Welsh Sold On West Michigan

August 22, 2003
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GRAND RAPIDS — Sean Welsh just kind of happened into banking.

Welsh, now National City's regional president for the Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon areas, had a career in sales in mind when he graduated from Michigan State University in 1986 with a degree in economics and political science.

An ad in the employment section of the Chicago Tribune, however, led him to apply for work at American National Bank & Trust Co. of Chicago.

"You come across those few points in your life when you kind of get lucky. That was one of them," Welsh recalled. "They had a great training program, and I learned a lot."

Today, Welsh encourages young people embarking on their careers to seek out the best companies with the best training programs.

"That first entry on your resume will launch your career. Whatever companies have the best training, find them and get a job with them. I think that was one of the big breaks I had, and it has really served me well."

After completing his credit training at American National, he went on to manage a large portfolio of loans to middle market companies throughout the Midwest.

In 1991 Welsh moved to Kalamazoo to join National City's predecessor, First of America, where he held several line and management positions, including vice president and group manager of corporate banking and vice president and group manager of investment real estate for Southwest Michigan.

National City purchased First of America in 1998 and expanded into three additional markets — Chicago, Grand Rapids and Detroit. Welsh returned to Chicago as senior vice president and division manager for National City's middle market line of business and established National City's corporate banking initiative in northern Illinois.

It was basically like starting a small business. He had to recruit, train, develop and lead a team of middle market corporate bankers.

"You have to find the good people. You have to motivate them and get them rallied around a goal that they can understand so they can wake up every morning and know what we're going to do."

Though it was hard, "agonizing" work in the beginning, looking back now, Welsh said it was "fun."

He is credited with increasing National City's market share in Chicago from under 1 percent to 5 percent during his tenure there.

Welsh was promoted to regional president of the Grand Rapids, Holland and Muskegon areas in January. He said he accepted the job, in part, because he liked the idea of living in West Michigan.

"There are a lot of banks here and a lot of really good banks here," he said. "It's critical for the success of our economy that we have banks that perform well in niches, just like small businesses do. Service is just the absolute key.

"Grand Rapids has become a regional hub for us. It's one of the corporation's key markets and is a market we want to grow. I think we have the quality of people to do that."

National City's retail line of business — which encompasses mortgage origination, credit cards, auto lending, CDs, and savings and checking accounts — is very big business for the company, he said.

He compares it to the restaurant business.

"If you go into a restaurant and have a bad meal, you don't go back there. And you tell everyone you can about the bad meal you had there. If you have a great meal, you'll tell other people to go try it.

"Every experience that our clients have has to be a positive one, because this is a business driven by service."

Welsh said what he enjoys most as regional president is working with National City staff and clients.

"I feel it's the right business for me because there is no engineered, patented product that's going to sell itself. It's all about getting along with people and making it work from an interpersonal standpoint."

It's the little things, like shaking people's hands and remembering their names, that make a difference, he said. That, and employees who have the drive to go above and beyond, such as stopping by a client's home to close on a mortgage loan or dropping something off on a Saturday for a client who needed some work done.

National City's goal, Welsh said, is not to be the biggest bank — it's to be the best. Size does not make a bank a winner for its shareholders, in Welsh's estimation.

What makes a bank a winner is doing the right thing every time. Building relationships and retaining customers is what ends up earning profit for shareholders, he believes.

Welsh noted that these days National City is truly a "locally delivered" bank. All credit decisions are made here, and all the people delivering National City products locally — from international banking, to investment banking, to leasing, to wealth management and brokerage — are here, as well, he pointed out.

National City has been the largest SBA lender for three years running. Small business, Welsh said, has been a great niche for the bank and one that it historically has done well in. Of late the bank has been focusing more and more attention on small business customers because they represent the fastest growing customer segment, Welsh said.

"Small business owners want to be serviced through their local retail branches. It means something to them to be able to walk into a branch and handle their banking. We're refocusing on it with our 'small business super blitzes.'

"You can't ignore how important those small businesses are to the economy. That's where the Steelcases, the Alticors and the National City's came from at one point."

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