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Close-up: Jim Wening

Local banking exec leads with focus on learning, personal touch

The financial industry ups and downs have been likened this year to baseball -- without the requisite cheering. Jim Wening, senior vice president, regional manager of commercial banking for U.S. Bank in San Diego, looks back to his summertime market predictions and says with a laugh: "I was right."

His perspective at an industry roundtable in May was that the industry was in the third inning, which was a bit more pessimistic than his peers.

"The excitement of the middle innings was not upon us at that time," Wening said. "We're probably in the 5th or 6th inning at this point, and I think that the remainder of this year will be the crux of this entire situation. We are living through the epicenter of the issues right now, and will over next three four months. I don't think we're out of the woods yet."

Jim Wening

U.S. Bank, Wening said, is maintaining a leadership position in the midst of the turmoil because it has a relatively low number of problem loans or earnings issues. He talks about the bank's executives adhering to a "Warren Buffett-type philosophy."

"Our leadership, all the way up to and especially including our CEO, is ... kind of stick-to-your-knitting type of executives. They believe you should know what you do, do it well and know who you're doing business with, plus communicate openly and freely. And don't get off into things you don't understand just because everybody's doing it," Wening said.

As a former investment banker with an MBA concentrated in accounting and finance, Wening said banking was initially a kind of "accidental occupation" for him. Now in the banking industry for 13 years, his concerted effort to both stay informed and make his own judgments is far from accidental.

"I really live the industry. I am a junkie of Barron's and Investor's Business Daily and CNBC," he said. "And I don't just take what I read, I really get under the hood and do my own thinking. I think that's why, perhaps, I don't always think with the herd."

Wening encourages this same practice for his San Diego staff as well. From knowing what's going on in the marketplace so they can translate that into actionable advice for business owners, to regular staff meetings to exchange knowledge and opinions, Wening fosters independent thinking and extensive information gathering in his office.

From keeping staff motivated to better serving clients, Wening believes this approach to the industry will help U.S. Bank continue to grow within the San Diego market.

"We have the capacity on the business side to handle clients of all shapes and sizes -- and we do," he said. "Back on the individual side, you've got to have systems so that you don't just serve affluent clients, but you serve clients of all regions and demographics."

Investments in both technology and green practices are also top priorities, both locally and at the national level. U.S. Bank has spent more than $3 billion on technology and systems at the national level, and is pushing environmental initiatives such as electronic banking and video communications to cut back on travel. In San Diego, U.S. Bank is moving its headquarters into the new LEED-certified building at UTC.

"[Our green initiative] is a pretty extensive initiative and one we hold near and dear to our hearts," Wening said. "People often label big companies as having smokestacks coming out of every building. But in our case, it just doesn't fit. The exact opposite is true -- and we're not good corporate citizens unless we consider that."

On the technology front, Wening highlights how the advances can be a great advantage for banks, as well as helping smaller businesses in particular.

"One, technology has really helped the clients of banks," he said. "It's helped smaller businesses benefit from things that more than decade ago were only available to the largest clients, such as interest rate derivatives or sweep accounts. So, technology has helped us deliver the full breadth of U.S. Bank's products to all of our clients. It helps small businesses grow and helps medium-sized businesses become regional and national players."

While U.S. Bank is itself a large institutional player, Wening emphasizes its goal to maintain a personal approach for all sizes of businesses and all types of individuals. Because it has the resources, Wening states, U.S. Bank can provide specialized support to clients versus the more generalist approach he says is often a necessity of smaller banks, while still providing that personal touch.

"One point that is critical to what U.S. Bank does differently, or at least prides itself on is: Yes, we happen to have size and be a larger bank, but we take service seriously," Wening said. "Our service advantage is that we try to make every interaction personal, add value to every one, and to make customer courtesy commonplace. You don't need to be small to do that kind of stuff."

Blackford is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer.

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