Money in the bank Featured

8:00pm EDT August 26, 2009

Earlier in his career with Comerica Inc., J. Michael Fulton was an account officer in Detroit and was working on the Chrysler relationship. At the time, Chrysler was near bankruptcy, so Fulton was flying to New York every week, because the bank had so much money tied in to the automobile company. It made for some long trips and late nights, but before he crashed to get some shut eye, he always did something that seemed so small at the time.

“These were the days before computers but after abacuses,” Fulton says. “I’d go home, and I’d type up the memo, everything that happened in the meeting, and I’d go in the next morning, and I’d put it on the chairman’s desk.”

He didn’t have to do that, but he just thought it would be nice for him to know the details of these meetings since they seemed very important. That simple act got him noticed. Down the road, that chairman plucked him out of his position and put him in a greater role, which springboarded Fulton’s career. He eventually led the company’s entry into the California market through the acquisition of a San Jose-based bank, and today, Fulton is president of the bank’s Western Market, overseeing more than 2,000 employees in about 100 locations. During his nearly four-decade career with Comerica, he’s learned the right — and sometimes wrong — ways to lead in business.

Accept mistakes

Years ago, on Fulton’s first day as an assistant manager at Comerica Inc., he was feeling around his desk and accidentally set off the alarm button, and 10 minutes later, he had three police officers bursting in the front door. He initially didn’t fess up about it out of fear of getting in trouble, but the incident was eventually traced back to him.

It’s not the only mistake he made early in his career either. On his first day as a teller — his first job with Comerica — he was out of balance, which isn’t the best way to start in a bank. While he’s made countless other mistakes over the years, he’s learned from those and recognizes that he needs to be accepting of other people’s mistakes, as well.

“If I remember those things, 37, 38 years ago, I think people really learn from mistakes,” Fulton says.

By moving forward instead of dwelling on mistakes, it’s gotten him to where he is today — and as a result, he welcomes employees making mistakes when it’s a learning experience.

“Trust their judgment, and on something where they’ve used their best judgment, mistakes are forgiven, and you learn from it,” he says. “I find that kind of environment fosters growth, creativity and makes it more enjoyable.”

Fulton sometimes shares his embarrassing mistakes with his people to show them that it’s OK to make them, as long as they learn from them.

“If occasionally they don’t [make a good decision], we’re not going to come down on them so hard that they’re afraid to even make a decision anymore,” he says. “It’s seeing that when someone did make a mistake, they were forgiven. It’s promoting the mistakes I made so people know I don’t think I’m immortal.”

By forgiving people for their mistakes, it also helps foster trust between himself and the people below him. It’s also important to help people learn how to make better decisions, and to do that, you have to give them guidelines or parameters. At Comerica, the company has policies and procedures to help people make decisions.

“You can draw the box, and as long as I stay within the box, whether I’m in the upper left or lower right, and that box is big enough, I have lots of flexibility to do my job,” he says.

While you can create guidelines to help people, recognize that sometimes people may have to stray outside of that box if the situation calls for it.

“If I inadvertently stray a little outside the box to get a deal done or I thought there was a really good reason with the right kind of explanation, I would hope I’m forgiven, too,” Fulton says. “Most often, I am, and most often, I would want to treat my people the same. I don’t like micromanagement, and I don’t want to micromanage my people.”

You have to recognize that the more policies, procedures, guidelines, or checks and balances you put in place, the more people will fear making decisions and the longer it will take to make those decisions.

“Every company has policies or controls,” he says. “I think when you put those together, you have to make sure that you’ve given enough latitude. If you require something has three levels of approval, you just have to recognize that you’ve added more time in the decision.”

Stick to your strategy

Fulton has also learned that it’s critical to have a strategy when moving forward.

For instance, when the Comerica team decided to enter the California market nearly two decades ago, it didn’t simply rush in.

“It’s really understanding the market, market size, market growth, the needs of the market, how the market’s being served today,” he says.

He logged nearly 200,000 frequent flier miles flying between Detroit and California to investigate the market. Fulton asked how well potential customers were being served, what customers’ perceptions of their banks were, what they valued in a relationship with a bank and how they evaluated their current service. By doing this and asking these questions, Fulton and his team saw that the small and midsized businesses weren’t that happy with the large banks, which had most of the market share and were all trying to do 500 different things. So they saw a real opportunity to simply focus on relationship banking with small and midsized businesses.

