Best strategies to attract exceptional employees to your bank

Attracting exceptional employees to small and rural towns requires far more than competitive compensation. We asked expert recruiters and winning community banks to share their best strategies for finding and keeping the best people.

By Kelly Pike

When Emily Collins felt like there weren’t enough opportunities to grow as a banker in Springfield, Ill., she chose a career path that gives hope to community bankers in small towns and rural communities across the country. She looked 40 minutes southeast to $54 million-asset Midland Community Bank in Taylorville, Ill.
Today, Collins commutes from Springfield to rural Taylorville, pop. 11,400, where she’s the chief operations officer, touching everything from HR to advertising to compliance while working closely with the CEO.

“Everything is a lot more specialized at bigger banks,” she says. “It’s nice that in the position I’m in, I have my hands on a lot of areas of the bank. It’s been interesting to get more involved.”

Collins’ story and ones similar to it are common enough for community bankers, many of whom struggle to recruit top talent to small-town and rural locations. Experts agree there are more community banking jobs than there is talent to fill them, making it especially hard to compete for employees. But while there might not be a silver bullet for attracting and retaining future leaders to community banks, it’s not an impossible task.

Midland was fortunate that Collins was already comfortable with small-town life, having grown up in a town of 500 people 30 miles to the south.
“It was easy for me because I know what a small town is like,” she remarks. “I know how it works.”

So-called boomerangs like Collins—those who grew up in small towns and might be open to returning—are a prime market for community banking talent, if you can find them, experts say. They may want to be closer to their parents for eldercare or childcare reasons or simply want to return to their hometown.

First things first
Before a bank can begin to lure employees, it must define what it and the community can offer and find the best way to market itself to potential applicants. Often, this requires customizing its marketing approach depending on the specific type of person it is trying to attract.

“Banks, and particularly smaller community banks, go to market all wrong in how they position themselves when advertising and trying to look for people,” says Alan Kaplan, founder and CEO of Kaplan Partners in Wynnewood, Pa., citing traditional job postings that simply list duties and requirements. “We should be going to market saying, ‘If you want to work for a technology company that cares passionately for customers and takes care of its community, then come talk to us.’”

It’s all about value propositions, says Terry Gallagher, president of Battalia Winston, a C-suite recruiting firm that focuses on hard-to-fill positions. A bank needs a firm handle on its current and future plans and the qualifications that are necessary for a candidate to be successful in the job. “You need to articulate in a 30-second sound bite what will draw interest based on your most critical selling points,” Gallagher says. For example, a community bank might tout itself as a stable organization with controlled growth over the past 20 years and an appetite for select acquisitions. Those looking to attract IT professionals might woo candidates by telling them the bank will depend on them to develop a strategic plan and that the institution has dedicated funds to achieve those objectives. That gives candidates confidence that IT isn’t just an expense item at the bank.

When selling a location, a bank should take the time to brainstorm what its community has to offer, says Gallagher. Attributes worth promoting could include the education system, outdoor activities like hiking and fishing, no pollution, short commutes, lower home prices, being near a great university town or health care, and low property, income or estate taxes. The Chamber of Commerce is often a great resource, says Mike Cherwin, chief human resources officer for First Interstate BancSystem, the parent company of $12.1 billion-asset First Interstate Bank in Billings, Mont.

“Get into the guts of why somebody would want to live there,” Gallagher says.

Ready to recruit?

Building an exceptional team goes far beyond base compensation. Consider these strategies:
1. Get to know each applicant. The more you understand the applicant’s situation, the more you can tailor your offer to what they are seeking.
2. Include relocation costs. Whether a candidate would have to move across town or across the country, footing some of the bill makes candidates more comfortable.
3. Offer stock options. Companies with employee stock ownership plans tend to have more loyal staff and less turnover.
4. Train and promote. Emphasize to candidates your dedication to their continual advancement in the workplace.
5. Don’t wait. There is never an ideal time to hire. If you’ve found the right person, hire them and reap the benefits.

The money question
Many banks’ recruitment efforts are hindered by salary. What’s considered a strong wage by locals in a small or rural community isn’t going to lure new hires from outside the market used to making more, even if the cost of living will be less.

“Today, people want to move forward financially,” Kaplan says. “There is too much demand for really good people, and they are not going to just take a pay cut.”
Talented and ambitious people, like a commercial lending officer who could move into senior management down the road, are motivated by pay for performance. They expect above-average recognition for above-average performance, Kaplan says.

It’s a hard pill for many board members to swallow, notes JR Llewellyn, senior vice president of Compensation Advisors, a consultancy based in Gulf Breeze, Fla. At many small-town banks, the board is typically made up of small-business owners. Although many are successful, a competitive market compensation package including incentives and retirement benefits may be a foreign concept to them, as the majority of small-business owners have not had the luxury of this type of compensation.

“There’s a disconnect between market practices and what they understand as reasonable compensation,” Llewellyn says.
In fact, a quarter of bank respondents to the 2016 Crowe Horwath Bank Compensation Survey plan to offer compensation packages (including health insurance, 401k matches and more) that are more than 10 percent above the market average. The majority of survey participants work for community banks holding less than $500 million in assets.

The candidate search
Before a bank can convince somebody to move, it needs to find that person. The best place to look is where most banks are already looking: the local community and state. Get creative by advertising at local fishing competitions or websites dedicated to other activities in the area, suggests Gallagher. People in a job with similar attributes at a similar institution in a similar state may be open-minded.

