The path less taken to the community bank C-suite
By Grant Wishard
Orvin Kimbrough’s resume doesn’t look like the typical banker. He holds an M.A. in Theology from the Aquinas Institute of Theology. After working with several other nonprofit initiatives, he started with United Way of St. Louis in 2007 and served as CEO there. But as a board member of Midwest BankCentre, a community bank in St. Louis, he happened to be hosting the meeting that changed both his and the bank’s trajectory.
The meeting’s agenda was to discuss the search for a new CEO. As board chairman, Kimbrough hosted the meeting at United Way’s St. Louis office. He gave a short presentation, but seemed unable to get everyone’s full attention. At the end of the conference table, a number of members were chatting. An organizational psychologist had made a report to the board that included an X/Y graph showing how each candidate scored on four leadership traits. Reading the report, Kimbrough noticed that each of the candidates was specialized toward one corner. Some were more “generative,” others were more “process oriented.” “I had an out-of-body experience,” he remembers, “it was crazy. I was sitting there thinking, ‘Oh my God. This could not be.’” The person they needed was someone that sat in the middle of the graph—and that person sounded like him.
After the meeting, he spoke with the former chairman, who immediately asked if Kimbrough would take the job. He did, starting in January of 2019. He continues to do more things than seems humanly possible—his LinkedIn lists five current roles, he teaches at Washington University of St. Louis, his hobby is to prolifically write op-eds, and somewhere along the way he earned his seminary degree—but banking is now his main effort. As for the whispering board members at the end of the table? They too were discussing if Kimbrough would consider the job.
Insights from outside
Banking has traditionally had a strong preference for direct, first-person bank experience. In that sense, Kimbrough was an outsider. As a Black man, he was also conscious that relatively few people of color historically served in bank C-suites. His resume, his ideas, and even little things like his facial hair and flamboyant socks have been viewed with skepticism. He’s won the respect of those in finance, but to do so he had to use his outsider’s experience.
Kimbrough began spotting similarities between banking and charity. Both are very old industries, steeped in tradition, and tempted towards stodginess. Both sectors invest money and rise or fall based on the results. Charity—especially in the case of United Way, which specializes in workplace campaigns—is about giving people opportunities to donate. When Kimbrough led the St. Louis organization, they pioneered the concept of being the outsourced partner for companies looking to contribute to social change. His goal was to “help people engage how they want, when they want, where they want,” and that lines up well with banking, he says. These days he is opening “channels,” but the idea is not so different from his work at United Way.
Once Kimbrough had the trust of the board and his team, he started asking fundamental, catechetical questions. “I spent these first couple years challenging the board, challenging our management, on our philosophical orientation,” he says. What does it mean when we say we want to help working-class men and women? Like a theologian, he arrived with a big-picture view of the world: “In society I see a fabrication occurring. You got more people at the top and you got a ballooning group at the bottom and the middle is being squeezed. So what we’re trying to do is find responsible ways of serving.” Instead of the bank’s profits being an end unto themselves, in Kimbrough’s system, profits make service sustainable.
By reexamining its philosophy, Kimbrough has changed the posture of Midwest BankCentre, a $2.3 billion dollar enterprise. “We focus on optimization,” he says, “at what point can we make money and serve every population well? We spend time looking at our policies, asking questions about how we think about credit scores, how we think about alternative ways of determining whether an individual is credit-worthy.” By starting in the realm of the metaphysical, Kimbrough’s systematic theology is resulting in better banking on the ground.
Building a new bank
The story, or at least its opening chapters, is in the name for Frank Sorrentino III. His great-grandfather was a stone mason in Italy. His grandfather brought his building talents to America. Sorrentino’s father learned the construction business from a young age, studied engineering, and started successful businesses. Sorrentino followed in his footsteps. He knew how to lay brick and concrete before he was double digits, and started his own contracting business at 18, while also earning his degree. It’s a lot of Franks and a lot of New Jersey family history, but several years ago the story took an interesting turn.
Sorrentino’s company specialized in building custom homes and, naturally, required large amounts of capital. Sorrentino approached his bank the same way he approached his customers, workers, suppliers and sub-contractors: hoping to find a long-term, mutually beneficial relationship. In 28 years in the construction business, he never found exactly what he was looking for.
With each bank he tried, Sorrentino did his best to be a loyal fan. His business represented reams of money, and he also sat on advisory boards and referred business to his bank whenever possible. Regardless, the pattern stayed the same. Every couple of years, the bank he was working with would be sold and that relationship would disappear. Each time, the incoming bank had no idea who he was. After it happened a third time, Sorrentino made a decision: “I said I’m not going through this a fourth time and my answer, instead of switching banks, was to start one.” Today, he is chairman and CEO of ConnectOne Bank, now piloting over $8.3 billion in assets.
Sorrentino had to persuade potential employees and investors that he had something fresh to offer the world of banking. This new financial world was creaky with arbitrary expectations and filled with worriers who forecasted doom for every ambitious project. It was as if nobody asked any questions because everyone thought they knew the answers.
Bringing a fresh perspective
Sorrentino saw a need for two things in banking: more questions and a sense of urgency. Moving quickly, urgency, is something that Sorrentino believes all businesses need. “It’s about building momentum,” he says, “I’ve never heard of a client, whether it was in construction or whether it was in finance, who said to me ‘I am so happy that you delivered on time.’” Sorrentino always impressed his clients by exceeding their expectations. When he arrived in banking, professionals told him that it would take him 90 days to close on a loan, which is when the second aspect of Sorrentino’s advice came into play, asking “why?” “I encourage people to be like five-year-olds,” he says. Question things, instead of building up mountains of discouraging assumptions. Sorrentino believes that those who approach banking this way, as fast-moving iconoclasts, will be successful. He has his own experience to prove it.
To those who are considering making a switch themselves, Sorrentino suggests closely examining the reasons for the switch. “I never thought that I would switch careers and go into banking, I was just passionate about creating this business as a business venture. I knew that I could have an influence on the direction that it would go in and it sort of pulled me in.” To those who do have that second passion, “Don’t be afraid is what I would tell people. If there is something that is attracting you and you want to do something else, go do it, go try it. For me it created a whole new chapter in my life.” Now that ConnectOne is advancing further into fintech, Sorrentino hints that there might be a third chapter as well.
Kimbrough adds a recommendation that a new CEO guard his or her time. “Banking is a highly relational sport,” he explains, “don’t make the mistake of trying to be everywhere and in relationship with everyone. Choose where you spend your time. If you don’t manage your schedule and energy, it will manage you.”
A pathway for diverse talent
Now on the inside of the industry, Orv Kimbrough has brought on others with diverse talents and backgrounds. He’s brought professionals in from the casino world, used car sales, the Latino chamber of commerce, and grocery store marketing. He knows there are other “accidental bankers”—to use the moniker he goes by—out there.
Finding them is the morally right thing to do, and it also happens to be profitable. Being open to non-bankers, while unusual, also addresses one the common objections bankers make when asked about the diversity of C-suites: that the problem is in the pipeline. Openness to well-placed talent opens up dozens and dozens of new talent pipelines.
“The world is filled with talent. Diverse talent,” Kimbrough says, “we’ve got to source differently if we’re going to compete. It is a significant competitive differentiation when you can match the markets.”