“We had to ask ourselves, first and foremost, is that market, or what the market’s looking for, something we truly believe we can be good at?” he says. “If it is, then we’re going to look for a way to get started here.”

Sometimes it can be hard to know if you can be successful at something, but that’s when you look at your track record.

“Some of it, in our case, has been, ‘Have we done it before elsewhere?’ and to critique how well it was working and was it consistent with our competencies,” Fulton says.

In this case, the way to move into the market was by acquiring a bank based in that region. After doing that, Fulton and his team focused just on one area — relationship banking — because they wanted to differentiate themselves from the competition. Over the years, he’s used that same strategy when choosing new areas to enter, so he says it’s also important that you know your strategy and don’t try to sway from it.

“There are two kinds of strategies,” he says. “One is low-cost — ‘We’re going to beat the competition because we’re going to be cheaper.’ … The other strategy is, ‘We’re going to differentiate ourselves. We’re going to truly charge a premium because we’re providing a service that we think exceeds the competition.’”

Fulton wouldn’t even entertain anything that gravitated more toward the low-cost strategy, because he wanted to truly provide top-notch service and differentiate Comerica in the market. Over the years, Comerica added just 14 other businesses using this approach.

“They all started with the vision that there was existing and future opportunity always, then validated with research,” he says.

And each time someone floated an opportunity out there, he made sure to evaluate it for its long-term viability. For example, during the dot-com bubble, Comerica stuck to its principles and required that companies be backed by well-known venture capital firms, and that saved the company from being affected by the bubble burst. When many of its competitors were making nonrecourse loans for developers just to get deals during the real estate boom, Comerica didn’t do that.

He says, “It gets back to that consistency thing that you just have to make sure that you’re really sticking to what you know well and how you prosecute the market and don’t get caught up in the hour and the quarter and the month and the year because things are getting too frothy.”

Develop your people

It’s not uncommon for Fulton to spend 10 or 15 hours in a week working on talent management, which involves looking at both the results as well as the behaviors of his managers. It may seem like a lot of time, but another thing Fulton has learned over the years is that you have to constantly be looking to develop your people.

“If you really believe that retention is a real priority in your business, then you have to put together some type of talent management process within your organization,” he says.

One of the easiest ways to see who’s performing well is by looking at results, but often you have to look beyond those and at behaviors, as well. For example, do people follow that person because they have to or because they want to? Does the manager have good development plans in place for the people? What are people like with their employees? What are they like as speakers? What are they like with customers?

“It’s a variety of probing on what kind of development these people need,” Fulton says.

He says it’s also important to look at their bench strength — the managers behind the managers and other key employees under them. Sometimes one of the biggest talent development areas is helping managers simply develop the people on their bench.

It’s also important that as you evaluate your people, that you’re looking at where people can move.

“We’re looking at who’s ready now, who’s going to be ready in a year or two, who’s going to be ready in three to five years,” Fulton says. “We actually identify names there, and then we want to make sure that those people have special attention and development there.”

In order to know who’s ready, it comes down to having relationships with your managers.

“You have to get to know that person,” he says. “You have to rely on your managers to know that person. We see the results, and we can measure their results monthly in terms of how they’re performing.”

When it comes to programs for development, sometimes it simply requires internal training, but in other situations, Fulton will bring in someone with more expertise to work with that manager. Regardless of how you provide additional training, be sure to follow up. On an annual basis, Comerica reviews managers to see how they’ve progressed, and then most meet on a quarterly basis just to talk about how they’re improving. By having a process like this, it ensures that you have people slowly stepping up when they’re ready, which will help your business grow in a healthy way.

“I think if you’re steady, you’ll develop people, you’ll retain those people, and you’ll have a good plan you can stick to,” Fulton says. “We’re trying around here to hit singles and doubles rather than hitting home runs and then two strikeouts.”

By retaining your people, it also ensures you’ll make customers for life.

“One of the ways we retain customers is by having good employees that aren’t leaving every other year,” he says. “So our customers know our people when they call. They don’t have to start all over again with the explanation of what they do and how they do it. We’re already familiar with it, so retaining customers goes hand-in-hand with retaining our employees.”

How to reach: Comerica Inc., (408) 556-5000 or