Sharing the vision Featured

7:00pm EDT January 29, 2008

Interviewed by Matt McClellan

Tim Abell is a survivor. The first nonfamily member tobe named president of Firstrust Bank survived multiple acquisitions and mergers at some of the publicly owned banks he previously managed. Those days were difficult, he says, because just when your team started to get on the right track, someone came in and switched all the uniforms when the organization was sold to distant shareholders and much of what that team worked to build was lost.

He hasn’t missed the constant ups and downs at all since 2004, when he joined Firstrust, where he serves as president and chief operating officer. The bank, which has $2.2 billion in assets and 24 locations, was founded 74 years ago by the grandfather of the current CEO, Richard Green.

Smart Business spoke with Abell about how to create a winning team and how to keep your employees excited about coming to work every day.

Let your team learn from mistakes.Listen to your team. You need to be willing to empower them, you need to be engaged and be engaging.

For me, having come up through the ranks in the organization’s trenches, you earn your team’s respect by working hard and caring about the people you work with. I try to be open to doing different things. In doing that, you need to recognize that some mistakes will be made on the path to progress.

Richard Green, the owner of the bank, his grandfather used to say, ‘If you’re going to fall, fall forward. If you’re going to make a mistake, make a new one.’ So we try to recognize that in empowering people, they are going to make some mistakes, but you need to learn from those and develop other leaders in the company. Keep a focus on a team approach.

They need to feel comfortable that making decisions, if it turns out to be wrong, we’re going to learn from it. They need to know we’re not going to chop their heads off.

It’s important for them to know that we’re going to support them and allow them to learn.

Give your employees the power of responsibility. I know that I always feel least empowered when someone is second-guessing or micromanaging the decisions I’m making. So I want to be there for them if they need it.

I want to make sure we’re moving in the right direction, I want to be guiding it, but it has to be a shared vision. So others have to feel that they have a part in shaping it.

I let them be accountable for their decisions. If they’re successful, they’ll be rewarded; if they aren’t, we’re going to have conversations about it. We let them do their craft, and they appreciate that.

We welcome people who are talented and want to make sure we give them a chance to grow here and have an impact and feel the days they’re spending here are meaningful.

Make work more fun. People want to be on a winning team. Once you start to have some success, you get other people who want to join in.

The way you treat employees is the difference. I’ve worked at banks that have been sold five times. So to come to a family bank was a significant difference. Especially in this marketplace, where there has been so much consolidation. Employees get a little tired from that.

Richard Green has said, ‘If you’re building a house to live in, you’d use different materials than if you’re building a house to sell.’ I think there’s a lot of truth to that.

We’ve been able to attract good people because we recognize their efforts. We pay well for people who perform well. You have to have good compensation programs, but it’s important that we try to make it fun, and the family atmosphere is something that is true and meaningful. We’ve had people leave and come back, and we welcomed them back.

So whether it’s the softball games, the holiday parties or the other things to recognize people’s efforts — even though it’s work, we try to keep it something people look forward to coming to every day.

Don’t forget what got you to where you are now. You always have to look at things from a customer’s perspective. Sometimes if you get larger, you forget that. We don’t ever want to get away from the customer.

Spreading yourself too thin so that your quality erodes is a risk. As you’re growing, you want to make sure it’s good, quality, sustained growth but not so much that we have some quality issues. You just have to stay focused there.

As a leader, you have to remember to not take too much credit from all the successes. Realize that really comes from the efforts of your employees. So we spend a lot of time recognizing a wide level of employees.

If you’re in touch with your customers, if you spend time with them, ask them what they like about what we’re doing and what they don’t like about what we’re doing. The president’s breakfast is a good way for me to hear from the employees if there are any issues.

I have spent days in the call center to hear what customers are calling in and asking about. If you’re engaged, you’ll get a pulse of it.

HOW TO REACH: Firstrust Bank, (610) 238-5000 or