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Personalized Strategic Plans
To manage board and shareholder expectations, design a strategy that fits the unique composition of your institution

Balance sheets are healthier than they've been since pre-recession years, yet earnings remain stubbornly elusive for most financial institutions. In some cases, the challenge of achieving high-performance in a banking landscape that features persistently low rates, extreme regulatory burden, and intense competition on multiple fronts creates friction in the board room. If bank management, directors and shareholders don't share expectations for the bank's performance, time and energy will be wasted on efforts that don't drive the institution toward that unified goal. The bank's strategic plan is more important than ever as it serves as the bedrock and written understanding of that shared vision and the steps to achieve it. In order to maintain buy-in with the strategic plan over the course of its three- to five-year life, the plan must reflect the unique perspectives and priorities of the bank's shareholders, directors and management.

Start with a Shared Strategy

The best – and perhaps only – way to keep management, directors and shareholders on the same page as the institution moves into the future is for all three stakeholders to start with the same goals, risk tolerance and vision for the bank. The strategic plan can be a powerful tool in clearly defining those elements, especially when all parties do not have the exact same vision. "You don't need 100 percent agreement, but you do need 100 percent buy-in," said Thom Back, senior manager at Wipfli. Ken Johnson, principal of Ken Johnson Consulting, recommends all bank directors participate in an anonymous questionnaire prior to the strategic planning process; not only does this demonstrate how the board as a whole feels about the bank's current situation, but it also allows for discussion of any items where there is a large discrepancy. "It's helpful to have everyone grounded to what others' perspectives are," Johnson explained. "That starts you off in the same place and helps you set realistic goals."

In drafting the specifics of the strategic plan, management must balance the board's performance goals with the institution's clearly defined risk tolerance. "You have to ensure that there's a balance between growth desires, capital levels, and dividend targets and understand which of those goals is the highest priority," said David Koch, president/CEO of Farin & Associates. On a more granular level, Cass Bettinger, president of Cass Bettinger and Associates, explained that strategic planning should involve the board setting a target return on equity range and capital ratio based on the bank's risk management strategy, which then enables management to calculate what the bank's target return on assets must be. It is essential for management to have a crystal clear understanding of the board's risk tolerance in order to successfully balance that equation. "If the board and management work together on that basis, at the end of the day you'll have a strategic plan that is very clear about what it's designed to produce for shareholders and what all the objectives and strategies are," Bettinger said. 

Ultimately, both the goals and risk tolerance of the bank are guided by the directors' shared understanding of the institution's mission, which should be defined with input from directors, management and shareholders. "Good strategic plans are about a lot more than just the numbers," said Elliot Berman, principal of Bowtie Advisors. "There needs to be a strategic planning process, not just a budgeting process," Berman continued. "The board should get involved at the front end of that process. At the outset, they need to provide a high-level sense of direction for management, and at the end need to approve the plan."

Understand Your Key Stakeholder Groups

While each bank has a unique composition of key stakeholders, most have three main groups: directors, executive management and shareholders. All three contribute different perspectives and skillsets to the creation of the bank's mission and the strategic plan built on that mission. Directors connect shareholder interests with management's tactics by guiding the institution at a high level. "It requires business acumen and understanding to lead the organization toward a vision that will improve the financial performance of the bank," Johnson explained. The board's role is also to use their business acumen and leadership abilities to represent the shareholder's interests. "The board's responsibility to shareholders for strategic planning is the single most important responsibility the board has," Bettinger pointed out. Paying attention to increasing shareholder value can help mitigate investor dissatisfaction with the bank's performance as well as provide management with actionable guidance. "Management gets the most out of the board when they spend 70 percent of the time looking forward," said Berman. 

Management's role is to convert the board's vision for the institution with the specific tactics bank staff will need in order to accomplish that mission, as well as to ensure that the board is properly equipped to guide the bank. "Understand the strengths, skills and relationships that each director brings to the table," said Koch. "Strengths-based management is key to a successful, engaged board." The CEO needs to be the driver in aligning the expectations of directors and shareholders to the bank's performance. "The strategic planning process has to engage the board and management, working together to fulfill the mission of the bank," said Bettinger. The best way to accomplish that, according to Johnson, is for the CEO to ensure that the bank's strategic planning process includes the right people and the right information. "It's not easy, but the CEO is the one who is charged with organizing it," he said. 

Part of ensuring the right people are included is cultivating a thorough understanding of the bank's shareholder base. "The board and management need to have an understanding of what their shareholder base is looking for, because that will influence the strategic plan," said Mark Koehl, CPA, partner at Wipfli. "Knowing the shareholder group is key to helping the bank's plan be successful." It's unwise to generalize with shareholders, and each bank will have a unique mix of investors depending on its size and ownership structure. However, there are a few categories of shareholder that many banks share: 1) mature shareholders who may be nearing retirement, and therefore are looking for dividend growth and liquidity, but also community involvement; 2) second- or third-generation shareholders, who may no longer be based in the community and therefore are primarily interested in earnings per share growth and return on equity; 3) mid-life investors who may feel disillusioned with community banking due to current political and economic headwinds, and therefore wish to maximize the bank's sale price and look for a partner. 

