresses an M&A transaction.

    1. Trust the process. “The Process” has become a hallmark of the University of Alabama’s championship dynasty.  Coach Saban focuses on the individual elements that yield the best results by the end of the season.  Similarly, a well-planned process can be trusted to yield the best long-term results.  This simple point is among the easiest for boards to miss.  We are often concerned when clients engage in “opportunistic” M&A activity.  Instead, we prefer to see a carefully planned process that includes the following fundamental elements:
      * Parameters around the profile that potential partners should have, including market presence, lines of business, and size;
      * Clearly defined financial goals and walkaway points; i.e., those metrics beyond which no deal can be justified;
      * For sellers, the forms of consideration that will be acceptable (i.e., publicly-traded stock, privately-held stock, or cash); and
      * Selection of qualified advisors.
    2. Self-scout. Great football teams have an honest self-awareness of their strengths and weaknesses and grasp them on a deeper level than their opponents.  Buyers and sellers should also have a frank assessment of their shortcomings.  In planning for the M&A process, those weaknesses should be addressed in advance to the extent possible.  To the extent they cannot be fixed in advance of embarking on an M&A process, parties should provide a transparent assessment of their weaknesses to potential partners.  Doing so enhances credibility and builds trust in the other facets of due diligence.
    3. Know the tendencies of your opponent. On the other side of self-scouting is a great team’s ability to understand and address the weaknesses of its opponents.  While we never advise clients to think of M&A partners as adversaries, advance due diligence of a potential partner to identify their needs can certainly help lead to a successful transaction.  At its core, a good M&A transaction is about giving a potential partner something it does not have and cannot build for itself.  To the extent that parties can identify the needs of potential partners in advance of their initial conversations, they can speak directly to those needs at the outset, thus positioning themselves as an optimal partner in a crowded M&A field.
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New Year, New You – What’s on Your Bank’s List of New Year’s Resolutions?

With the end of the year approaching, it is time to start looking forward to 2018 and putting together that list of New Year’s resolutions. This list of annual goals can be especially important for community banks because, let’s face it, times are a-changin’ and community banks cannot afford to ignore this, especially in the face of the ostensible juggernaut that is fintech. “New Year, New You” doesn’t have to be a mantra solely for individuals; it can also be a mantra for community banks who want to make 2018 a successful year. To get you started, we have provided some suggestions that may help you turn 2018 into a very positive year for your bank.

Don’t be Consciously Blind

With such a vast amount of information thrown at us every day, I think we are all guilty of becoming consciously blind. It’s true, all the information can overwhelm us, making us turn a blind eye and ignore what everyone has to say and assume if something really important happens, someone will tell us. As a banker, you cannot afford to do this. With the promulgation of new regulations and advances in technology, it is important for community banks to remain aware of the financial landscape and evolve. Whether this means meeting revised regulations or updating technology to meet your customer’s needs, make a resolution to stay abreast of information that may affect your bank.

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Bank CEO’s Success Strategies; A Conversation with DHG Financial Services

the-bank-accountOn the latest episode of The Bank Account, I had a conversation with Suzanne Donner and Bill Walton of DHG Financial Services to discuss their new whitepaper on the insights of top performing community bank CEOs.   DHG Financial Services conducted a series of interviews with the CEOs of 22 top performing community banks and has compiled their insights into a fantastic white paper.  I was honored to receive an advance copy, and was thrilled to have Suzanne and Bill join me to discuss their findings.

The financial performance of the 22 banks selected demonstrates that they’re doing something right.  ROAA for the group was 1.82% and ROAE was 18.19%.  At the same time, the banks enjoyed a Texas Ratio of less than 10% and an efficiency ratio of just 52.76%.

On the podcast, we discussed each of the three main areas of the white paper: areas in which the top performing community banks are clearly “ahead of the curve;” areas in which the banks are “on the curve;” and areas in which they see emerging risks. DHG’s research suggests that, collectively, these top-performing community banks are ahead of the curve when it comes to their strategic focus, talent caliber and relationships. They are on the curve (and for the most part, comfortably so), in their use of technology for the customer experience, determining success metrics and growth, and strategic planning.  Among the emerging risks and opportunities for community banks to shape the future, top performers generally focused on their responses to the emergence of millennials, as well as the advent of big data analytics.

I’m biased, but I think it’s a great conversation and a great white paper.  There are obviously a lot of resources out there about the industry, but I think this is close to a “must-read” for community bank executives and directors.

To request a copy of the full white paper, contact DHG Financial Services at benchstrength@dhgllp.com.

