Huntington Bank grows stronger with FirstMerit folded into its operations

While some people changed roles, new systems were implemented, and the FirstMerit team had to be taught how Huntington manages risks and about the company overall, Steinour says people in banking are used to a fair amount of training.

More than training, the biggest challenge with an acquisition is winning the hearts and minds of employees, like the 3,500 people who now found themselves a part of Huntington.

“You’re trying to find ways to sensitively engage with them, and to point out what together we are capable of doing,” he says. “We use the phrase ‘stronger together.’ I really believe it.”

While FirstMerit had branches in new areas, such as Chicago and Wisconsin, 85 percent of its business was in Huntington’s market. But it did give Huntington more market share, which Steinour says is important in today’s economy and regulatory context. Adding FirstMerit also allowed Huntington to accelerate its investment in mobile and digital technologies.

FirstMerit gained additional products, services and tools, as well as broader support in a number of areas. At the same time, Huntington added a business line to finance boats and RVs and adopted and modified some of FirstMerit’s unique user experiences.

It helped enormously, Steinour says, that they wanted to keep the teams in the branches and the relationship managers virtually intact. Plus, some key FirstMerit employees moved into top management spots to bolster Huntington’s talent.

Collaboration all around

The day of the acquisition announcement, Steinour, Greig and their executive teams started a series of meetings in Akron; Cleveland; Flint, Michigan; and Chicago, among other locations, to get in front of the employee base. This gave both teams the opportunity to start communicating.

“It started a collaboration that continued throughout the period from announcement to close, and set the tone of the integration,” Steinour says. “There’s a lot of great people; they stayed in the game. They helped us and they continue to help us.”

Sometimes in a merger or acquisition, the outgoing executive team goes its own way and people are left to fend for themselves. That didn’t happen in this case. The executive collaboration was different than anything Steinour had experienced.

Greig was clear he wanted to stay involved because he views this as his legacy — he wanted it to go well for the FirstMerit customers and employees. Even after the conversion, Greig still calls Steinour as soon as he sees or hears something.

“We gave Paul and the FirstMerit team our budgets, our pro formas and our plans, and asked them for their input. I’ve never done that before. I’m not aware of others doing that,” Steinour says. “They got to see everything we were thinking, then help us further refine that — and to their credit they did a great job.”

Collaboration and the ability to create a collaborative process can provide better net results, if done properly, he says. It starts with respect, valuing the insights and opinions you receive. Then, after you solicit different viewpoints, you want to respond and make adjustments.

“Our plans were modified in some cases, adjusted, to incorporate the input. I think we got to better solutions,” Steinour says.

Customer service doesn’t stop

Another component to an acquisition of this size is planning.

“Our process list is 25,000-plus items that all have to come together. It’s very detailed and involves thousands of people,” Steinour says.

This can include simple things like whether bankers are communicating the right 800-number to customers.

“There’s always change for the customer. We recognize that. We tried to minimize the change,” he says.

For example, unlike many banks, Huntington decided to allow FirstMerit customers to use their old check stock until they run out. In order to make sure employees have the right account numbers, Huntington created a cross-reference table.

In the case of conversion weekend, Huntington had already changed out the signs, fronting them with laminate FirstMerit boards that could be peeled off. It also converted its network and equipment in advance, which Steinour says is a bigger deal than it sounds and hopefully led to better service for customers that weekend.

“There are a series of things that are on that punch list, down to very minute details, that all add up to what we hope will be an experience of change for our customers that minimizes the negatives and allows us to continue to do business with them,” he says.