In addition, from each of these groups (or others that exist at your institution), sometimes activist investors arise. Between 2012 and 2014, only 8 percent of SEC filings showing at least 5 percent ownership and "activist intent" came from financial institutions. However, in 2015, that jumped to more than 17 percent. "Activist investors see the value of the bank differently than the board and management," Back said. "It doesn't translate to 'wrong,' they just have a different vision for the bank." The best way to prevent this dissonance is through consistent and clear communication between all stakeholder groups. "Activist investors make noise either because they see a financial opportunity being missed or because they care about the bank but feel like they aren't being heard," Koch explained. "Shareholders need to feel that the strategic plan reflects their needs and their input and their priorities, and the only way to do that is to engage them in the process," Bettinger agreed.

Keeping In Step

Communication and transparent monitoring are the two essential drumbeats that management should use to keep all stakeholders in step for the duration of the strategic plan. "Transparency is a very key aspect," said Back. "Not transmitting exactly what your intentions are can sometimes paint you into a corner worse than laying out the plan. It also maintains trust, which is critical." Koch also said transparency on the key goals and objectives of the plan should be a top priority. "Senior management's role comes down to consistent positive messaging with the board and staff," he said. "There's no magic there, just understanding the audience and being honest, and if the message isn't positive speak to what can be done to turn things around." Another part of management's role in open stakeholder communication is to solicit input from large shareholders on a consistent basis, especially as it pertains to the strategic plan. "CEOs and directors aren't performing their job properly if shareholders are not involved in the strategic planning process," said Johnson. This doesn't need to occur monthly, or even quarterly, but the lines of communication should never be closed. "You're not necessarily seeking out input from shareholders who aren't on the board on a frequent basis, but you have to always be open to answering questions," said Koehl. 

While responding to shareholder questions and expectations for bank performance is a complicated interaction that involves a lot of different factors, not just the strategic plan, Berman suggests using the strategic plan as a framework when communicating with shareholders. "You don't have to get into details, but use the plan and what you're doing with it as the outline," he advised. The most important feature of stakeholder communication, especially to shareholders, is the effort you put into it. "If you focus on your communication with your shareholders in the same way you focus on communication with major customers or prospective customers, you'll see results," said Berman. 

The other vital aspect of transparency is how stakeholders monitor the bank's progress in accordance with the strategic plan. This requires clear communication timing, specific numerical goals and metrics for measurement. "It's really important that management and the board discuss the timeframe," said Bettinger. "For community banks in particular, it's not about short-term profits but long-term value." Specific numerical goals can help avoid rewarding a focus on short-term gains by providing specific long-term targets. "Once you define the mission or vision, the CFO needs to put it down on paper as a pro forma balance sheet and income statement. Then you know what's supposed to be happening," Johnson advised. "While the numbers are not the plan, there do need to be specific, measurable goals," Back agreed. 

Measuring the institution's performance against those goals requires metrics and testing, because no institution will ever be in total alignment with their strategic plan at all times. "Every plan is wrong in some way," said Koch. "If it's not, your plan either isn't specific enough or you're very lucky." One popular way to quantify the alignment between the plan and performance is found by examining the key assumptions that may not be right via stress testing. "It's not about sticking one number out there as your plan. It's also about knowing the three or four most important factors in getting there," Koch explained. "In the risk management process we tend to focus mainly on what might go wrong, but it is only useful to the extent that it helps you identify what needs to go right in order for you to hit your goals." Those benchmarks and milestones are crucial signs on the roadmap of your strategic plan, so all stakeholders should be able to identify them. 

Clear communication of the bank's strategic objectives and how to track them is also how the bank leadership determines when it's time to reassess the strategic plan as a whole. "The strategic planning process isn't an annual event," said Bettinger. "It's ongoing. You always have new opportunities and new threats emerging." As those new opportunities and threats arise, it is inevitable that the strategic plan will adapt accordingly. With the joint efforts of shareholders, directors and bank management, the bank will also rise to meet them.

By, Amber Seitz

Responsive by Design
Strategic Plans Must Allow for Detours on the Road to Success

You're on a road trip, and the GPS on your dashboard (or smartphone) assures you that you're following the right path. Then, you hit road construction. You can't follow the path you originally mapped out. What happens? "Recalculating…" Your GPS guides you down a different road that leads you to your intended destination. Your bank's strategic plan should follow the same philosophy: create a plan, but allow for detours. "High-level, when you're looking at the strategic plan and where you're going, you have to be open to modification," said Marc Gall, vice president at BOK Financial Institutional Advisors. "The strategic plan is a roadmap, but you need to react to the environment, too."

