A Bank That's Puttin' On The Blitz

The last people Steve Schuholz expected a sales call from were bankers. But one afternoon in February, Elizabeth King and Jeff Weiser, two managers from Cincinnati-based Fifth Third Bank, walked into Schuholz's Village Green Restaurant & Cafe to offer their services. Says Schuholz, Village Green's owner: "It was all very casual, which surprised me."

King and Weiser were finishing what Fifth Third calls a "blitz": visiting companies without appointments to drum up business. Schuholz had planned to refinance a mortgage with a rival. But three days later, Fifth Third had the business. His checking accounts followed. "Generally, lenders are more like `I'm doing you a favor' kind of people," says Schuholz. "Elizabeth and Jeff showed more energy."

Bankers at Fifth Third blitz prospects all the time, and drop in on longtime customers, too. George A. Schaefer Jr., a West Point graduate and chief executive officer of Fifth Third, got the tactic from his predecessor, Clement L. Buenger, a former life insurance salesman. Now, all Fifth Third officers are expected to put a lot of mileage on their cars to sell the bank's services. Says Schaefer, who often goes on blitzes himself: "You get out there and you realize this is a lot nicer than shuffling papers."

PEP TALKS. The approach would be familiar to insurance agents, of course. But it's unusual for bankers, and the effort to involve everyone would make Fifth Third stand out in any business. It helps that loans, a bank staple but usually a low-margin business, are just one of Fifth Third's products. In fact, employees get paid nothing extra for making them. But they get cash gifts when they land customers for other offerings--data processing, travel services, payroll, electronic banking, trusts, credit cards, brokerage services, IRAs, and so on.

The combination of blitzing, low overhead, and 12-hour days yields results. Fifth Third's return on assets is a lofty 1.7%--one of the highest rates for a bank its size--and significantly better than the industry average of 1%. Its market capitalization is $2.5 billion, an impressive showing for a bank that has only $8.8 billion in assets. By contrast, Citicorp has $217 billion in assets and a market cap of $7 billion.

It's a handsome payoff for a simple strategy. A typical blitz starts at 7:30 a.m. Elizabeth King gives a pep talk to 24 other employees, then distributes road maps and a book describing the bank's products. King and James R. Gaunt, a senior vice-president, set off. The first stop, at R/P International Technologies Inc., a local electronics company, produces nothing. The top executives are out, so King and Gaunt hand their business cards to a woman behind a glass window and leave.

`CALL BOOK.' The next stop, at wholesale carpet distributor Cincinnati-Dayton-Columbus Distributors Inc., goes better. Alan A. Futscher, CDC's chief financial officer, says he gets on fine with rival Star Bank, but he'll talk. After chatting about his alma mater, college football, and his business, Futscher ups and hands over his financial statements. His willingness to divulge this information seems surprising, but Gaunt says it's typical: "They'll say, `Golly, my own bank doesn't come out to see me.' " Several weeks later, Futscher is still sticking with Star, but King remains hopeful.

Next is Robert Hollander II, president of Hollander Manufacturing, a piping manufacturer. Hollander is pretty happy with his bankers but is interested in Fifth Third's travel, retirement, and profit-sharing administration services. Several weeks later, the payoff: "We went back and got their entire travel account," says King. She estimates that the account will produce roughly $100,000 in annual airline-ticket sales.

The strategy benefits from the presence in Ohio of hundreds of healthy manufacturers too small to attract the eye of big money-center banks. To augment his sales force, Schaefer has bought several small regional banks and just tried unsuccessfully to acquire Star.

While he makes deals, Schaefer also keeps careful watch on the "call book" that records every staffer's sales visits. The book provides a powerful incentive, says Schaefer. "Most of our people are stockholders. When that call book goes around, everyone knows if you've helped our stock go up. If not, 90 people will be saying, `Hey, you're not helping.' "