 

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Do you have an ATM-oriented board in an increasingly iPhone-oriented world?

In the run up to the Fourth of July holiday, you may have missed that June 27 was the 50th anniversary of the first ATM and June 29 was the 10th anniversary of the first iPhone.  I was struck by the coincidence of these two anniversaries occurring in the same week.  It also caused me to revisit in my mind a concern that has been growing for some time.

During several recent bank board retreats and strategic planning sessions, I’ve witnessed the challenging dynamics that occur when leaders begin the process of “board refreshment.”  Board refreshment is the current euphemism being used by consultants (and by the proxy advisory firms) to refer to the need for a closer match between the strategic goals of banks and the skill sets of board members.  This need is especially apparent in the boards of many mid-sized regional and community banks.

We are living in a time of increasing change in the demographics (gender, race and age) of the customer base of banks, coupled with rapid technological developments which impact the ways in which commercial customers conduct their businesses and interact with other businesses, including with their banks.  The typical board of a mid-sized regional or community bank, however, consists of men in their mid to upper-sixties who share similar backgrounds and whose perspectives were shaped during a different era for both business and banking.  The concern I have is that continued adherence by banks to such board composition will result in competitive disadvantage.

I’ve been practicing law and advising banks for over 30 years, and for most of that period I don’t think it mattered as much how strong the typical community bank board was.  What mattered was the strength and competency of the CEO, and it was a bonus if the bank had an energetic and engaged board of directors.  I believe there is now an increasing need for stronger boards.  Take a moment and consider how well equipped your board is to help guide your bank through the period of rapid change that is on the near term horizon.

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Planning for Strategic Planning Session

the-bank-accountWhile I continued on a family vacation (which was totally worthwhile), Jonathan and Jim McAlpin recorded an episode of The Bank Account looking at planning a strategic planning session for your bank.  Jonathan and Jim cover a wide array of topics based on their collective experience in assisting dozens of banks with their strategic planning.

Among the multitude of topics covered include:

  • thinking about shareholder interests in strategic planning;
  • what the “new normal” means for community banks;
  • how frequently strategic planning sessions should occur;
  • the importance of efficiency ratio analysis;
  • the length of a “good” strategic plan;
  • board composition; and
  • the need to address whether or not to pursue the sale of the bank with the board.

I’m biased, but if you haven’t listed to The Bank Account, I highly encourage this episode as an introduction.

Other items mentioned on the podcast include:

You can follow Jonathan on Twitter at @HightowerBanks.  Jim isn’t on Twitter, but has mastered the latest in carrier pigeon technology.

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Considering a Sale of the Bank? Don’t Forget the Board’s Due Diligence

In today’s competitive environment, some bank directors may view an acquisition offer from another financial institution as a relief. With directors facing questions of how to gain scale in the face of heightened regulatory scrutiny, increased investor expectations, and general concerns about the future prospects of community banks, a bona fide offer to purchase the bank can change even the most entrenched positions around the board table.

So, how should directors evaluate an offer to sell the bank? A good starting place is to consider the institution’s strategic plan to identify the most meaningful aspects of the offer to the bank’s shareholders. The board can also use the strategic plan to provide a baseline for the institution’s future prospects on an independent basis. With the help of a financial advisor, the board can evaluate the institution’s projected performance should it remain independent and determine what premium to shareholders the purchase offer presents. Not all offers present either the premium or liquidity sought by shareholders, and the board may conclude that continued independent operation will present better opportunities to shareholders.

Once the board has a framework for evaluating the offer, it should consider the financial aspects of the offer. The form of the merger consideration—be it all stock, all cash, or a mix of stock and cash—can dictate the level of due diligence into the business of the buyer that should be conducted by the selling institution.

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How to Get the Most out of Annual Board Reviews

There has never been a more challenging time to be a bank director. The combination of today’s hugely competitive banking market, increased regulatory burden and rapid technological developments have raised the bar for director oversight and performance. In response, an increasing number of community banks have begun to assess the performance of directors on an annual basis.

Evaluation of board performance is done in many ways, and ranges from an assessment by the board of its performance as a whole to peer-to-peer evaluation of individual directors. Public company boards are increasingly being encouraged by institutional investors and proxy advisory firms to conduct meaningful assessments of individual director performance. The pace of turnover and change on most bank boards is slow, and more often the result of mandatory retirement age limits than focus by the board on individual director performance. This may be untenable, however, as the pace of external change affecting financial institutions often greatly exceeds the pace of changes on the bank’s board.

