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Around the Water Cooler With Huntington CEO

Stephanie Steinberg

Each summer, Stephen Steinour looks out at the hundreds of spectators crowding the Pelotonia starting line and reads the signs they're hoisting: "Thank you, my mother has cancer." "Thank you for helping me fight this disease." The messages empower him with enough energy to bike the 180 miles ahead of him.

The Huntington Bancshares Incorporated CEO, president and chairman started biking five years ago when he decided the bank was going to become a main sponsor of the two-day bike event that raises money for The Ohio State University Comprehensive Cancer Center. Steinour, a 55-year-old resident of New Albany, Ohio, trains by riding about 3,000 miles a summer - though he says this summer he rode much less since the Midwest was hit with monsoon-like weather.

But the 2012 "Banker of the Year," named by the American Banker magazine, knows how to handle storms - at least financial ones. He joined Huntington in 2009 and steered its 725 bank branches through the Great Recession - in part by adding branches, expanding small-business lending and eliminating checking account fees. Today, the $56 billion company headquartered in Columbus, Ohio - with branches located in Indiana, Kentucky, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania and West Virginia - is only growing in profitability.

Steinour admits there's never a dull moment. "Every one of my days is like a great holiday or a birthday celebration," he says. "There's always something going on."

U.S. News spoke with Steinour in early August, a few days before Pelotonia, and asked him how other companies can motivate employees to join similar causes. Steinour also offers advice for riding through economic crises. His responses have been edited.

You took over Huntington during the recession. What advice would you give managers who need to lead their businesses through tough economic times?

Each situation is different. It starts with assessing, reaching out to people rapidly, communicating, a lot of listening and then making timely decisions. It was challenging in the banking industry in 2008 and 2009, and that was certainly true at Huntington. As we made our decisions it was with a view of the long term. So we started down a recovery path that worked well for us, but it's a path we continue on today to try to get more profitable and grow.

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But I think it's important for the future of our company and the country to pull through this period of economic challenge with confidence. I think there's a series of traits we're seeing with millennials around confidence in the future and a willingness to embrace change and work collaboratively, and I'm very encouraged by that.

People get upset easily when they're put on hold or can't reach a customer service agent. What's the best way for employees to deal with angry customers?

It starts with a view of the customer and making sure there's a common view that we're here to serve the customers. If you can create a culture around service, it then makes dealing with any customers hopefully a productive and positive session for them. So it's building this culture, this awareness and importance of the customer and having a sensitivity to getting great service, and we all know what great service feels like.

For people who want to apply for a small business loan, what's the most important piece of information to include in the proposal?

The financial statement for the business for the current year and for the prior year. So there's a level of decisions that should be made fairly quickly based on the statements.

Is there anything you recommend not to include?

I don't think a tomb of information is helpful. I think information about the nature of the business, what it does, how it competes, how it's organized, views around customers, all of those are helpful, but it doesn't have to come with massive quantities.

When people get their first paycheck from a job, it's tempting to splurge and treat yourself - and possibly spend it all. What would you recommend employees do with their first earnings?

Start saving a portion of it. If you have a 401(k) opportunity, or an individual retirement account opportunity or equivalency, take advantage of that and get into a savings pattern from the outset.

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You're expecting more than 1,200 riders and 500 volunteers from Huntington to take part in Pelotonia. How can companies encourage their employees to participate in similar events and causes?

We'll have about 25 percent of the company out this weekend and thousands more who participate in the fundraising. For us, this is the one corporate event we do. It's important for a company to embrace a cause, group, organization or something around which its colleagues can participate.

What we like about this particular activity is you can't hop on a bike, at least not at my age, and ride 180 miles without a lot of training. So we have colleague training rides that gives opportunities for different people throughout the company to interact with each other. It's like training for an endurance test or marathon where you have hundreds of people who are training all from the same organization, and you get to work with different people on different days. It's just a wonderful way for me to connect with our colleagues by taking these training rides.

Why did you choose this event?

One out of two men and one out of three women will have cancer in their life. With that proclivity to be impacted by the various forms of cancer, it seemed to me to be a cause that many people can relate to. And with the unique facilities of the James Cancer Hospital at The Ohio State University, we had a special ability to make a difference. Huntington has raised over $10 million in the last five years for cancer research.

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What is the best career advice you've ever received?

Turn the lights on and off. Get up early, work hard, work late and volunteer. Learn as much as you can about the organization, and demonstrate a commitment, which will provide career options and opportunities.

Editor's Note: Around the Water Cooler is an ongoing series, in which U.S. News talks with company executives to get their career advice for employees and managers.

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