Unlocking Meaningful Compensation to Keep Essential Talent
By Brent Longnecker, Ken Derks
Banks are no strangers to using nonqualified deferred compensation plans to attract, retain and motivate their employees and strengthen their succession plans.
According to the American Bankers Association’s 2019 Compensation & Benefits Survey, nearly 65% of banks report utilizing deferred compensation plans. These plans can include supplemental executive retirement plans, or SERPs, which are typically designed for the seasoned bank executive talent. Unlike a 401(k) plan, a SERP has no contribution limit or rules that mandate that all employees must be able to participate. They are purposely designed for highly compensated executives and key employees for whom the 401(k) contribution limits act as a form of “reverse discrimination” toward retirement. These limits can cause a whole host of problems if not addressed by the introduction of a SERP.
Meaningful, thoughtful compensation will be essential for banks interested in motivating and retaining key executives and talent as they continue navigating through these unprecedented times. Guaranty Bancshares’s CFO Cappy Payne called the SERP a “cornerstone” of the Addison, Texas-based bank’s compensation approach.
“[W]e have a wide variety of executive compensation and benefit plans for our senior level management,” he says. “We purposely diversify their compensation such that it increases our ability to attract, retain and motivate the talent we need to differentiate in this incredibly tough economic environment.”
SERPs are often offered alongside several other types of long-term incentive compensation vehicles. Long-term plans can include stock options, stock appreciation rights, phantom stock, restricted stock, restricted units, performance shares of units and combinations of two or three plans. All of these programs are also a form of deferred compensation, like a SERP, but don’t offer as much customization as a SERP. Additionally, most institutions use bank owned life insurance as an indirect funding approach.
A bank may design the SERP so the executive receives a benefit at a later date — like retirement or after 15 years of service. The benefit of the SERP may be issued as a lump sum, a series of payments or combination thereof. It can also have performance criteria added as a motivational incentive. And because there are no contribution limits, this ability to customize and design around one executive team generates a significant ROI. Payne says Guaranty “strongly believes” in the customization of its long-term compensation plans.
“We find customization increases the appreciation of our efforts. In addition, when used with other plans like the annual incentive plan, and other stock-based long-term incentives, we believe we are able to sustain bank leadership that creates a successful banking atmosphere,” he says.
But SERPs aren’t perfect; just like any other executive compensation and benefit plan, it’s critical that bank executives and boards understand their disadvantages. One disadvantage is the funds that accumulate for a SERP are not protected from bankruptcy and creditor claims in the event of insolvency. SERP participants become general creditors of the bank. Still, the plans offer significant advantages and can be incredibly attractive to banks as employers.
- They are easy to implement.
- The don’t require IRS approval.
- They can be customized to the executive team and included as a retirement benefit.
- Banks can use BOLI to help recover their costs and offer a split-dollar life insurance benefit while employed.
All of these advantages combined make for a powerful compensation cocktail that, when used in conjunction with other plans and communicated appropriately, is dynamite.
Banks are under more pressure than ever before to succeed. The pandemic, low interest rates and political uncertainty all contribute to questions and uncertainty in the workplace — including among top executives. SERPs can be a powerful tool in the hands of visionary banks. The flexibility afforded in a SERP is second to none. Finally, it’s just smart business to make sure banks can differentiate themselves while being sustainable by attracting, retaining and motivating the best talent possible.