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Banking on service Featured

8:36am EDT February 26, 2004
As more and more banks merge and form "super banks," regional and local banks have to work harder to maintain market share.

Robert Eversole, president and CEO of Fifth Third Bank, Columbus, heads this area's third largest bank. Eversole says if a bank today is going to gain and retain and new customers, it's important it have a sales culture.

"We have bankers that are good at identifying and presenting opportunities to customers," he says.

Eversole says that products are similar from bank to bank, and what differentiates a bank is its service.

"Consumers are more sophisticated these days," Eversole says. "You have to have the right people in place."

Eversole says Fifth Third gives its people a great deal of autonomy and decision-making authority, so customers don't have to wait for an answer to a question or a loan application. And with more than 900 employees under his wing, he finds spending time with them and with customers his biggest challenge.

"I'm trying to be in an awful lot of places," he says.

Smart Business spoke with Eversole about changes in the banking industry and growing a bank in an era of consolidation.

Fifth Third is the third largest bank in the area. How are you planning to grow business here?

We have a good reputation for having a strong sales culture. We look at our customers' needs and trends, and we have been innovative in advising and educating our customers about what products work for them. We have a proven track record, and we hire experienced bankers.

What are Fifth Third's strengths, and how will you leverage them?

If you look across markets, we have a highly decentralized structure, which is more the exception than the rule. We drive decision-making as close to customers as possible, so whether the customer is working with a teller or manager, that person has the autonomy to make decisions. This means the decision is made faster, and the customer is dealing with someone he or she can have a relationship with.

Another one of our strengths is credit quality, based on our Moody's rating. Over time, having that strong credit rating gives you staying power and allows us to invest in new services and branches.

We leverage these strengths through execution -- in our ability to take advice from our employees and get out of their way and let them make decisions. We compare ourselves not just to other banks but other companies, and leading companies move quickly and stay close to the customer. That is our model.

The only con is that you have to have the right people you can trust and empower, and people that have the desire to do that. Some people don't want the autonomy.

What were your biggest challenges when you stepped into the position in April?

The biggest challenge was simply to get out and meet as many people as I could. With 58 banking centers, I tried to get to many of them quickly. I wanted to see customers, too.

We have an awful lot of employees -- more that 900, so I can't get to see them all. But I do want to get to know many of them. If you look at great companies, you'll see that the leaders get out from behind their desks and are out talking to folks -- folks in the community, customers and employees.

I feel that that is critical to doing my job the right way, and I make a point to be out of the office a significant percentage of time to scheduled and unscheduled visits.

What are the biggest changes you've seen in the banking industry, and how have they affected operations?

Technology has made the world much smaller, and people are more transient. We have more of a commodity approach in banking products.

Anybody can come up with a product, and everyone else will have it in a matter of weeks. We've had to get better in service and more aggressive in our approach to building offices. We've invested a lot in technology. We have some models for analyzing where branches will go, but basically retail follows rooftops.

Fifth Third follows rooftops. We have an evolving three-year plan that we look at and keep updated. We look at growing suburbs and locations. Sometimes we see traffic patterns change, and we move three quarters of a mile away. Sometimes it boils down to whether a customer has to make a right- or left-hand turn to get to us.

We're very cognizant of convenience for the customer. Good service has expanded from the classical issues of, are people taken care of, are they getting prompt attention. Consumers are more sophisticated.

What are your biggest operational challenges, and how do you meet them?

Operationally, the challenge boils down to consistency. We move a lot of paper and we conduct a great deal of electronic transactions.

In 2003, we had 8.4 billion transactions. We have to be extremely accurate. With that number, even if you are 98 or 99 percent accurate, that leaves a lot of room for error. We continually push up the bar of what's acceptable. We printed millions of checking account statements, but if you didn't get yours, you don't care about the millions that did print.

We remind our employees that there is a customer on the other end. We have to be accurate and follow up. And we measure relentlessly. And we have spent more than $100 million in the last three years to keep up the work processes.

What areas/processes are you working to improve?

Customer service gets our constant focus. We have a call center that received 42 million calls in 2003. We are proud of our low abandoned call rate, but even if you have a low drop percentage, that's a lot of customers you can leave unhappy. We have invested in a lot of technology to improve our online abilities.

We have taken some risk management measures because of the Federal Reserve reporting issues, enhancing and developing more policies and hiring a risk management director. All of that is working very well.

What are your biggest personal challenges in running the organization?

Our people are working hard so doing everything I can to support them is a challenge. I could be in the office attending to running the company, but first and foremost, I can't lose sight of the customers.

I try and get out and spend time with them and employees as often as I can. We have talented people here that make my life a lot easier. How to reach: Fifth Third Bank, Columbus, (614) 418-3966 or www.53.com