Positive influence Featured

8:00pm EDT September 25, 2008

Janet Caylor wants to see Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc. out in the community. She wants to see the company’s name, its people and its services in front of thousands and thousands of potential customers in the Houston area each day.

That’s a big reason why Caylor, the regional managing director for Merrill Lynch in Houston, has helped spur a number of initiatives aimed at connecting her wing of the company to the community it serves.

Since arriving in Houston about three years ago, Caylor — a 30-year employee of Merrill Lynch, which was recently acquired by Bank of America — has created a company culture that values volunteerism, acknowledges racial and ethnic diversity, and encourages feedback from all groups within the community.

In part, it’s a branding strategy. But under Caylor, the stated goal of raising the profile of the Merrill Lynch name in the Houston community isn’t solely to drum up business. It’s to become a key player in improving the community and creating relationships that will benefit both Merrill Lynch and the surrounding community. Through those relationships, Caylor and her leadership team have built the presence of Merrill Lynch in the community and developed loyal customers.

“First and foremost, I felt it would be a branding strategy to give back to the community,” she says. “Rather than looking at it from the standpoint of how do we gain business and market share, it was really from the standpoint of how do we add value and quality to this community.”

Philanthropy and community causes are noble endeavors for any business in any situation. However, Caylor says you are missing out on opportunity if you don’t take the relationship seeds planted by community involvement and use them to build long-term relationships that can ultimately help strengthen both your business and the area your business calls home.

This is how Caylor has strengthened Merrill Lynch by making it a positive force in the Houston area, where the company earned approximately $446 million in revenue in 2007.

Identify touch points

After Caylor became the leader of the Houston office, she and her senior leadership team prepared a questionnaire and distributed it to all the Merrill Lynch employees in the area.

Through the questionnaire, Caylor and her team sought answers to the question, “How can we better connect Merrill Lynch to the communities we serve?”

Employees were asked where they volunteered their time, on which boards they served and where they wanted to see the company move in terms of staying connected to Greater Houston.

“The answers came back around children, education, helping the disadvantaged and reaching out to all of the ethnic groups in the area,” Caylor says. “We kind of gathered this information, and then in our 11 offices in the Houston area, people were nominated to step up and make some connections with these groups in the area. We created a process for new opportunities to get involved, so that every employee got to do that on a regular basis.”

Through the questionnaire and feedback, Merrill Lynch began developing what Caylor calls “touch points” within the community — organizations through which Merrill Lynch could strengthen its connection to its community and potential customers. In 2008, the company had 35 such touch points throughout the Houston area, including business, civic, philanthropic and arts organizations.

After identifying the ways in which to best connect to the community, Caylor and her leadership team began formulating ways to make it happen. She says she wanted to bring together representatives from the various departments within Merrill Lynch as part of a community involvement group, which was charged with developing a single, uniform way of integrating the company into the Houston community. She calls it “delivering one firm.”

“There is a weaving together that needs to take place, and we’re doing it by bringing all of our business units together on our community involvement group,” she says. “We have a lot of services offered here in Houston. The trust company is here, private banking our investment bankers, and what we have done is create a council to deliver one firm. We are one of the early marketplaces to have done this, and we have senior leadership representatives from each of those business groups who meet and talk about how we effectively [connect with and serve the community], how we bring our intellectual capital to bear in the Houston area.”

The community involvement group now meets monthly and helps organize events attended by Merrill Lynch employees, clients and community leaders, including a distinguished speaker series and a campaign to assist philanthropic organizations.

Caylor has also tried to take her community-oriented mindset to the Merrill Lynch organization at large through her communications with peers and superiors around the country.

“We have gotten together with a lot of collaboration and have done it at the divisional level and have had dialogue across all the touch points of Merrill Lynch,” Caylor says. “I just returned from a leadership meeting for women sponsored by our general counsel. We had representatives from our chief financial office, from human resources, regional directors around the country, national sales managers, talking about a number of issues, including this concept of delivering everything we can bring to bear to the cities that we live and work in.”

