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Local connections Featured

6:59am EDT December 17, 2003
FirstMerit Bank has more than $10 billion in assets and 157 offices, which doesn't exactly conjure images of a small community bank.

But FirstMerit is applying a strategy of being a "super community" bank, attempting to give customers the small-bank feel while providing the same services the big banks do.

FirstMerit is a big company trying to stay small. It is divided into seven regions, each headed by a regional CEO with a regional board of advisers.

"We have boards in each of our regions made up of local folks in the community, both business and community leaders," says Bob Brecht, senior executive vice president for FirstMerit, who oversees all seven regions. "They advise the local CEO of what's going on in the community and help us understand the needs of the community and the needs of the customers in the community. We use it as a sounding board for ideas we are looking to implement.

"The board also helps bring us new customers. The board members are active in the community and run into people that have banking needs. They can make introductions and help us in our business development."

Each board has between six and 12 members, made up of a cross section of the community. Members range from small business owners to leaders of nonprofit agencies.

"We find that even though our bank is in a fairly tight footprint of Northeast Ohio and Western Pennsylvania, there are different needs in each of those communities," says Brecht. "Akron is associated with polymers. Newcastle is associated with manufacturing. Western Ohio is more agricultural and small towns. The boards help us understand what the needs are in each of the communities."

Community boards have been a part of FirstMerit since 1994. As it acquired smaller community banks, rather than disbanding the boards that were in place, it kept them.

The bank has now added the position of community executive to further its local ties in areas of high growth potential.

"In the Akron region, the CEO of that region is headquartered in downtown Akron," says Brecht. "If we see an opportunity to grow in Portage County, is that something a CEO from downtown Akron can do a good job at, or should we get someone local in the community?"

FirstMerit chose the latter, promoting Kevin Patrick to the position of community executive for Portage County.

"He lives in Kent and grew up in the community and knows the people there," says Brecht. "Certainly his focus is on Portage County, where the president of the Akron region is focused on a larger territory. Kevin's business plan is centered only on Portage County."

The idea is to provide a point person in a growing community. With someone visible within the community, he or she can provide answers and make connections within the bank to provide the right services.

"He's someone you know and knows you," says Brecht. "They don't have to call a 1-800 number or Chicago or some other place, they just call Kevin. He can go out and bring in any specialist. If they only need a banker, then Kevin is their banker.

"For FirstMerit, this is our model for banking. We have to be in the community and understand what the needs are. For customers, what makes it nice is we have the Internet and technology, but our customers like dealing with people they know when they have a problem.

"By having Kevin available in Portage County, any problem can be solved by getting ahold of Kevin. If he can't solve it himself, he knows who to go to." How to reach: FirstMerit, (330) 996-6025

Eat and add

A survey by Robert Half Management Resources shows that CFOs work through lunch a minimum of three days per week.

"Working through lunch is increasingly common for executives faced with greater responsibilities that must be managed with fewer resources," says Paul McDonald, executive director of Robert Half Management Resources.

But McDonald points out that there are several business advantages of taking a midday time out.

* Business development. In a previous survey, nearly half of CFOs polled said their most successful business meeting outside the office was conducted over a meal.

* Networking. Touching base with peers should not be limited to after-work events or conferences. Schedule time for lunch appointments with colleagues and others in your industry to share ideas and best practices.

* Workplace productivity. While it's common to skip lunch during crunch times, making it a regular habit can decrease productivity over the long term. When stopping for lunch is not feasible, take short breaks throughout the day to recharge.

* A new attitude. A change of scenery can spur new ideas and give you a fresh perspective on current business challenges.