The Class of 2015 Settles In

With less than an hour to complete their first assignment, four banking professionals who were strangers on this morning have, by late afternoon, begun the transition to becoming tight-knit teammates. What binds them is a shared drive to rejuvenate a sinking bank and outshine their competitors.
 
“We’ve got to stick together and get this done,” says Renzi Castro, regional marketing manager with Wells Fargo in San Antonio. She and her fellow comrades huddle around a table scattered with papers and binders of data.

The team has 45 minutes to analyze their bank’s finances and the various consumers in its market. “We’re on it. We’re ambitious!” Castro says, pumping her arm skyward.

Named Veritas Bank, theirs is one of five imaginary banks that are struggling in an imaginary community. But the outcome of decisions made by the Veritas team – and their competitors – will feel all too palpable in this state-of-the-art simulation exercise that takes place at the CBA/BAI Graduate School of Retail Bank Management at Furman University in Greenville, S.C.

It’s week one, year one, for the Veritas Bank team, part of a freshman class of 105 students – a record number since the 2008 economic downturn. All are high performing retail bank professionals who have come to the program from around the world and from a diversity of areas within banks. By the end of the three-year program, these freshmen will have gained an unparalleled, comprehensive perspective of retail banking, and banking overall, as well as the skills to successfully lead and evolve with industry shifts.

An invaluable opportunity

“Our job is to make you promotable,” the program’s director, Melissa Cabocel, says as she welcomes freshmen gathered in a lecture hall. “We’re going to be preparing you for the job you’ll have two or three advances down the road.”

That’s exactly why DeAnna Douglas, senior vice president and strategic project manager at Sun Trust Bank in Atlanta, wanted to be a part of the program. With 18 years in the industry, Douglas was eager to expand her skills to ensure future job growth.

“I hope to walk out of here more open minded and take some of the good pieces and work with the ‘B folks,’” she says, referring to colleagues who may not qualify for the CBA/BAI program.

Student Shannon Burton was one of three employees chosen out of 4,300 nationwide to attend the rigorous, boutique education program. She’s been in the financial services industry for six years.

“It was a really big honor,” to be invited, says Burton, a business reporting manager for capital markets at EverBank in Jacksonville, Fla. “It makes you feel like your company values you, they see your potential and they want to invest in that.”

Zehal Schoff agrees. A finance consultant with Wells Fargo Bank in Atlanta, Schoff says that after marking a decade in the industry, she was hungry for “something else – but not (to) go to business school.” After just a few days in the program, she was already praising it for “bringing the qualitative piece” to running a bank.

The CBA/BAI program requires a significant commitment from students like Schoff, who spend 10 days over three summers on the Furman campus. Lectures are few and focused. Each essentially prepares students for a daily immersion in the program’s signature offering: demanding, hands-on drills that push bankers to make critical decisions to a bank’s health. Through the interactive exercises, students learn the core principles of successful retail and overall bank leadership.

Making executive-level decisions

Over the course of the program, students also work with different teams and don a variety of roles common at banks. It’s a curriculum practice that provides vital opportunities for bankers  not only to hone leadership skills, but critically, to understand how certain decisions and actions affect other areas of a bank.

For many, being in the program also catapults them back in time, to sharing an apartment with strangers, eating lunch in a cafeteria and staying up late to work on assignments. Instructors contend that the shift in environment, coupled with the challenging curriculum, can at first be a bit overwhelming. “It’s up to us to make sure they’re engaged and have a good experience,” says instructor Daniel Hoke, senior vice president, division manager, corporate and university campus cards and branches for U.S. Bank in Bloomington, Minn.

On this first day, Hoke and instructor Cathy Myers prepare teams of students to inherit the same foundering virtual retail bank. They are charged with bringing it back to life through key decisions about how to target customers, design, price, and deliver products, and tailor marketing messages. The environment will automatically become more competitive and realistic with each decision as students jockey for customers’ attention.

“Our goal is for you to learn.” Myers, a consumer bank technology executive at U.S. Bank in Cincinnati, tells her community. “What do you want to do with (your) bank to drive earnings, increase customers?”

For Myers, who has taught here for 11 years, it’s critical that students learn through discovery. Also, that they become adept at “telling their story,” she says, of how and why they arrived at a decision – whether the outcome was successful or not. It’s a skill every bank leader must master.

Back at Veritas Bank later in the week, the team has decided to redirect profits from the community’s affluent customers to help drive funding for others, such as first-time homeowners and those on the verge of retirement. It’s unclear on this day how the virtual marketplace will respond to their decision.
 
“Let’s stick with our game plan,” Castro suggests to her colleagues, “see how things turn out and then adjust.”

For teammate Jeff Schofield, the experience he’s embarking on with the CBA/BAI program is a welcome one. No freshman nerves here. “I’m eager to learn,” says the regional retail director for Associated Bank in Libertyville, Ill.
 
“I’m trying to get to the point where I can take strategies I have and back them up (with) financial data when I talk to my executive,” he says. “It also adds credibility to my words."