While some institutions prefer a more ad hoc approach to assessing the strengths and weaknesses of the board and its directors, we suggest that a more formal approach, perhaps in advance of your board’s annual strategic planning sessions, can be a powerful tool. These assessments can improve communication between management and the board, identify new skills that may not be possessed by the current directors, and encourage engagement by all directors. If used correctly, these assessments often provide valuable information that can focus the board’s strategic plan and help shape future conversations on board and management succession.

So what are the key considerations in designing an effective board evaluation process? Let’s look at some points of emphasis:

  • Think big picture. Ask the board as a whole to consider the skill sets needed for the board to be effective in today’s environment. For example, does the board have a director with a solid understanding of technology and its impact on the financial services industry? Are there any board members with compliance experience in a regulated industry? Does the board have depth in any areas such as financial literacy, in order to provide successors to committee chairs when needed? Do you have any directors who graduated from high school after 1985?
  • Develop a matrix. Determine the gaps in your board’s needs by first writing down all of the skill sets required for an effective board, and then chart which of those needs are filled by current directors. Then discuss which of the missing attributes are most important to fill first. In particular, consider whether demographic changes in your market will make recruiting a diverse and/or female candidate a priority.
  • Determine the best approach to assessment. Engaging in an exercise of skills assessment will often focus a board on which gaps must be filled. It can also focus a board on the need to assess individual board member performance. Many boards are not prepared to launch into a full peer evaluation process, and a self-assessment approach can be a good initial step. Prepare a self-assessment form that touches upon the aspects of being an effective director, such as engagement, preparedness, level of contribution and knowledge of the bank’s business and industry. Then, have each director complete the self-assessment, with a follow-up meeting scheduled with the chair of the governance committee and lead independent director for a conversation about board performance. These conversations are often the most impactful part of the assessment process.
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The Link Between Board Diversity and Smart Business

Our time is one of rapid technological and social change. The baby boom generation is giving way to a more diverse, technology-focused population of bank customers. In conjunction with the lingering effects of the Great Recession, these changes have worked to disrupt what had been a relatively stable formula for a successful community bank.

Corporate America has looked to improve diversity in the boardroom as a step towards bringing companies closer to their customers. However, even among the largest corporations, diversity in the boardroom is still aspirational. As of 2014, men still compose nearly 82 percent of all directors of S&P 500 companies, and approximately 80 percent of all S&P 500 directors are white. By point of comparison, these figures roughly correspond to the percentages of women and minorities currently serving in Congress. Large financial institutions tend to do a bit better, with Wells Fargo, Bank of America and Citigroup all exceeding 20 percent female board membership as of 2014.

However, among community banks, studies indicate that female board participation continues to lag. Although women currently hold 52 percent of all U.S. professional-level jobs and make 89 percent of all consumer decisions, they composed only 9 percent of all bank directors in 2014. Also of interest, studies by several prominent consulting groups indicate that companies with significant female representation on boards and in senior management positions tend to have stronger financial performance.

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Ownership Succession for Family-Owned Banks: Building the Right Estate Plan

For a number of community banks, the management and ownership of the institution is truly a family affair. For banks that are primarily controlled by a single investor or family, these concentrated ownership structures can also bring about significant bank regulatory issues upon a transfer of shares to the next generation.

Unfortunately, these regulatory issues do not just apply to families or individuals that own more than 50 percent of a financial institution or its parent holding company. Due to certain presumptions under the Bank Holding Company Act and the Change in Bank Control Act, estate plans relating to the ownership of as little as 5 percent of the voting stock of a financial institution may be subject to regulatory scrutiny under certain circumstances. Under these statutes, “control” of a financial institution is deemed to occur if an individual or family group owns or votes 25 percent or more of the institution’s outstanding shares. These statutes also provide that a “presumption of control” may arise from the ownership of as little as 5 percent to 10 percent of the outstanding shares of a financial institution, which could also give rise to regulatory filings and approvals.

Upon a transfer of shares, regulators can require a number of actions, depending on the facts and circumstances surrounding the transfer. For transfers between individuals, regulatory notice of the change in ownership is typically required, and, depending on the size of the ownership position, the regulators may also conduct a thorough background check and vetting process for those receiving shares. In circumstances where trusts or other entities are used, regulators will consider whether the entities will be considered bank holding companies, which can involve a review of related entities that also own the institution’s stock. For some family-owned institutions, not considering these regulatory matters as part of the estate plan has forced survivors to pursue a rapid sale of a portion of their controlling interest or the bank as a whole following the death of a significant shareholder.

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