Shortly after he began with First Financial Bank some nine years ago, Claude Davis felt so strongly about building brand awareness that each year he and his team engaged a study to measure the awareness of the bank in each of the states where it operates. The year-to-year report showed the progress — and the momentum the bank was achieving.
“We did a lot of work,” says Davis, who is CEO, president and chairman of the bank. “It has been about constant marketing, constant awareness building and the consistency and the look and feel of the brand.”
The payoff has been impressive. The bank has locations in Ohio, Kentucky and Indiana. With 1,400 employees and company revenue of about $300 million, Davis has been leading a significant expansion for the bank since 2008. In Indiana, awareness has increased from less than 10 percent to 53 percent. It’s a similar story in Ohio where the bank went from less than 10 percent awareness to almost 50 percent.
First Financial Bank is headquartered in Cincinnati, but Davis has deep Hoosier roots.
Born in Indianapolis, Davis grew up there and went to college in the city, playing point guard for Butler University’s basketball team.
“I think my comfort with the city of Indianapolis and with the state of Indiana, as well as some of the other executives that I recruited who live in or are from Indiana just give you a comfort level and an excitement to look for opportunities to grow in the state,” Davis says. “It also gives you an appreciation … Indianapolis has a great reputation nationally, I have a true appreciation for how dynamic that market is and what kind of growth opportunities we think it provides to us as a company.
“So having that perspective does give you an advantage when you are looking for opportunities and in helping sell the rest of our organization on why that makes sense,” he says.
Here’s how Davis builds awareness in a highly competitive industry.
Go for innovation
With 20 local banking centers, 90 consecutive quarters of profitability and the continuation of a 100 percent dividend payout ratio, it’s no surprise that Davis’ leadership has garnered praise across the banking industry for his efforts to grow the bank despite an economy in the doldrums.
If you had to pick the “must haves” to grow your business, innovation has to be among them.
“One of the real changes in the business is that you have to be focused on really being more innovative as a company,” Davis says.
That focus, which is becoming more 24/7 every day with the Internet and smartphones, has been spawned by the rapid advances in technology. While you can keep up with competitors and offer every product they do, it only goes so far.
“You always have to be in touch with what the competition is doing,” he says. “We certainly don’t have a lock on good ideas.”
There are a lot of people in the industry who are very innovative and develop interesting ideas that you may choose to follow.
“You have to think about it and look at all aspects and say, ‘What is the best thing for our client, and what can we offer?’
“The challenge is also being in touch with the technology companies that serve the banking industry,” Davis says, “and to make sure you are drawing the connection between your client and what is being developed in the industry — and deciding when is the right time to offer that as part of your product suite.”
It’s not a good idea to second-guess consumers on the subject of technology and online banking.
“Our younger clients start out very electronic-based and just grow with that,” he says. “But what we are finding with our more mature clients is that they are adopting the electronic form of banking more quickly than I would say is common wisdom — and it is because of the ease-of-use. Secondly, with the introduction of mobile banking and smartphones, we are all very comfortable now making transactions online.
“There is actually a much higher adoption rate among all our clients, regardless of age, than what we saw a year ago, or three years ago and a lot more than we saw five years ago. The rate of adoption is increasing among all our clients.”
Adopt a ‘client first’ model
If innovation is among the “must haves,” another requirement involves exceptional customer service. To stand out against your competitors, think about how you base your decisions.
“All our decisions have to be based on the client,” Davis says. “We believe we have to be a client-intimate oriented company. We call it being ‘client first’ in our operating model.”
It means taking care of all your customers without any favoritism. It has to cut across every business line.
“For us, that’s from small business to large corporate clients to individuals and in the individual states from those who were maybe just establishing bank accounts and bank business to those who are high net worth and who really need investment advice and stated advice,” he says.
“You try to serve that full-spectrum and serve all of them in a very personalized way.”
To stay in touch with both consumers and developers, it takes doing your own research and tapping into industry research.
