What do you do when you don't know what to do? A mentor can help

Did you know what you wanted to be when you grew up? Do you know now? Ira Brown, for one, had no clue, although now he is the regional president of M&T Bank. Brown said he would have not even considered a career in banking if it weren't for happenstance and an excellent mentor or two. That's why he's a big believer in the power of mentoring.

What did you want to be when you grew up?

Well, coming out of college in 1979, 1980, I had no idea what I wanted to be when I grew up.

What was your major?

Political science. My parents were very liberal and very willing to let me do whatever I wanted to do.  I had no idea what that would be.  So, quite by chance, I ended up working for a local savings bank in a training program where I grew up in Springfield, New Jersey.  It was the bank I used as a kid.  They had an opening.  I applied.  I got the job. 

But why did you even apply there?

Well, it was probably the first job I saw right after I graduated.  I knew I didn’t want to go to law school.  I certainly wasn’t going to go back and go to medical school at that point.  I don’t even know if I could have recreated all of that.  So, it was more of a chance than anything else, as compared to a long-term career path.  I ended up starting to interact with customers, taking inventory of toasters and knife sets and whatever we were giving out back in the ‘80s when Reagan was President and rates were crazy.

Did you come out of college during the 1980s recession? Was there an element of desperation in your choice?

I did, but it’s funny.  I don’t remember being desperate.  I just remember not knowing. I was living at home.  I don’t know if my parents would have thrown me out, but I just didn’t have a clear path of what I wanted to do.  I started in banking, on the retail side. [Note to readers -- that's the side that involves customers and their bank accounts, what you see when you walk in a bank.] I figured out on my own to go from a savings bank to a commercial bank.  I learned the business in several different jobs, I met a couple of people who were willing to help push me along, or help me advance, because as I spent time in banking and got to know the business a little bit, the client contact side was always something I enjoyed.  Then, once I was working for a commercial bank, the lending side was a place where I wanted to end up.  And, it’s not always easy to transition from the retail side to the commercial side.

There was a woman who I worked with, and ultimately worked for, who was very influential in terms of saying to her managers, `Hey, he’s got the ability to get out in the market and help us generate business.  Let’s give him a chance to start as a junior lender, go through some training.'  And, eventually, here we are today.  But, she was very instrumental in terms of helping me clear a path that might not have been available to me.

She was more than a mentor. She was a sponsor. She didn't just advise you. She advocated for you.

She was a mentor and a sponsor.  That would be fair to say.  She was both.   Having come over from the retail side, lending -- not that it’s an over-complicated business, but it takes some experience, and you can make mistakes if you don’t know what you’re doing, even if you do know what you’re doing.  So, she was just very helpful in those formative years.

What were some lessons?

Some lessons were to trust your gut instincts, but not to always make a decision based on that.  The analytical side is just as important, but at the end of the day the character of the borrower is extremely, extremely important.  So, really the lesson is your gut instincts really help drive your decision.  Your judgments about character, what will people do if times get tough, how to judge that. 

How do you judge that?

Well, you know, experience is a big help there.  You can only be wrong about character so many times in our business before you exit the business.  You can’t always be right about that.  You need to spend some time with folks.  In communities like Philly, and most of the communities that we’re in, not only can you form your own conclusions, but Philly’s a small world.  You know that.  Many of the folks we deal with are pretty well known.  So, that helps.  Things like that help form a decision.  And then, you look at elements of the credit side of the business, the analytical side.  A lot of times you can get clues from that.  The way they handle the financials and the presentation of the financials tells you a lot about how they will act over the longer term.  If that makes sense.

So, one lesson she taught was to trust your gut, and verify.

Yes, that’s fair.  Right, trust and verify.  It always works.  Trust and verify.  She was very influential. Then, I had a couple of mentors.  I’ll never forget my first call with my manager at the time, an area manager.  I was in retail, or just transitioning out of retail then.  He took me to a retail store that was a prospect customer of ours, introduced us to the manager.  We knocked on the door and said hello, and then he left.  I’ll never forget that experience.  It’s one I have repeated many times.  In our business, especially when you’re young and starting out, you need to get over rejection. It’s very helpful to have people standing behind you who understand what you’re going through and say it’s okay.  It’s going to get better.  You don’t succeed a hundred percent of the time.

How did you that go, when he introduced you and then left you to fend for yourself?

Well, that one took a little while, it probably took us 90 days.  It helped that we were located very close to them and, honestly, it was a very small retail location.  We were probably the first bank ever to knock on their door.  So, they did okay.  My manager started the right way.  He took you some place that if you failed, it wouldn’t derail your career. 

Right, because you didn’t have that business as a customer anyway.

Right.  So, as a result of that, I will encourage our management, because we hire a lot of college graduates, sometimes graduate students.  We bring them out early and often on calls to help them do the same thing.  Like everything else, it’s tougher today just because business is so much more intense and people’s time seems to be so much more limited.