Plan for Spontaneity 

The key to designing flexibility into your strategic plan is to avoid pouring time and effort into creating one, only to have it collect dust on a shelf somewhere. "Get away from thinking of the strategic plan as a standalone item," advised Ed Depenbrok, principal at dbrok group, LLC and a director at Ridgestone Bank, Brookfield. "It is a part of how you run the organization." In other words, there must be a connection between the strategic plan and day-to-day activities at the bank. To forge that connection, clearly lay out the specific tactics of how each larger strategic goal will be achieved. "It's a top-down, bottom-up process," said Nate Zastrow, executive vice president – chief financial officer at First Bank Financial Center, Oconomowoc. "You have a macro strategy and the micro-strategies beneath it. It keeps us fluid and flexible." Identifying the specifics beneath the overarching goals links the strategic plan to operational items like short-term budgets.

Executing your strategic plan in this manner may require a shift in both thinking and culture at your institution. "When you're trying to work from a place of being nimble, responsive and efficient, your team has to internalize those characteristics," said Jim Perry, senior strategist at Marketing Insights. "You can't just pick those attributes off the shelf. They have to be supported in your culture." However, making the change to a responsive plan often has a positive impact on bank staff. For example, if the original plan called for an increase in agricultural business lending, but the current market doesn't allow for that, adjusting the plan prevents your lenders from feeling pressured to do the impossible. "Don't make loans just because your strategic plan calls for it," Gall advised. "The worst thing you can do for morale in an institution is stick to goals that have become unachievable regardless of what's possible in the current market."

Identify Bellwether Metrics

So how do you determine when to call an audible? The metrics laid out in your strategic plan are the road signs that tell you which way to go and when to turn. "Without fundamental information about where your market is headed, you really can't make the right strategic choices," said Perry. "Making knee-jerk reactive decisions rather than basing those decisions on timely, accurate information makes it much harder to achieve your strategic goals." Monitor the economic and demographic shifts happening in your market and compare them to your original plan. This provides the perspective you need to make the determination of when to adhere to the strategic plan and when to take a detour. "You can't just put in your strategic plan that you're going to grow loans by six percent over the next three years," said Depenbrok. "You need to know if that's possible in your market, and whether you need additional talent or products."

That perspective is why identifying key metrics and monitoring them frequently is critical to having a successful, responsive strategic plan. For example, according to Zastrow, FBFC's process involves a monthly meeting to highlight areas where benchmarks were not met, identify why, and then adjust accordingly. An investment in business intelligence technology facilitates that process. "We leverage that technology from a management standpoint so that we're not driving blind," Zastrow explained. "We have a very robust business intelligence program with analysts who can generate reports that allow us to compare and contrast where we're at with where we want to be." That analysis will also help management and the board find the right balance between following the original plan and pursuing new opportunities. "There's a balance between striking while the iron is hot if opportunities are identified, and following the strategic plan and your risk tolerance," said Gall.

Watch the Road Ahead

In today's rapidly changing banking environment, a responsive strategic plan is essential for institutions to adapt quickly and reduce overall risk, particularly with regards to technology and compliance. "You have to assess technology and regulation in your strategic plan because they're part of the world we operate in," said Depenbrok. "There are so many more fixed costs today to operate a bank, and if you don't plan for them, it's going to be even worse." A responsive strategic plan will outline when the bank needs to invest in certain areas, and allow for allocation adjustments as customer and staff needs change. "Industry-wide, if you look at the high-performing community banks, they're investing in order to grow their business and build scale," said Perry. "They know that by expending capital to bring in new technologies that will reduce expenses long-term, they're positioning themselves for growth."

Bank staff can help identify areas where operational changes can be made to increase the institution's overall productivity, according to Gall. "Many times staff haven't been given the incentive or charge to think about how they can do their daily work differently to help the bank reduce expenses and operate more efficiently," he said. In addition, a responsive plan should allow for new ways of executing the same strategy, i.e. adjusting internal processes. "When looking at what you have to shift moving forward, look first at areas where either people or processes need to be adjusted in order to improve results," said Perry. "The people and processes are the things you can immediately control, rather than external market conditions."

Finally, a responsive strategic plan should accommodate increased spending in areas banks can't control, such as regulation. "Once the rules are made, you can fight to try to change them, but that takes a lot of time and energy that could be reallocated to being the best at playing by the new rules," said Zastrow. With all of the recent change in the industry, an investment in third-party advice can be a competitive advantage, according to Depenbrok. "Change is happening so quickly in our industry from a technological point of view and a regulatory point of view, figuring it out on our own is very difficult," he said.

By, Amber Seitz