“Talk to your own clients about how they want to be served and what products they would like and more importantly, what delivery channels they want to use to interact with you.
“So if you are a consumer client, you want to be able to interact with your bank whenever and however you want to interact,” Davis says. “We have every touch point covered and we are continuously asking consumers what do we not have in our products that they would like to see.”
Gone are the days when competitors are referred to as “Brand X.” Few places is it more clear than the banking industry, where it is now possible to transfer funds online to another banking institution, let alone keep track of all your financial assets by using one product. First Financial launched a product called Panorama by which users can assemble their accounts from all their banks and credit cards on one online site.
Such a step requires some stepping out of the comfort zone for a company.
“It is our recognition that while we would like everybody to do business only with us, we understand that that is not the case with most consumers,” Davis says.
Blend the cultures in acquisitions
A third “must have” to employ during the growth efforts pertains to acquisitions. While such growth was often thought to be only in the realm of large companies, small and midsize companies are taking successful ventures into the once-exclusive territory.
The focus, not surprisingly, is that the cultures of the two or more businesses are aligned.
First Financial Bank has had five acquisitions since 2009, three in Indiana and two in Ohio. The company also has a long history dating back to the 1980s of doing more than 20 acquisitions in Indiana and Ohio.
“Cultural integration is the most important part of that process,” Davis says. “It is not the data processing conversion. It is not the financial metrics. It’s how well you integrate the associates of the company you are buying and how well you integrate the clients that are a part of that company you’re buying and making both feel like your company is a better place for them to be.
“Be open and willing to say that they may do something better in one or more areas than you do, and you decide to adopt that practice,” he says. “When you take that attitude, then you create a foundation and a trust level between the two organizations that says you really do value the merger process and it is not just a function of you want to buy their assets and move on.
“Begin with openness: ‘Look, we’re going to take the best of both and not make assumptions, just because we may be the buyer, everything we do may not be better than what the seller has been doing.’”
It doesn’t happen overnight. It can take time to work through that process to really have everyone feeling like they are equal partners in the new combined company.
“You go through a period in any acquisition when you integrate the data processing systems very quickly,” Davis, says.
But for people to move to the new combined company and everybody to feel like they are all in this together, it takes an understanding of what the objectives, goals and strategies are.
“It takes a couple of years typically for that process to occur and to leave behind what that company used to be,” Davis says. “There is typically a lot of loyalty and pride that is built up in that prior company that doesn’t just leave you in three, six or nine months.”
How to reach: First Financial Bank, (877) 322-9530 or www.bankatfirst.com
Go for innovation.
Adopt a ‘client first’ model.
Blend the cultures in acquisitions.
The Davis File
Name: Claude Davis
Title: CEO, president and chairman
Company: First Financial Bank
Born: Newcastle, Ind., about 30 miles east of Indianapolis.
Education: Butler University. I majored in accounting. I have served on the board of trustees of Butler for the last 10 years.
What was your first job and what did you learn from it?
I was a janitor in a laundromat as a teen. I learned that every job in business is important and has its role if the business is to operate well. As the janitor, you work after everybody else is gone. You appreciate the hard work that many people do that never gets seen by the client or the customer of that business.
Who do you admire in business?
The two people that come to mind are Steve Jobs and Warren Buffett — Jobs for his innovative spirit and willingness to take a risk; Buffett for his willingness to think about the long-term, how you invest long-term and how you run businesses for the long-term as opposed to many thoughts today which are about this month or this quarter. I respect his approach to that.
What is been the best business advice you ever received?
Hire smarter people than you. It was from somebody I worked with, a mentor, whose name was Mike Ryan. He was the president of Irwin Union Bank when I first started in banking. Don’t let your ego get in the way.
What is your definition of business success?
I think a lot about the long-term and legacy as we finish our 150th year of existence, it’s leaving the company that you run in better shape than how you found it when you arrived. If you can do that, then you perpetuate the value of that company into the future.