Banking on a Strong Reputation

When business goals and customer needs intersect, Tom Eck guides his team in balancing both with an emphasis on fairness

Huntington National Bank may not be on the tip of everyone’s tongue, but then again, that might be a good thing. “That old saying about how there’s no such thing as bad publicity is certainly not true when it comes to banking,” says Tom Eck.

It’s for this same reason why Eck and his team constantly read the newspapers—so that they ensure they aren’t included in them. As senior vice president and deputy general counsel for Huntington, it’s Eck’s duty to maintain a strong reputation for the company. He does that by reinforcing Huntington’s customer-first culture. “Huntington really prides itself, more than any other place I’ve ever worked, on doing the right thing by our customers,” he says.

Doing the right thing leads to customer satisfaction, which in turn, means a smaller-than-average litigation portfolio. By helping the bank avoid any potential lawsuits, Eck and his team of twelve attorneys help strengthen Huntington’s reputation as a caring company with a community focus.

“We strive to be a good partner in the community and work hard to look out for our customers first,” Eck explains. “When you’re able to deliver on that, it’s rewarding from a professional standpoint. But I think it also is the best thing for the shareholders and the company as a whole.”

The attorneys on Eck’s team advise different business segments, such as mortgage lending, retail banking, and small business. They go to their respective segments’ meetings and communicate with the segments’ leaders. By integrating themselves into these business lines, attorneys develop an understanding of their goals. The legal team then reconciles these goals with the bank’s customer-service ethos when issues arise, which happens almost daily, according to Eck. To resolve these issues, Eck convenes with his team and modifies the program or initiative that posed the issue. Together, they find that middle ground to satisfy both the lines of business and their customers.

“That’s the value in having your lawyers embedded with the business lines,” Eck says. “They know how the business works, they know what options there are to minimize risk, and they still have the business reward you’re looking for.”

To help minimize potential lawsuits, the attorneys need thorough knowledge of the regulations in their respective business segment—or, in Eck’s case, in all of the business segments. They stay abreast of regulations by drawing on multiple resources. Officially, they rely on Huntington’s compliance group to alert them to new or proposed regulations. Unofficially, they read industry associations’ newsletters and communicate with peer banks.

“We bounce issues off of each other and get an idea of how others are approaching an issue, or alert each other to issues,” Eck says.

He describes his position at Huntington as a “dream role” that allows him to blend his regulatory and litigation expertise, which has been honed over twenty-four years at Capital One, Bank of America, and the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency. He inflects his work in litigation and regulation with knowledge of the other side, informing litigators of regulatory specifics and regulators of courtroom realities. Eck sees value in bridging the two worlds. “The more those two can work together, the better the bank is going to be able to manage and control risk,” he says.

Fortunately, the legal team isn’t alone in their eagerness to actively manage risk. Employees at every level prioritize honesty and service. For example, the bank has a customer advocacy group that addresses any complaint—large or small.

“A single complaint will get a lot of attention and be resolved,” Eck says. “We’re very exhaustive in our efforts to make sure our customers’ complaints are heard, and their issues are resolved.”

“It’s building that partnership with the business, and the trust that the business has in their attorneys, that really creates the right culture.”

The bank’s emphasis on helpfulness comes, in part, thanks to its Midwestern location. “Everything they said about the Midwest is true,” Eck says. “People are just really nice and they’re very caring, and I think that comes through in the way that Huntington does business.”

Cutthroat banks that might prioritize numbers over people leave themselves more vulnerable to scandal. “The first thing I think of when I see a story like that in the papers is, ‘Where were their attorneys?’ Or, ‘How did their attorneys let them get away with something like that?’ I think it’s really a question of culture,” Eck says.

Because business leaders embrace Huntington’s culture of going above and beyond for customers, they make the legal team’s jobs easier, according to Eck. “If you call out risks, whether they’re legal or reputational, they have an audience,” he says. “In those difficult situations where you’re saying, ‘I really think you shouldn’t do this,’ people understand why, and they’re receptive to it.”

Any time the legal team does receive pushback from the business segments, Eck believes it’s vital that he stands behind his attorneys. “To make sure that the businesses don’t try and use the deputy general counsel as a court of appeal, you need to make sure that you’re aligned with the folks on your team as you’re delivering those tough messages—and that you’re able to stick to your guns,” he says.

Occasionally, an attorney working under Eck will make a judgment that Eck would not have made himself. “My approach has been to talk it over with my attorney, and have them go back and talk to the business about what our collective thoughts are, as opposed to me delivering the message and undercutting them. I try to empower them that way,” Eck says.

Mostly, though, the legal team and the business lines collaborate without incident. Eck encourages attorneys to cultivate certain qualities to earn the trust of their colleagues. “I think it’s equal parts integrity, credibility, and empathy that builds a good partnership with the business,” he says. “And it’s building that partnership with the business, and the trust that the business has in their attorneys, that really creates the right culture and limits your overall risk.”

So far, their approach is working. Huntington is growing, propelled by the confidence of consumers who trust in the bank’s honest practices. And their trust is well-founded. “It’s encouraging when you see that your public message matches what you do behind the scenes,” Eck says.

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Porter Wright Morris & Arthur LLP:

“Congratulations, Tom, for this well-earned recognition. It is a privilege to work with you, and we are proud to have been a trusted advisor to The Huntington National Bank for over 125 years.”

—Robert Trafford, Partner