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No app can do what you do—in person

Business lenders visiting customers and prospects live means more than Facetime or Skype or email

No app can do what you do—in person

I sat at the lunch table at Rotary this week getting caught up with some old friends, including a banker whom I know from competing against him for several years. He had news of George, a well-known one-time local banker who is now working for a large regional banking company in California.

My fellow Rotarian had been in a gas station in Cheyenne, Wyo., within the last ten days, and who pulled in but our friend George. George was on vacation with his family. The two bankers chatted, and it turns out George is now living in the upper Midwest with lending oversight responsibilities for several states.

George always had a sunny disposition and was one of those people I was always glad to run into. I think most everyone thought of him that way too. But my friend told me that in that chance encounter in Wyoming the other day, George seemed a bit weary and beset. My friend, who is retired from banking, observed that it’s probably a reflection on the state of morale of lots of bankers these days.

There have been lots of conversations among bankers since the Great Recession about how work isn’t fun anymore.

That’s beyond sad. Lending jobs should be about helping people, solving problems and growing our banks in their local markets. Seldom is that not an interesting way to make one’s living.

So what are we missing here?

Change your attitude

I do understand how younger bankers without the years of experience in dealing with business cycles and their impacts on local trade areas can get into a funk. But it’s up to the graybeards in the bank to help them out.

Years ago I had a boss who used to tell all of his subordinates that the way to have a good day is to go make a new business call on a prospect. In order to convert a good day into a great one, convert that prospect into a customer.

That’s a simple nostrum. But I’m old and experienced enough for me to attest to its truth.

Years ago as a new hire at Florida’s then-largest bank, I was brought into a lending vacancy in the corporate banking platform. My predecessor had been promoted to an affiliate bank job upstate, so I came in and assumed much of his established book of business.

Not very long after that, one of my experienced colleagues resigned to take a job with one of his customers. Suddenly, I was responsible for my predecessor’s accounts and had a lot more added to my workload as the other man’s accounts were reassigned for handling.

It’s hard to administer a portfolio of perhaps a hundred borrowing relationships and not know any of the customers. My first priority was to get to know as many as I could as quickly as I could.

I was out of the bank a lot. My customers were pleased to have someone from “downtown” call on them at their places of business and I learned that many of them had not had a banker call in their place of business in several years. That’s hard to believe but it was true.

Where my customers were active borrowers, I was often treated like a visiting potentate. Not only did I get to know the owners, I had a chance to meet the real “bosses,” who were often a spouse who ran the office or the bookkeeper who rode herd over the company’s books.

People plus people equals success

It was an epiphany at a relatively young age that I had to meet the customer on his turf to be truly successful and earn his enduring respect.

My efforts were well rewarded as customers began to introduce me to their friends, many of whom became my prospects and ultimately my customers. Customers began to return pieces of their relationships that had been poached by competitors, probably because my predecessors had not been attentive to the calling side of the business.

Quite by accident I found myself with the very fortunate reputation of being an effective business developer. What had I discovered that had impressed my bosses and my colleagues?  Simply this: Customers liked to be visited by their bankers and lunch in a fancy restaurant is not enough.

How to not be replaced by an app

We have lost a lot of our mystique in the last few years. The excesses of some have become the condemnation of many. How do we recover?  What should we do? 

If I were still an active lender, I’d spend much of my time out of the bank and in my customers’ places of business. For many bankers this has to be a self-imposed discipline. It takes time and effort.

One time a customer gave me a tour of his metal fabricating plant. Factories are usually noisy and dirty places and this place was certainly that and more. It was really a mess. I was getting to know the owner and aware that he had retired early from a successful Army career as a colonel to buy into the business a few years before.

I couldn’t square his spit-and-polish background with the mess I saw on his shop floor. I must have said something to this effect and didn’t give it another thought.

Several months later he invited me back and insisted that I accompany him on another tour. The place had been transformed—as much as one can transform a dirty metal bending business shop floor—into an environment that was neat and orderly.

The owner told me that my comment so surprised him that he set about to clean up the shop environment and that subsequently both productivity and morale improved significantly. I had done him a favor and quite by accident.

What ultimately followed also came as much by accident as by design: his friendship, his  trust and estate business and his confidence in me, his banker.

If I’d done my job just from behind my desk, none of this might have happened. I’d have missed out on both a business development opportunity and an important lesson.

It’s time we get back to basics and get busy doing what we intuitively know we need to do. Business development requires that first step and that’s up to us. It’s difficult today as the business environment in some areas is still recovering and the impacts of Dodd-Frank have complicated our business to the point of making what we do less creative and more tedious.

Push back, get up, and go make a call

Still, my old boss’s advice to go make a new business call is to me the best cure for the doldrums.

Maybe George, my old acquaintance, needs to be doing more of that himself. I can tell you it helps one’s perspective. But if anyone doesn’t believe me and hasn’t had good time in a while, maybe he or she should find other work.

But before you do anything drastic, try my antidote for the doldrums.

Ed O’Leary

Banking Exchange Contributing Editor Ed O'Leary, a veteran lender and workout expert, spent nearly 50 years in bank commercial credit and related functions, working with both major banks as well as community banking institutions. His last job before retiring was as the CEO of a regional bank headquartered in Alburquerque, N.M. He earned his workout spurs in the dark days of the 1980s and early 1990s in both oil patch and commercial real estate lending. O'Leary began his banking career at The Bank of New York in 1964, and worked at banks in Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, and New Mexico. He served as a faculty member and thesis advisor at ABA's Stonier Graduate School of Banking for more than two decades, and served as long as a faculty member for ABA's undergraduate and graduate commercial lending schools. Today he works as a consultant and expert witness, and serves as instructor for ABA e-learning courses. You can e-mail him at [email protected]. O'Leary's website can be found at

In mid-2016 O'Leary's "Talking Credit" blog received a bronze excellence award for the Northeastern Region from the American Society of Business Publication Editors.

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