GRAND RAPIDS — The field of finance has always intrigued Steve Alexander, regional president of National City Bank of Michigan/Illinois.
After 19 years with National City and its predecessor, First of America, Alexander still “runs” to work every day — figuratively speaking.
He graduated from Central Michigan University with a degree in finance in 1982 when interest rates were in the 18 percent to 20 percent range and unemployment stood at about 20 percent. Not the most opportune time to be looking for a job in the industry.
But like many people raised in small towns, Alexander knew a lot of people in his hometown of Shelby, Mich., population 1,600. Recognizing that the difference between getting a job and not getting a job sometimes hinges on who you know, he visited Shelby State Bank and persuaded the bank’s president to write a letter of reference for him to First of America Bank in Kalamazoo.
First of America had a freeze on hiring, as did other banks at the time. But that letter turned out to be “a pretty powerful tool” — and his ticket into First of America.
“They squeezed me in and that’s how I got into banking,” he recalled.
He spent his first two weeks repossessing cars.
That part of the business wasn’t much to his liking, and the job “was two weeks too long,” but it was a start. From there he rotated among jobs for six months, learning the various pieces of the banking business.
After completing a management-training program, he accepted a portfolio management position with First of America in Allegan, where he worked for three years.
In 1986 Alexander moved to Kalamazoo to lead a loan group for the bank and subsequently worked his way up to managing the commercial department. In 1994 he got one of his better breaks, he said, when he was asked to relocate to Grand Rapids and become senior lender for the West Michigan area under Ken Hoexum.
“It got me to the market I wanted to be in, working for a tremendous person who proved to be a great mentor to me,” he said.
When National City Bancorp acquired First of America three years ago, Alexander was pleased. As he saw it, the two banks were a good fit because they didn’t have any overlap either in core competencies or geographic markets. The acquisition brought on not only greater capacity, but also superior products, he said.
“National City is known more as a corporate bank, which is my field,” he remarked. “National City views West Michigan as a tremendous place to do business. So when they came to First of America, the Michigan/Illinois bank, the goal was to build up capacity in three markets in particular — Detroit, Chicago and West Michigan.”
Alexander was promoted to regional president last May and now oversees 27 National City banking centers and 300 employees in the West Michigan region, primarily Kent, Ottawa and Muskegon counties. His major area of responsibility is corporate banking and his secondary responsibility is regional leadership of the bank.
Headquartered in Cleveland, National City Corporation is an $89 billion financial holding company that provides a full range of banking and financial services. The company operates more than 1,200 branch offices, and more than 1,600 ATMs in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Indiana, Kentucky, Illinois and Michigan.
Alexander describes his job these days as that of a “player-coach.”
A typical day includes calling on prospects and customers and helping the bank’s relationship managers with their own prospects and customers. Whether creating credit opportunities, making loan decisions or bringing in new business line leaders, he said, National City is “all about providing solutions” for customers. The keys are people, products and capacity, he said.
Three years ago National City asked Alexander to hand pick people to bring on board as relationship managers, or “prospectors.” He hired five people just to hit the streets and later upped the number to 10.
“We really built in capacity. The competitive advantage of this whole thing has been excellent people who believe in what they’re selling,” he said. “When we are close to forming a new relationship we provide a prospect with a list of customers to call. We’ve had great reports from references that have helped us get deals. To me that’s the proof in the pudding.”
Alexander believes National City has an exceptional product base compared to its competitors in the market right now.
“In many cases our products are better. Treasury management is an excellent example,” he said. “In addition we have a great capital markets group that allows us to hedge interest rates for our customers. It’s not on the street now, but it’s coming.
“Last but not least, we’re the most stable. We’ve gone through our event of being acquired. We’ve got three years behind us now, while many of our competitors are faced with uncertainty.”
During his 19 years in the industry, Alexander has seen competition take on new meaning through consolidation. As he sees it, the two have become related.
“It’s gotten to be a much more aggressive environment, which has been beneficial to customers. At the same time consolidation has brought better technology and more efficiencies,” Alexander observed.
“So we’re able, as an industry, to earn the same amount of money with less spread. Technology has come along pretty dramatically in the last five years, such as the technology that has allowed customers to move money via the Internet.”
He sees National City as having significant upside potential and envisions it becoming a bigger and bigger player in the regional market. The bank grew its corporate portfolio by 100 percent in 1999 and by 40 percent in 2000. That’s evidence the bank is gaining market share, he said.
Although the economy is a challenge right now, he said his bank was “already out the gate” as of February with 14 percent growth. National City currently has about a 9 percent share of the West Michigan market.
“We have the infrastructure to handle pretty significant growth over the next five years. I think the corporate side will predominantly lead our growth,” Alexander said.
He enjoys the relationships he and his team have built with West Michigan customers, as well as with each other. He also enjoys sharing in the bank’s success with employees, the very people who made it possible.
Furthermore, he likes his duties as regional president a whole lot more than the job of repossessing cars.