Banks – appearances count. Honesty not so much.

Someone wrote that the public tended to trust bankers even when they didn’t think that bankers were very bright. I don’t agree. Mediocrity is the goal at banks. Appearances, however, are of overriding important. I was with a large bank in the Southeast for nearly ten years. A couple of stories make my point.

The bank where I worked merged with another nearly the same size in a different state. The union was touted as a “marriage of equals.” The executive level of the bride bank (one being merged into ours) was assured  their jobs were secure. Executives from the bride bank, confident of the status, relished chances to ream out middle management peons they acquired to make certain their authority was established.

The risk of being impertinent . . .

I picked up the phone one morning. An upper echelon exec from the bride bank was on the other end of the line. I had hardly said so much as “Hello,” and he launched into a rant that had my head with spinning.

I finally interrupted him.  “I don’t mean to be impertinent, sir, but can I ask what this is all about?” He honestly had not given me reason.. I had made a trip to the bride bank the previous week. Visited with colleagues in the same area as I managed in an effort to get to know them better. I must not have done well. The chewing out was over how I handled my visit. I had been arrogant, abusive, disrespectful, and demeaning — all of the traits that have followed me since birth in dealing with others, especially new acquaintances with whom I was seeking fellowship. I had two options. Either I apologize or take issue with this blow-hard. I chose the former, genuinely remorseful that my actions had been interpreted in the manner described.  My caller seemed placated.

When I hung up I realized that the bully had come at me directly without checking things out with my boss first. Crossing a departmental lines of authority is a serious breach of protocol and disrespectful of my bosses position. His oversight, further, put me in the position of reporting the encounter to my boss who, as it turned out, was a placement from the bride bank into the hierarchy through which I reported. He was very alarmed at my report and set up a meeting with blow-hard for the following week. I was expected to attend. 

A Good Ol’ Boy Chat . . . 

The meeting took place in my bosses office. He sat behind his dest. (That’s what he called it, not a misspelling.) Bully and my boss talked about football, Atlanta, mutual friends, and I was allowed to take a seat just inside the door.  When they concluded their good-ol’-boy chat, my boss stood up, looked over the shoulder of his guest, and said, “Well, we won’t need to worry about any reoccurrences will we, John.”

“No, sir.” I relied. My boss nodded signaling my dismissal. 

This charade was simply part of the effort to reinforce the illusion of a marriage of equals. Thousands were spent to sustain it. An awkward new name was created for the combined banks. New signs. New stationery. New advertising. Big budgets for everything. Except honesty. Once merged, top management at the acquired bank was dumped.

The bloodletting created trouble, however. Middle management in the acquired bank was disillusioned and demoralized, so it was decided to promote one or two from their ranks. My department lost out. A guy from the merged bank took over. He wore a Rolex, as a badge of his success, displaying prominently when he was in conference so that none would miss it. He dyed his hair—a bad job. He would have looked out of place anywhere except on the sales team of a used car lot.

One day, just before an important meeting with a client company in New York, the president of our division called Dye-job and me into his office.

“I do not want our lending business mentioned with these people. We are not to use it as leverage. It can’t come up in your meeting. Our corporate banking colleagues won’t stand for it. Understand? 

Speaking in code . . . 

I understood. I thought Dye-job understood. We got to our meeting, and everything went smoothly until it the break. Dye-job and I went to the men’s room along with several men to whom we were making our presentation. Dye-job waited until each had sidled up to a urinal, and then, taking a vacant slot himself, announced, “You guys know how important our lending business is to you and how tough credit is to get these days. The broader a company can make a relationship with a bank, the more valuable they become to the bank. It’ll give you a lot of leverage when it comes to credit ceilings and rates.”

We made the sale. To this day, however, I cannot decide if the order we got from our division president was to be taken literally, and Day-job ignored it, or was the order in a code only insiders understood. It did seem completely unnecessary to tell us. But who’s to say? Dye-job either understood the code or didn’t give a damn because he wanted to make the sale for his own reasons. 

I eventually quit the bank to join Merrill Lynch. A good ol’ boy in HR concluded my exit interview by observing, “Every now and then, John, we have someone who just doesn’t fit in.”

“Thank God,” was my only reaction.