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Agressive training key to ABN AMRO acquisition success

Multinational bank bucks trends in anchoring acquisiton strategy to centralized training program

"Bankerís hours" arenít what they used to be. Nor is banking the sleepy industry it once was.

1 of 6 training rooms at the Chicago training centerABN AMRO Bank has been in the news recently with its aggressive program to change the traditional banking culture. Their acquisition strategy has made them the largest foreign-owned bank in North America and the parent to LaSalle National Bank, Cragin Federal, Bell, Comerica and other well-known institutions. And their proactive policies have thrown the traditional system of sitting and waiting for business on its ear.

"Weíre going through so much change," says Judi Davenport, the bankís Director of Training for North America, "that I think everybody realizes we need to help people through that change." Itís not enough, she says, to merge new staffs with old and hope the strongest or smartest will survive. "As people need new skills and knowledge, we need to be there to give it to them and not let that happen by chance."

Davenport says that ABN AMRO is bucking a trend in running its training program centrally. "In many banks today training is being decentralized into the business units. Yet there are synergies in having a strong corporate training department. With separate departments, you have programs overlapping and things falling through the cracks. We are more economical and serve our clients better because weíve got all the resources in one place."

Dealing with change

When ABN AMRO makes an acquisition, management and staff work hard to bring the new employees on board and make them part of their new parent. As in most successful firms, they understand that their success is due to their unique way of doing business. Itís vital that their new coworkers also understand and participate in their philosophy and systems. "In our retail bank," says Davenport, "we have gone from, Ďsit and wait for the customer to come iní to Ďget out there and make business happen.í But when you ask a banker to be proactive and make appointments...when we expect a branch manager who has been operationally focused to call on small businesses...when we ask our commercial bank, our corporate bank, and our other business units to make equally drastic, fundamental changes...how in the world can we expect them to succeed if we donít give them formal training?"

In order to cover the gamut of banking practice, Davenportís department delivers training via classroom instruction at the bankís Chicago headquarters, field training at the acquired bankís site, and individualized, computer-based training at locations across the country. They train, in any given month, anywhere from 1,300 to over 2,000 people.

"When we acquire a new bank," says Davenport, "we have to train them on our systems, our procedures, and our products. For each acquired bank, we do, usually, six weeks of training, six days a week, with individuals coming in for two to five days each." In an acquisition, staff set up temporary training sites at or near the new branch and fly out a complete training staff plus computers, networks and projection equipment. In addition, the department offers ongoing staff and management skills training and new employee orientations. The bank typically will fly managers in to the training center in Chicago but will send tellers and staff to a local multimedia training site.

The training facilities

While the department offers training at any number of locations, Davenport says the classes flow best at its Chicago headquarters, in a facility designed and built with the help of United Visual. "Going to a hotel, hauling in the PCs and trying to get them set up is costly and time consuming. Also, much of what we do is tied into the systems on our servers and on our mainframe, and that makes it difficult. Our training center has all of what we need accessible any time weíre going to do a training class."

In designing the centerís a/v systems, Davenport relied on United Visualís Doug Carnell, who built a system around a ceiling-mounted Sony data projector. "The rooms are large and we need to be able to show screens from the computer and videos in a bigger than life way," says Davenport. "It was also very important to me that the trainer can stand at one location and run everything, including the lights, the screen, and all the audio/visual. Iíve done training where youíre running over here for lights and over there for the sound, and that can be terrible. So Doug pulled together a package where everything is controlled from one piece of equipment."

The multimedia concept is one that ABN AMRO has also used quite effectively. "We need to make training accessible to people when and where they need it," says Davenport. The bank added PC-based systems where people can come in for individualized instruction. They put them in the training center, then replicated them in locations across the country. "Our multimedia training is available in every city where we have people. Where we donít have labs weíve given people laptops with multimedia programs loaded on them. Weíre very close to implementing intranet-based systems to bring training to peopleís desks."

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Flexility is a major advantage of the PC-based systems. "Weíre finding that the multimedia environment can be much more time effective. If someone needs, for example, some PC training, they can go to a class for a day, or very often they can get what they need from the multimedia in two hours. It works because they can skip what they already know."

Davenport also chose Softboard PC-based writing boards for two of the new training rooms in Chicago. "I canít tell you how many times Iíve seen trainers sitting in their cubes, at their computers, with flip chart pages all over the floor and the wall, trying to transcribe notes of what went on in a meeting. Itís a waste of time. With the SoftBoard, you can just collect all that information while itís being discussed, and then youíve got it in a computer file."

Davenport says the installation went very smoothly and professionally. "Dougís a good guy to work with. He listened and came back with alternatives. He was open, flexible, and had some good ideas for us. He helped us think of things we hadnít thought of and was very responsive."

The opportunities to build the training center and the multimedia sites are among the advantages of a centralized program. "It was not very difficult to justify, with the cost of setting things up externally," Davenport says, but the numbers would be far different with separate, business-unit based departments. Still, with the speed of the bankís growth and the pressing needs of her department, the last thing Davenport wanted to worry about was whether the a/v would work as planned. Having vendors she can trust, like Carnell and United Visual, are critical to an aggressive training program like ABN AMROís.