Culture Keeper

Culture Keeper | Human Resource Executive Online Red-hot Umpqua Bank counts on Barbara Baker to preserve a creative culture through its explosive corporate growth.

Thursday, October 16, 2008
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In the pinstripe world of banking, Umpqua Bank is totally plaid, and proud of it. For years, the subsidiary of Umpqua Holdings Corp. has boasted of its unique twist on the cultural lexicon in banking, referring to its branches as "stores," and offering free coffee, posh environments, free wi-fi access and more.

This is a bank? Absolutely, and it's up to Barbara Baker, Umpqua Bank's executive vice president of cultural enhancement, to make sure everyone "gets it," from new employees to customers off the street. Named to this year's HR Honor Roll, Baker takes to heart CEO Ray Davis' mandate to delight and exceed employee and customer expectations. 

In just six years, Baker has spread the bank's culture as the company's staff has grown by more than 500 percent and what was once a small, quirky bank has soared into a multi-state financial powerhouse. In fact, Portland, Ore.-based Umpqua Bank was ranked No. 13 in Fortune magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" in 2008.

Together with her staff of 22, Baker guides new employees through such creative cultural-immersion programs as a dedicated training "university," a program of "culture coffees" between management and employees and a continuous emphasis on communication between staff and management.

A resident of Portland, Baker says she doesn't think of herself as an HR manager. That's so silo-thinking.

"I consider myself a business manager," she says. "Progressive HR leaders today ... look at themselves as business leaders first. Our skill sets just happen to be HR, but we're always looking at everything we do [in terms of] how it contributes to the bottom line and the goals of the company."

Baker's challenges began from the moment she walked through the door. When she was hired in 2002, Umpqua Bank was about to embark on a merger-and-acquisition feast that would ultimately expand the bank from six Oregon "stores" to branches in California, Oregon and Washington. Assets would swell from about $1 billion to $8 billion and the employee ranks would grow from about 350 to the current 1,800.

"You don't have time to take one person, sit down and give them the orientation" in a merger-and-acquisition process, says Baker. "You're doing 350. So, we came up with a three-phased process."

Before a merger or acquisition is even completed, Baker and her team begin the onboarding process with the new employees by talking about the brand and traditions of Umpqua Bank. Baker says it's important to communicate two central ideas at this juncture: what they'll get from it and the fact that their own traditions are valuable.

"You've got to explain to them the value proposition -- what's in it for them," she says. "And, you have to explain to them how they're going to take their traditions and those will become our future. And, you have to be sincere about this."

Andrew H. Ognall, a partner in the Portland-based law firm of Foster Pepper, has seen firsthand how Baker drives cultural values during a merger or acquisition. His firm helps with legal and employment issues during the M&A process, when new employees are especially fearful about their jobs, the new employer and the new culture.

"I think it's twice as hard in Umpqua's case because they put such a great emphasis on their culture," says Ognall. It can take months to complete the M&A, but, Ognall says, Baker and her team shepherd the new employees every step of the way.

"I saw her plan those integrations, take a disciplined approach and establish a system that, from the get-go, started to bring the Umpqua culture in," says Ognall.

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Baker continues training new and current staff through the World's Greatest Bank University, a training center with six satellite offices throughout the bank's system, designed to provide curricula on Umpqua Bank's culture, policies, customer service, management and every facet of the bank.

When she arrived at Umpqua, the term "training department" might have been a misnomer. There were just two people staffing the department -- the secretary of the former president of the bank and a former undercover Los Angeles policewoman-turned-training director.

Now, the World's Greatest Bank University is ranked 56th in Training magazine's "125 Best Training Departments in the U.S." So far this year, the staff has spent about 300,000 hours in training, through various approaches, such as online access, in class and through seminars.

Baker also maintains open lines of communication from employees up through the chain, to Davis himself, and she emphasizes this part of the bank's culture at every turn.

When she started, the bank had a creative-management pipeline, called "culture coffees." At the time, two staffers traveled to each branch and, over coffee and cake, polled employees on customer satisfaction and asked what would make their jobs more effective and enjoyable.

It was a great way to keep the employees and customers happy, and a great way to communicate the values of the bank. Baker liked the idea so much she ratcheted up the program.

Now, everyone on her team is required to perform 15 such visits a year and take the pulse of every department and staffer.

"Everybody is represented and everybody is heard," she says. "If you stop asking people and it stops being that much of a priority, the culture will break."

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