Inspiring other managers is a major key to spreading the idea nationwide. A philosophy of community involvement and community connection won’t survive in a business unless the leader sets the example from the front.

“Lead from the front, but do it with heart and passion,” she says. “Engage your people. You can do it broadly, as we did through questionnaires, but organize people who really care and do it from a giving back standpoint, not a getting more business standpoint. I have been confident from the day we began that business will flow. That’s not what this is about. This is about truly adding value to your community, to all of the citizens.”

Stay persistent

As with any other process in a business, you need a way to measure how community involvement is affecting your company, then you need a means by which to adjust and refine your strategy.

Caylor says it’s nothing you haven’t heard before. “You set up a process, as you would run a business,” she says. “You set up your goals, your tactical game plan, you’re going to review your commitments and make sure that you have regular touch points. Longer term, you want to review business results.”

Caylor says some business leaders make the mistake of immediately evaluating every strategy in terms of its bottom-line impact on their companies. But when developing relationships with the many potential customers in your community, you must have a longer-term view of the results.

“This is a key point: Because we didn’t approach this from a standpoint of return on equity — and I think some leaders might do that — we had a longer-term time on the horizon and weren’t expecting business or employees to come in one month or six months or even a year,” she says. “We were expecting that there would be benefits down the line. We are now two and half years into this and are now starting to be able to quantify the results.”

Caylor and her senior managers have set up semiannual meetings to review the action taken in the previous six months. The initiatives undertaken are analyzed to gauge their impact on both Merrill Lynch employees and the community.

Caylor also holds bimonthly meetings with the community involvement group, and those include members of the company’s diversity marketing team.

“They participate, and we’ve just built a system around it,” she says. “We’re evaluating, we’re measuring, we’re changing course, and we push out information and create venues for all employees to give us feedback. Through that, we’re really able to modify, change and improve on what we set out to do.”

Stay on the message

Caylor has to keep her message of community involvement in front of about 1,000 employees and 11 offices in the Houston area. The most effective way to do that is by getting out among your employees and engaging them in person. But when dealing with the mathematical realities of 1,000 employees, 24 hours in a day and seven days in a week, face-to-face reinforcement becomes more than a little problematic.

While the message needs to start with you, Caylor says you can’t be the only force driving a wide-ranging community-centered philosophy throughout your company. You need help to drive the message, and sometimes, the most powerful teaching tools are your employees’ own peers.

“I find that the more we’re able to surround our employees with examples of things their peers have done, with opportunities for them to replicate that, there are some pretty important success stories that come out of that,” Caylor says.

Caylor uses Merrill Lynch’s worldwide communication network to broadcast community involvement success stories throughout and beyond the Houston area. By quickly disseminating stories about their peers, Caylor tries to create a conversation-starter, whether it be in meetings or banter around the watercooler. The most effective way to make the message of building relationships and community involvement relevant is to get people talking about it.

“We have a broad distribution list, we can touch everyone in a matter of seconds via internal communications, and we have regularly scheduled meetings throughout all of our offices,” she says. “We have multiple touch points, and I’ve found it to be very effective. Every partner at Merrill Lynch, every employee, can now talk about the vision of being an essential partner, the vision of being a responsible citizen and vision of being one seamless firm.”

Your company’s vision for the future has to come from the top, and you have to communicate that tirelessly. But the energy that will turn that vision into reality will come from your employees. Caylor says inspiring your employees to follow you — and making sure that inspiration does not wane — is one of your most important jobs as long as you occupy your company’s top perch.

“There is a quote, and it’s also a book title, ‘From success to significance,’” Caylor says. “I know so many people feel that way. You have to organize your vision with a smaller group of people, engage your people, follow up and follow through again. Do not treat this as a flyby. Make the commitment to be there again and again, year after year.

“It takes a lot of energy, a lot of time and a lot of commitment, and you just have to know that going in upfront. The benefits to your organization will come down the line — and they will come. But you first have to be willing to put your heart and soul into it.”

HOW TO REACH: Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., www.merrilllynch.com