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‘Change is Opportunity’ in the Mind of TCF National Bank’s Tom Shafer

A Never-to-Never Ending Journey

TCF National Bank Chief Executive Officer Tom Shafer’s career in the banking industry has spanned four decades, while he’s witnessed more than a fair amount of change. He likens his career to a “never-to-never ending journey,” after being at the forefront of mergers, acquisitions, and headquarter relocations. Starting out in 1981, Shafer once held executive positions at Citizen’s Bank in Flint, First Michigan Bank, First Place Bank, and Talmer Bank and Trust when it merged with Chemical Financial Corp. in 2016.

“I’ve had fortunate experiences to work for people I have tremendous respect for, and opportunities to grow and develop at each stage in my career,” said Shafer while joining the Detroit Regional Chamber for a discussion on leadership lessons he has learned during his successful career.

Shafer was president and CEO of Chemical Bank when it moved its headquarters to Detroit in 2018 and merged with TCF Bank a year later. The “all-stock merger of equals” created a $49 billion valuation, while accelerating growth for both companies across states, drawing new jobs to Detroit, and expanding philanthropic work aiding the city’s recovery.

Huntington Bank recently announced its plan to merge with TCF Bank in a deal that is set to be completed later in 2021 and create a $170 million valuation, according to Shafer.

A Service Industry Transformed by People, Communication, and Culture

“It’s been an incredible journey when I think about where we’ve gone in the last 10 years. It’s really a story about gratitude when you move at this rate, you can’t do it without people,” said Shafer, who describes the banking industry as a “service industry” first and foremost.

“I’ve been in the service business since the beginning of my career,” said Shafer while emphasizing that a bank’s success is largely driven by people, customer satisfaction, and connections to the community, rather than patented products with remarkable value.

Shafer defines a successful company by its ability to grow and develop talent, saying “I stay very focused on that – have our companies been a good place to work, to develop careers, to attract talent? Are we a good place to bank? Are we making it easy for our customers?”

While Shafer does not glide over real events that has largely led banks into a culture of re-consolidation (de-regulation in the 1970s, inflation in the 1980s, unemployment, recessions, regulatory complexity, and the rise of technology), the banking CEO emphasizes that navigating industry changes is impossible without devoted teams. He said, “To move this fast, it’s about people, and on top of that it’s culture and communication.”

Leadership Lessons Learned

Shafer credits his success and longevity to the following practices on developing talent, ensuring loyalty, and building unconventional mentoring relationships.

Invest in your teams.
“In my world, it’s about people and making sure we’ve got outstanding talent. Usually, it can be developed internally, but when you’re growing, 10-15% of leadership needs to come from elsewhere, so you have fresh ideas. Continuous recruiting is key because there are so many great people out there we want to be associated with. And while this seems timely, D and I [diversity and inclusion] is basic fairness for our team and for the community.”

Look at change as an opportunity.
“Change is simply opportunity. Even in that hyper change, there has to be cornerstones that are given – our commitment to our team, and the value we place on that, and the value of customers.”

Never lose sight of who you are serving.
“Your constituents should be at the center of every decision you make – our team members, our communities, our customers, our regulators, our shareholders – they’re all critical. And at different times they play different roles.”

Allow time for personal growth.
“If I’m going to be successful in the next chapter, I need mentoring relations. Again, they come from all directions – above, below, new people in the organization, industries that I hadn’t been associated with. That’s been very helpful for me because it helps me stay current, and appreciate the skillsets, attitudes, and experiences of others.”