Stepping down from a leadership position isn’t easy—especially one as all-consuming as a community bank CEO. So, when and how do you make the break? And what comes next? Three leaders tell us.
By Roshan McArthur • Illustrations by Randall Nelson
A clean break
Chris Emmons, Gorham Savings Bank
After 15 years at the head of Gorham Savings Bank and more than 40 years in banking, Chris Emmons is on the verge of retirement. Under his tenure, the southern Maine bank more than doubled in asset size to more than $1 billion in 2017, and went from six to 13 branch locations. It’s been a great run, so why walk away?
“I’m getting on in age,” he laughs. “But I’ve always been very practical about what the lifecycle of a CEO should be. Our institution has gone through quite a bit of change in the last 15 years, and there comes a point when, as you look at your customer base and how you do business, as that evolves, you look for people who are going to be successful in that environment. You always want to find your best talent to manage and run your business.”
When you start to reach the end of your career, Emmons adds, you realize that some of the strategic planning initiatives are going to take a while—and you may not want to stick around that long. “I think you owe it to the organization to recognize that and make room for somebody who will be able not only to develop a plan but to execute on it,” he says.
Emmons notified the board of his intention to retire several years ago. “We had a very thoughtful and well-drawn-out plan for succession,” he explains. Together, they identified an external candidate who was a good fit: Steve deCastro from Key Private Bank in nearby Portland. They brought him on in 2016 as an executive in the commercial banking area. “He became familiar with our culture,” says Emmons. “Our board got to know him, our customers got to know him. So it was easy for our board to announce that he would take over as president in April this year.”
When he leaves in early 2019, Emmons intends to make a clean break from the bank and the industry, believing it’s the right time to jump off. “I’m really of the mind that having a past executive on the board has certain benefits, but it can also be disruptive,” he says. “And, honestly, I feel for the incumbent and really for the organization that it’s best just to step away and let the new leadership do what they do.”
Instead, he is looking forward to not making plans, apart from staying on as a trustee at the local hospital, Maine Medical Center. He laughs: “It’s funny, when you say you’re retiring, everybody says, ‘So what are you going to do now?’ My family and I have thought about a lot of different things, and we’ve contemplated some short-term things that we’d like to do, travel plans.
“But we’re not going to commit to any real longer plans, because I think we’re looking forward to the opportunity to just be nimble, willing to do what comes at the time, and not commit ourselves in any one particular way. I think that part of the fun is just to see what opportunities come along and seize the moment as best we can.
“For the moment,” says Emmons, “we’ll take it one day at a time.”
Sue Eno, Citizens National Bank
At the end of March, Sue Eno stepped aside as CEO of Citizens National Bank in Cheboygan, Mich., which holds assets of just under $300 million. It was a position she had held since 2008. After serving at the bank for almost 50 years (she started there in 1971 while she was in high school), she’s ready for a new phase of her life.
“I just turned 64,” she says, “and I was in a position where I felt I could retire. At the bank, we need to grow loans, and that’s not my expertise, and the world is changing, and we need to change.
“We’ve done a good job of moving the bank forward. We’ve converted to the universal banker model. The next big hurdle was to get our arms wrapped around loan growth, and I really did not feel I was the right person to make that happen.”
Eno advised the board of her plans in January 2017, and they engaged a head-hunting firm. They ultimately chose Matthew Keene, Citizens National Bank’s executive vice president. Eno stayed on to mentor him and continues to do so, admitting that after nearly half a century with the bank, she couldn’t leave without a great successor.
“If he has a question and wants to call me, there is an open-door policy. If not, that’s fine too! So we get together every once in a while. Sometimes he chooses to take my advice, and sometimes he has his own ideas!” Eno would be lying, she admits, if she said it was easy to leave. “You just breathe deep and you go, ‘We need to change, and that’s what we’re doing.’
“I have a good relationship with Matthew. He needs the opportunity to fall off his bike and skin his knees a few times, and he’ll do that. We’ve all had the opportunity to do that.”
Eno is serving out her term as a director of the bank until next May, when she will decide if she wants to continue to be on the bank board. Other than that, she’s spending time in her garden. After years engaged with community boards and organizations like the Chamber of Commerce and Relay for Life, she is deliberately not doing anything in particular for a year.
“I’ve been outside every day since I retired,” she says. “I like to do some gardening, and I’m trying to get my garden back in shape! My husband and I will do some traveling and fishing. We live in northern Michigan, so you can snowmobile and fish and swim and take advantage of all the water and the outdoors that we have here. It’s a beautiful state, and there’s a ton of stuff to do.”
Eno urges others considering retirement to make sure they’re on the same page with their partners, citing the joke about “twice the time, half the money.”
“It’s something you and your significant other or spouse have to figure out before you retire,” she says. “My husband has been retired for a bit, so we’re not both adjusting. But he’s adjusting to having me home more!
“I think it’s really important to try and get on the same page about how you’re going to work through the final stage of your life.”
Ron Geib, Harleysville Bank
After graduating from college in 1976, Ron Geib joined $774 million-asset Harleysville Bank in Pennsylvania. He stayed there for 42 years, serving as its CEO from 2007 to the end of March this year, when COO Brendan McGill succeeded him.
Geib still considers the bank a big part of his life. “I’m still in the community, I’m still chair of the board, so I’m still connected,” he says. “People say, ‘Why are you retiring?’ And I say it was just time. I had a great team, I had a great career, and I want to do different things now but still be involved with the bank.”
“You start letting go of responsibilities before you retire. My retirement was all about teeing up my successor for success. Just like the relay race, I don’t win unless the person following me does well.”
McGill was placed on the board in 2014, and a year ago, he and Geib switched offices. It was a process intended to help McGill think differently and to help others look at him differently. “The key to this whole thing,” explains Geib, “is that the directors understand that you can lose an institution during a transition if you don’t do it right. It’s not like a light switch on and off.”
These days, Geib doesn’t have an office. Instead, he’s learning the role of an outside director, providing oversight while not being involved in day-to-day operations. He plays a lot of softball and is spending time with his three grandkids, as well as his and his wife’s parents, all of whom are in their late 80s and still independent. “That’s the reason I retired, so I could be available for them—for the parents and for the grandkids,” he says. “It’s a treasure to have that opportunity.”
Geib and his wife, Merle Lee Geib, also plan to travel and volunteer with local children’s charities. For now, they’re taking a year to “detox.” “I still spend an hour a day on emails and reading and industry things, keeping my head in that world,” he smiles. “But I’m getting used to this new way of life. When you first retire, you say, ‘Is this vacation, is this a sick day, is this a holiday?’ I tell people I have six Saturdays and one Sunday. That’s what it feels like sometimes!”
Roshan McArthur is a freelance writer in California.