Banking on innovation Featured

9:50am EDT July 22, 2002

David Daberko is one of only a handful of people in the business world who truly make billion-dollar decisions. From his 35th floor office overlooking Lake Erie, he has steered National City Corp. to the top of the banking industry, all the while leading the company with a steady hand and cautious eye.

It was Daberko who 14 years ago oversaw the integration of the former Banc Ohio chain into National City, doubling the size of the company and setting it on track to become the $85 billion banking empire it is today.

Four years ago, he stepped into the role of CEO, making the decisions that further solidified National City as an industry leader.

“I think one of the things that has particularly happened since I’ve been CEO is we’ve made some major changes, major acquisitions, some major bets, if you will,” he says. “I don’t like the term ‘bets’ when it comes to banking and shareholders, but that’s what they are.”

He quickly recalls the acquisition of First of America, a Michigan-based chain of banks. It was a deal set to cost National City $7.2 billion, and it was Daberko’s signature that had to go on the dotted line. The secret to making monumental business decisions, he explains, is to know the company’s strengths and weaknesses.

“I’ve always been comfortable making big decisions when I felt the odds were strongly in our favor,” he says. “I have a good crew around me and I do a pretty good job of getting things down to, ‘The odds are 80 percent this is going to work for us.’ Those are the ones that we do.

“The ones that are 50 or 40 percent we tend not to do. It’s a very intellectually questioning kind of environment. We really analyze things thoroughly before we make our bets.”

But how does one turn a good idea into reality with 38,000 employees spanning seven states? Daberko readily admits it is no simple task.

“Because the companies are so large, just by definition it’s hard to change them,” he says. “These are battleships. I think one of the most useful exercises we do is every year, the top management — the top 14 of us — sit down and say, ‘What are our strengths? What are our core competencies? What do we really do well?’”

It was during that annual meeting two years ago that the bank’s senior managers decided to modify National City’s geographic management structure. The change was needed because some National City banks outside of Ohio were not fully capitalizing on product lines proven successful in other markets.

Although customer service and lending decisions would remain local, bank executives decided to juggle the organizational structure of the company so they could ensure new products were being introduced consistently in each market, a move Daberko believes set the stage for National City’s growth.

“We’ve made an organization that promotes decision making and execution of plans a lot better we used to have,” he says. “If we had stayed geographically oriented, we would be way behind where we are today.”

William McDonald, president of National City Corp’s Cleveland division, believes one of Daberko’s main strengths is his ability to bring new ideas to fruition.

“He understands the importance of identifying what will be the drivers of performance in the company and then assigning responsibility or accountability for dealing with those,” says McDonald. “He’s a very good delegator amongst his senior people, but constantly following up. He asks, ‘What are we doing about this? Have we got an answer to that yet?’”

In 1995, Daberko proved himself a true innovator when National City became the first bank to buy a full-service investment banking company and brokerage. The idea occurred to him when he worked on the investment side of National City, long before becoming the bank’s CEO. It was a self-described “pet project” that he was finally able to implement.

“I just felt that brokerage investment banking really had a place in the banking business,” says Daberko. “So we did innovate, went out and bought one of the first ones and then took the brokerage company and merged personal trust and financial planning and all of the businesses that touch wealthy people into one unit. Almost every other bank in the country has now done the same thing.”

Bringing change to National City and living with it afterward — especially the kind of change that involves spending billions of dollars — is something Daberko does quite well. Once a decision is made, he says he never doubts whether it was the correct one.

“I really study the facts, make a decision and then we go with it,” he explains. “And, if somebody three months later asks ‘Why did you do that?’ I say, ‘I don’t really remember.’

“You make a decision based on the best information you have and you go with it. I don’t look back much.”

How to reach: National City Corp., (216) 535-2000

Jim Vickers (jvickers@sbnnet.com) is associate editor at SBN.