Ernie Pinner Featured

8:00pm EDT June 25, 2007

Although he runs a network of community banks, Ernie Pinner says his company isn’t driving a Model T through a small town. In fact, he says it’s more like driving a very modern car through a small town. Pinner, chairman, president and CEO of CenterState Banks of Florida Inc., says the company’s goal is to give customers the satisfaction that comes from personal touches from a small-town bank. There’s nothing small about the 330-employee company’s growth, however. CenterState posted 2004 revenue of $36 million, 2005 revenue of $46 million and 2006 revenue of $65 million.

Smart Business spoke with Pinner about why you should treat your customers like they are your grandmother.

Be honest. Whether you’re in the banking business or selling shoes, reputation is important. The product I sell is money, and everybody deals with money. My money is the same color as anybody else’s, so it comes in the form of the way I deliver the service.

It’s a very focused push on integrity and honesty, dealt with a huge dose of humility. We tell people all the time, you can lie once, but that’s it. If you’re dishonest twice, you just can’t work in this business.

People are honest by nature, but you have to encourage that honesty to be visible. It’s just doing what’s right. It seems too simple, but we live in a world where somebody takes advantage, or you charge a little extra because you can get away with it, or you cut back on service because it’s not needed.

Treat customers like they’re your grandmother. You don’t ever lie to grandma, and you do what she says, how she wants it, and you do it with a great deal of enthusiasm. You do that, and the honor and integrity will show itself.

Get out of the way. My talent is attracting talent. Everybody who works for me is smarter than me. This whole company is based on pushing responsibility to the lowest level. It’s a decentralized banking operation, so each bank stands on its own. The local bank management runs the bank. My job is basically just to keep their powder dry.

They do all the work, they deserve all the recognition. If there’s an obstacle in their way, it’s my job to get it moved. And if they call for help, I come running. Other than that, I stay out of their way.

Don’t make it your way or the highway. Your employees won’t always do it right, they won’t always do it the way you want it done. But if they get to the end result and the customer’s happy, then let them do it their way.

That’s part of our culture — push responsibility down to the lowest level. I may process your loan different than my buddy two doors down or the next town over, but as long as it’s being done in a manner that’s honest and the customer is happy, we don’t have to be alike.

Sometimes a CEO will delegate but then start telling them how to do it. You empower people, you give them the authority, you delegate, and you get out of their way. I have a tendency to want to get involved, and that won’t work.

Toss your employees in the deep end of the pool. You have to put people to the test before they’re ready. A lot of times we say, ‘Well, they’re not quite ready, they need more training, it’s a little bit over their heads.’ Put them out there.

Generally, people will learn in a crisis a lot faster than they will when it’s on automatic pilot. If you put me in charge and I’m over my head, I’m going to work a lot harder than if you put me in charge and it’s easy.

You empower people sooner than even you think they’re ready. Now, stand ready to bail them out, but get out of their way and let them flounder a little bit. In this business, until you’ve made a few bad loans, you’re not really a good lender. You don’t shoot somebody because they made a bad loan. It’s part of the experience.

So delegate and get out of the way, and delegate sooner than what you think is necessarily right.

Keep your culture fun. The greatest challenge is to keep young people coming into this business and to keep them motivated and enthused to keep it growing.

If we hire an employee from one of our competitors, the culture here is refreshing [for them]. We’re not Southwest Airlines, but I do buy in to that concept that if we’re not having fun, we are not doing our jobs.

There’s not a policy manual for that; it’s more of a culture, that over a number of years, the core of our team has developed. You pass it down in a traditional manner.

Grandma always cut the last two inches of ham off before she put it in the pan, and now mama did it, and now my sister does it, and now my sister is teaching my nephew and niece how to do it. So now four generations are cutting the end off this ham, and they don’t know why — it was just passed down that way.

The culture that’s here, the core of us have acquired over a number of years. It permeates the space. You either adjust to this culture real quick, or you leave. It’s not a question of us running you off, it’s a question of, is this something you would like to do?

Encourage hard work. Many of today’s bankers, being in the age group of 45 to 60, they got in this business and learned it through a generation of hard work. We’ve lost some of that. It’s important that hard work — whether it’s on the end of a hoe handle or whether it’s pushing a pencil — should be honored and should be expected and even demanded.

If I go to work for you, I’m going to give you 40 hours without question. I want to walk out of there with you thinking you owe me for 45, even if I only worked 40. It’s important to encourage the spirit of work, especially with young people.

HOW TO REACH: CenterState Banks of Florida Inc., (863) 291-3900 or www.centerstatebank.com