First Interstate Bank recently had luck luring a senior finance employee from New Jersey to Montana with the help of a recruiter. The candidate had gone to school in northern Colorado before moving to the East Coast. Now married with one small child, he wanted to raise his child with outdoor recreation close by, says Cherwin. And Crest Savings Bank in Wildwood, N.J., once landed someone who had regularly vacationed in the beach town.

As with most business success, the key to finding candidates is networking. Conferences, consultants who work with other institutions, speaking panels, lawyers, CPAs and other trusted professionals can all be good sources for leads. If a candidate turns the bank down because she doesn’t want to move, ask if she can recommend a peer who might be open to the idea, says Gallagher.

This is a frequent strategy for American Bancor Ltd. in Dickinson, N.D., a $1.7 billion-asset bank holding company comprised of American Bank Center in Dickinson, and United Community Bank in Leeds, N.D. While American Bank Center has branches in Bismarck, Dickinson is a town of 24,000 an hour and a half away. Some branches are in towns of 1,000.
“We always go to the people in those communities and say, ‘Who do you know?’ A long-lost relative might be looking at coming back to this area,” says Carrie Zubke, American Bancor’s chief human resources officer.

Crest Savings Bank uses a similar approach, snatching up talent when it becomes available, even when it doesn’t have an open position. Located on a peninsula at the southern end of the Jersey Shore, its talent pool is geographically limited.
“You very rarely find the right person at the right time,” says Anthony DeSalle, senior vice president and chief financial officer at the $450 million-asset bank. “If you can find the right person at a pretty good time, hopefully time will take care of itself in your favor.”

Mike Mohn, senior vice president at $542 million-asset Union Community Bank in Mount Joy, Pa., combs through LinkedIn when looking for commercial lenders and branch managers and recently landed a mortgage originator and two other employees through his efforts. He goes beyond job titles to look at an individual’s qualifications and online activities before deciding to reach out to him or her, highlighting the bank’s culture, including yearly development plans.

“We try to sell the other positives, like the size of the bank and the culture,” says Mohn, who typically hires within his Lancaster County, Pa., market and pays employees a $250 finder’s fee for successful referrals. “We can’t afford to go above market with pay.”

Another option is building a satellite office to host operations or executives in a relatively close metropolitan area. Not only can it help with recruiting, it can also give the bank new growth opportunities. “Although headquarters may be located in a small town, the ability to leverage technology provides banking institutions the opportunity to tap much larger markets,” says Llewellyn.

Motivating factors
Yet money isn’t everything, and most people are happy enough at their jobs that it’s not worth the hassle to move. Compensation typically ranks third on the list of reasons people change jobs, after the culture and stability of the company, Llewellyn says.

That’s why it’s important to dig down and understand what a candidate is really seeking. Gallagher once enticed a CIO candidate to move to a smaller community by having the company’s CEO commit to networking to get him on another company’s board as the cybersecurity expert.

“It gets down to customization,” Gallagher says. “You have to sell as much as you have to buy. You have to handhold and understand why that person is in front of you.”

Sometimes a parent might not want to uproot a special-needs child or one who is just a few years from graduation. The other spouse may not be able to easily switch jobs. Maybe someone is holding out for an expected bonus at her current job. Banks can work around these objections for the right candidate at the right level.

Experts agree that a competitive offer will include relocation costs. These can range anywhere from a few thousand dollars to relocate a single person who doesn’t own a home to tens of thousands for a CEO with a home to sell and a family. Relocation costs can also work as an incentive to stay after a move by requiring that the bank be paid back on a pro rata basis if an employee leaves within two years.

Compensation should be structured so “there are long-term teeth to that package,” Llewellyn says.
First Interstate, which mostly recruits locally and has an 18-month management training rotational program for college graduates, “ladders up” long-term incentives for senior staff members, spreading bonuses over a period of three years so there is always a little bit left, Cherwin says.

Equity with a cliff vest is another option. “One advantage we have over others is we are employee- and director-owned,” says Zubke of American Bancor. “An employee who works for us can become a stockholder. That’s a selling point.”

Need help finding a great employee?

Whether you’re looking to land a future leader or to find a new job, ICBA’s Community Bank Career Center is a helpful place to start. Employers can post jobs, search and manage resumes and even receive email alerts when resumes including a desired skillset are posted. Job seekers can browse job postings, receive resume critiques, discover what their references actually say about them and explore the center’s Career Learning Center, a digital film library featuring professional development advice. Check out the full lineup of resources at

Encouraging longevity

The loyalty American Bancor’s program creates is one reason why its banks rely heavily on training its own people, everyone from interns to new employees, and promoting from inside.
Workers also want a career path, and if they don’t know what opportunities are available to them at the bank, they are likely to jump ship.
“The best defense on keeping your future leaders is a strong offense,” Kaplan says. “You have to give them feedback on a much more regular basis today than when I was coming up. There needs

to be more real conversation around opportunities and career path for those who come to the bank mid-career.”
While the cost and effort of attracting top talent might be high, Kaplan warns the cost of doing nothing might be higher. “If you can’t get the talent you need, you can’t grow as much,” he says. “Over time, you won’t be as profitable. You have to get people in key roles who can move the needle.”

Kelly Pike is a writer in Virginia.