What makes a ‘good’ bank?

May 1, 2015

In 1978, I was appointed Assistant Vice President and Branch Manager of the Garden State National Bank in my hometown of Cliffside Park.

Prior to becoming a banker, I was a boxer. I fought some of the best heavyweights of the time in Madison Square Garden, and in 1975 I was rated the number nine-heavyweight fighter in the world. However, the people rated above me were named Ali, Frazier, Norton, Foreman, et.al., so I decided to rely on my college degree from Fairleigh Dickinson University instead of my left jab.

The chairman of the board of the bank, Charles A. Agemain, hired me. Other officers of the bank thought the chairman was nuts when he hired a boxer to be a banker. They were almost proven right during my first week at the branch when the assistant manager came to my desk and whispered to me, “I think the guy standing in front of cage three is trying to cash a stolen check.” I got up slowly and walked towards the man and when I got near him, he bolted out the door. Out of pure reflex, I chased after him, ran him down the main street in town and pushed him against the side of a bus knocking him to the ground. I warned him not to get up and a police officer who saw everything came right over and made an arrest.

Shortly after the event, I received a call from Chairman Agemain who said, “Randy, we don’t hire branch managers to chase perpetrators down the street.” “Yes, sir,” was my reply.

The art of banking comes down to knowing who will pay back their loan. Working in my hometown, I knew the good guys from the bad guys, so deposits went up and defaults went down. This quieted the naysayers in the bank.

So, what should you look for when shopping for a bank?

Charlie Agemain did not like the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation. He said, “It makes all banks look the same, and we’re better than most.” He was right, but, sorry Charlie, John Q. Public is not going to analyze bank balance sheets prior to making a deposit.

Is it in bad taste to ask a bank to detail its potential fees? No, it’s good business. Some banks offer you free checking or savings accounts that come with a bunch of potential charges not disclosed upfront. Some have plans that cover a whole range of services – plans that could really save you some money.

Some of the questions you should ask when shopping for a bank are as follows. What else can this bank do for me? Can the bank provide my business with credit card processing? Will my checking account earn me any interest? What kind of CDs does the bank offer? How about mortgage and loan types? Can I send money overseas via this bank? Do they offer trust planning?

How friendly is their personnel? When you walk into the bank, does anyone greet me and ask how they may help me? Or, are you ignored like a stranger? The reception you get may hint at the level of service that will be coming your way.

Ask to see a bank officer, if possible. Make a list of what you want, and see how close your potential new bank comes to providing it. Don’t be afraid to make the bank work for your business – they should be working harder than ever for it.

What can you do to make a banking relationship better for you? If you bring major deposits, of course you’re going to be treated as a VIP. If you don’t, it may help if you establish a relationship or two. So often, we go to a bank and we look at the tellers – and even the loan officers and mortgage consultants – as mere functionaries instead of human beings.

If you have a lousy experience at the bank or you get dinged with some weird fee all of a sudden, ask someone why – maybe the customer service staff can address the matter and work out a solution. Make yourself known – a good way to do that is to bank when it isn’t “rush hour.” A friendly, recognizable customer who wants the best from his banking relationship can turn into a valued banking client.

Lastly, would it be better to bank online? How often do you need to go into your bank? If you really don’t require much in the way of in-person services, maybe online banking is a better option – after all, why should you pay to support your bank’s bricks and mortar if you never set foot in them?

I felt the walls closing in when I got a call from one of the senior operations officers following my attendance at a branch managers’ meeting. He began the conversation with, “Hey Randy, was that you on a motorcycle today at the headquarters’ building?” I replied, “Yes it was, but I’m surprised anybody recognize me because I was going so fast.” He responded, “Charlie was looking out the window and he saw you! Let me tell you, we don’t like to see our bank officers riding motorcycles.”

This was during the 1970s gas crisis, so I responded, “Yeah, but I get about 40 miles per gallon driving that thing.” The screamed response was, “Well, I can wear long hair and hippie glasses to work, but I don’t.”

The opinions voiced in this material are for general information only and are not intended to provide specific advice or recommendations for the individual. Randy Neumann, CFP® is a registered representative with and securities offered through LPL Financial. Member FINRA/SIPC. He can be reached at 600 East Crescent Avenue, Suite 104, Upper Saddle River, NJ 07458, 201-291-9000.