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Investing in relationships: Investors Bank CEO makes connecting with customers centerpiece of his job

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Kevin Cummings, president and CEO, Investors Bank.
Kevin Cummings, president and CEO, Investors Bank. - ()

When Kevin Cummings was appointed CEO of Investors Bank on January 1, 2008—just in time for the Great Recession—the Short Hills-based bank had about $6.4 billion in assets and 450 employees. At that point, Cummings made it a point to meet with every employee, either individually or in “town halls” and other group get-togethers.

Less than a decade later, Investors Bank has grown to more than $23 billion in assets and about 2,000 employees located throughout New Jersey and New York. But Cummings, 62, still manages to carve out the time to meet with new and existing employees. That kind of personal attention to detail is part of what makes Cummings a Power Banker, someone with vision and influence who can spur an institution and its employees to realize their full potential. It’s also part of why he was able to lead Investors on a journey from its roots as a sleepy bank to become the largest New Jersey chartered state bank, according to the latest Department of Banking and Insurance statistics.

A lot of bankers talk about “establishing relationships” as a way to attract and retain customers—after all, a combination of market competition and steep regulation means that banks can’t get too wild and crazy about interest rates and financial products—but Cummings delivers on the promise.  “My challenge is to keep the face-to-face touch even as we grow,” he says. “It takes a mixture of technology and flesh to keep in contact with employees and customers alike.”

Fast growth without losing the personal touch

Cummings backs up his words with actions. Besides staging “town halls” and other internal meetings “to let employees know what’s going on with the bank, because people like to know they’re part of something,” Investors is developing interactive webinars that will let Cummings and other top executives answer employees’ questions on a company-wide basis.

Externally, he adds, “we get involved in different communities in a variety of ways,” including staffing local branches with people who can speak a variety of languages, and using the bank’s branches to host community programs like art events, blood pressure screenings, and educational workshops.

Being a power banker also requires commitment and an ability to grow personally while embracing some degree of risk. Before he joined Investors as chief operating officer in 2003, Cummings was a partner at the international accounting firm KPMG. CPAs aren’t known for being risk takers — bankers generally shy away from that label too — but after Cummings took the helm at Investors, he didn’t hesitate to put his stamp on the company.

“From 2008 to 2014, we did eight acquisitions,” he says, noting that the deals spanned across the Hudson River to include New York City banks, as well as Garden State institutions. But the rapid growth that M&As offer was only one part of Cummings’ plan. “We had to ensure that Investors’ core values were integrated with the acquired companies. That meant we had to communicate with the employees and let them know that the M&As didn’t just involve cutting costs, but also represented the chance to expand their opportunities.”

Formalizing a corporate culture

Around 2010, Cummings and his executive management team further strengthened the bank’s integration efforts by creating the position of chief culture officer, which has been held since inception by Dennis Budinich. His responsibilities include personal and professional development of employees, and setting up educational programs—covering topics like technical skills, product, sales and relationship skills—that are delivered in-person and with e-learning programs. Budinich is also responsible for creating “culture events and activities” that have included an Investors rock band, employee recognition events, family events, and softball and bowling leagues.

“In the past decade, Investors has gone though a significant change in culture, which has been positive,” says Cummings. “But if you want to change people, you show them the reasons for the change and sell them on your vision. Too often, people think that ‘change is good as long as it does not affect me.’ But you have to let them know why it is good for them. It’s a kind of sales pitch.”

These and other efforts to reach out to employees and others at all levels appear to have paid off. Eight Investors branch managers from 2004 are still with the bank today, and six of the bank’s 13 board members were formerly with institutions that were acquired by Investors Bank.

“It’s all about teamwork,” according to Cummings. “When you acquire a bank and retain some board members, it demonstrates your commitment to partnership.” Equally important, it shows customers that they can expect continuity.

Playing nice pays off

Industry experts will tell you that a good bank leader will not only have a vision, but will also be able to convince the board of directors that he or she is doing the right thing. Cummings seems to be scoring on that level, too.

“The board of directors is an important part of our strategic development,” he explains “On the one hand, the board is there to represent the interests of stockholders, but they’re also tasked to provide guidance to management. We’ve got a very good relationship, thanks in large part to our commitment to transparency and to open communications.”

Continuity may be also part of the reason. Current board chairman Robert M. Cashill served as Investors’ CEO from December 2002 until he retired in December 2007. During that time Cashill was an integral part of the “first step” conversion that helped transform Investors from a depositor-owned savings bank into a publicly held company, raising $500 million that helped it to later grow with multiple acquisitions. “Bob wasn’t just my predecessor, but he was my mentor, too,” Cummings says.

Propelling a bank from under $7 billion in assets to more than $20 billion may be impressive, but Cummings views it as Act I in a continuing story. “We’re on people’s radar now,” he says. “Anyone can be successful, but moving from significant success to significant success is the real test. We’re still planning for the future, and have our sights set on $30 billion as the next goal. It’ll take continuous improvement, but that’s what we’re geared for.”

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