Friday, August 20, 2010

There is always something to celebrate!

Recently, I participated in a fundraiser that benefited the Northville Community Foundation. Participating in community fundraising events is not unusual for bankers. However, this particular event involved playing golf; something we bankers seldom have an opportunity to do these days. The event was a four-person scramble, with each group starting on different holes. Our group was assigned a 170 yard par-3as our first hole.

Beginning on a par 3 is usually a bad omen, but not so this particular day. One of our playing partners was a gentleman named Rob David, producer of radio’s “The Handyman Show” with Glenn Haege. Rob had the honor of teeing off first for the event. He hit a miraculous shot that landed directly in front of the pin and rolled into the cup for a hole-in-one. While our group scored respectably that day, we did not win the tournament. It didn’t matter however since we had the entire 18 holes to enjoy Rob’s accomplishment, and celebrate his once in a lifetime achievement.

These days, it is almost painful to watch the evening news or read the newspapers. We are constantly bombarded with a barrage of bad news from seemingly all directions. Whether it concerns military conflict in Afghanistan, political polarization within the U.S. Congress, or projections of a “double dip” recession, it’s difficult to find news that we can celebrate. All of this negativity works on our psyche, affecting not only our attitudes but our actions. We may become embittered about actions taken by our government, and businesses and individuals might postpone needed purchases due to economic uncertainties. We become more cautious within our daily lives, and might even withdraw from doing more common every day activities as a result.

This is where the importance of celebration comes in, and why it was so refreshing to celebrate Rob’s great “ace”.

There are countless opportunities for celebration these days, if we know where to look. This past weekend, Monroe County was active with a number of events. The River Raisin Jazz Festival celebrated its 9th year on August 14th and 15th with record crowds listening to great music by David Sanborn and others. Friendly Ford sponsored their annual “Hot Summer Nights” car show and fundraiser that benefits Monroe County Hospice. Preliminary reports indicate that the event exceeded the $20,000 raised during last year’s event. Plus, the annual DDQ golf outing held on Sunday the 15th had its largest number of participants in years. The DDQ was originated by three local restaurateurs, and has benefited a variety of local charities over the years. Without a doubt the great work by volunteers in each of these events continue to make them successes. Also without a doubt, the generosity of the citizens of Monroe County shines through, even in tough economic times. Regardless, the success of these events is certainly reason to celebrate.

At Monroe Bank & Trust, we recently kicked off a “Mission Possible” campaign, focused on generating new checking account business from consumers and businesses. The initial response from our staff has been tremendous, and they’re having fun along the way. Promoting new business, and having fun doing it…now that’s something to celebrate!

Whether it’s a local event, or successes within your own business; it’s actually not that hard to find positives to focus on these days. And if you see Rob “Ace” David in the near future, tell him congratulations!

Thursday, August 5, 2010

“Were it worth the trouble?”

In the classic 1972 film “Jeremiah Johnson”, the title character (played by Robert Redford) becomes determined during the prime of his youth to “become a mountain man”, living off the land. He endures years of hardship from both natural and man-made disasters, fending off hostile attackers; four-legged as well as two-legged. He survives, and ultimately thrives in legendary proportions.

In one of the closing scenes of the movie, he is reunited over a campfire with his early mentor, Bear Claw Chris Lapp played by Will Geer. Most film buffs recall the classic exchange as Bear Claw eyes Jeremiah while accepting a leg of freshly cooked game saying, “You’ve come far Pilgrim.” To which Jeremiah replies, “Feels like far.”

Many however have forgotten the follow up to that exchange, when Bear Claw asks “Were it worth the trouble?” to which Jeremiah replies, “Ah, what trouble?”

As I speak with my friends in the traditional banking industry, there is an increasing sense of identity with the lead character of this movie created by director Sydney Pollack. In Michigan, we have endured nearly ten consecutive years of job losses, representing half of the total jobs lost in the United States during this time. The financial crisis began in early 2008 with the failure of Lehman Brothers and the fall of other financial giants such as Bear Sterns and Goldman Sachs. The Great Recession began shortly thereafter, and economists continue to debate if the recession has ended or continues.

As if economic challenges were not enough, news media coverage of the financial crisis has created a public perception that all “bankers” were the evil cause of our economic woes, with little distinction between the complex financial service companies such as Goldman Sachs and AIG as compared to traditional banks such as Monroe Bank & Trust. Those of us in the traditional banking industry continue to defend our honor, asserting that we did not engage in the unsavory practices of many in the “shadow” banking industry, and therefore did not cause the crisis.

The U.S. Congress and bank regulatory agencies have of course responded with their own resolves, imposing new laws and regulations aimed to prevent this type of economic meltdown from happening again. While some of these new rules are well intentioned, many fall short of real solutions. What is certain however is that traditional banks are now required to comply with dozens of new laws and regulations. The recently signed Regulatory Reform Act is certain to create dozens more, with new interpretations to be implemented over the next several years.
Bankers have now endured many natural and manmade disasters of our own, with hostile attacks coming from a variety of sources.

Our industry continues to develop solutions in order to hurdle the multiple obstacles before us however. We are addressing our economic challenges by restructuring balance sheets, cutting costs, finding new sources of revenue and addressing problem loans. I’ve reviewed a number of bank financial reports for the first half of 2010, and many of the banks I follow that are headquartered in Michigan (including Monroe Bank & Trust) have reported improved earnings compared to 2009, with loan problems showing some signs of improvement. We will all continue to put forth the effort necessary to improve our financial performance in order to live to fight another day.

While bank regulatory agencies generally voice confidence that our industry is indeed resilient, we will not take that confidence for granted. Compliance with new rules and regulations is important, but we must continue our tradition of using technology and other creative methods to ensure that we do not allow these challenges to inhibit our ability to serve our customers and local communities. And finally, we will become increasingly engaged with regulators and legislators to develop prudent and constructive solutions to the financial crisis.

All of these efforts involve a great deal of time, resources, education, and forethought. It will challenge our patience, creativity, and at times our resolve. Our focus, of course, is to ensure that the traditional banking industry remains the lifeblood of our local communities, providing the much needed financial services that allow both consumers and businesses to thrive.

Is it worth the trouble? What trouble?