Consistency Amid Change

Consistency Amid Change

 

During times of transition, continuity is key. Just as Huntington Bank appreciates colleagues with an impressive legacy of service, the newly acquired FirstMerit shares that same respect for tenure and experience. It’s not simply that colleagues stick around for decades—what’s truly noteworthy is the sense of consistency that some of these longtime employees bring to the highest levels of the organization.

During times of transition, continuity is key. Just as Huntington Bank appreciates colleagues with an impressive legacy of service, the newly acquired FirstMerit shares that same respect for tenure and experience. It’s not simply that colleagues stick around for decades—what’s truly noteworthy is the sense of consistency that some of these longtime employees bring to the highest levels of the organization.

Karen Rose started at FirstMerit in 1976 when it was still called First National Bank of Akron.1 She assumed the job would get her though college, starting as a teller and taking on different assignments in various branches.2 After Rose entered a training program for executive assistants, however, she must have impressed some folks. She got the call to work for then-CEO Howard Flood in 1985,3 kicking off a remarkable run alongside the Bank’s chief executive officers. “I worked for three CEOs, 30 years—10 years for each one,” she said. Clearly, Rose was well suited for the role.

Her position brought continuity to an office run by three very different leaders. Flood, the first CEO for whom she worked, was “a very community-minded gentleman. He was Mr. Banking Akron,” according to Rose. “If he had one flaw, it was that he did not know how to say ‘no.’ Anything that was needed in the community, they knew that they could come to Howard Flood.”4 These community investments included commitments to the Boy Scouts, the United Way, and a group founded by Flood called Akron Tomorrow, which organized area CEOs to become more active in the community.5

In 1995, John Cochran took over as CEO, arriving from Northwest Bank in Omaha, Nebraska. “I didn’t know if he would want to keep me or not. Sometimes they bring their own [executive assistants],” Rose said. But her concerns were soon eliminated. “He and I clicked, and we had a great 10-year career together.”6 Rose described the shift, however, from Flood’s commercial banking strategy to Cochran’s focus on retail. It was a different type of banking, and Rose had to shift with the new leadership while still serving as a stabilizing presence.7

When Paul Grieg arrived in the chief executive office in 2006, he brought the focus back to commercial banking.8 Rose said, “He must have heard from John that I was trustworthy.” Indeed, in the era of the financial downturn, trustworthiness and ethics became even more significant, and fostered yet another positive 10-year banking relationship between Rose and the FirstMerit CEO. “I tried to do the best job I could and make their lives easier, and I think I did that,” she said. “I enjoyed going to work every day. Every day was a different experience.”9 In spite of that daily variety, Rose’s consistency clearly played a vital role for 40 years.

As remarkable as it is for a bank to have only three CEOs over 30 years, FirstMerit’s chief HR officer is another source of consistency for nearly half a century. Christopher Maurer was appointed to the post in November 1993, holding the job for 24 years, barely besting his predecessor who served in this role for 22 years.10

Maurer stepped into his position during a time of great technological advancement, with computers taking over many personnel roles. Nevertheless, Maurer always understood the importance of the people at the heart of the bank. “No matter how many ATMs you have or how many branches or how many automated things, you still need a human body somewhere along the line to do the work and/or do the customer interface,” he said. “If you don’t have that pipeline of talent, there’s going to be a void. . . . Our role is to make sure we’ve got quality talent along the way.”11

Again, the importance of human resources was front and center during the 2008 global financial crisis, which FirstMerit weathered extremely well in large part because the bank had zero subprime mortgages on its books—the speculative strategy practiced by many competitors may have looked good on paper or computer screens, but Maurer credits then-president of the mortgage company Jack Gravo as the source of the sound decision-making.12 “[He] knew mortgages inside and out,” said Maurer. “As he became aware of the subprime lending, he didn’t think it was a good business strategy and argued against going down that path.” Gravo retired in mid-2007 and Tom Finnegan continued the conservative mortgage lending practices that Gravo put in place.13 Finnegan had served as president of Huntington Bank’s Mortgage Group from 1998 to 2004,14 so it seems both banks benefited from his counsel and conservatism.15

Despite the ill-timed acquisition of Sky Bank that brought subprime business to Huntington, the two banks clearly share a conservative financial strategy and an appreciation for longtime colleagues and community service. Maurer believes that common ground extends to the two banks’ philosophy on HR and talent recruitment. “There was always a high degree of professionalism between the HR folks. We always felt that Huntington had an excellent reputation,” he said. “I was sad to see FirstMerit go. But. . . if there had to be a marriage, I think the right marriage occurred.”16

chris-maurer

FirstMerit Corp.’s executive vice president and chief human resources officer, Chris Maurer, 2015

 

img_1035

Karen Rose, who has been with FirstMerit for 40 years, has played an important

role as executive assistant for three CEOs.