You can, or can’t, bank on it.
I’m not a banker; I am a scientist who also became a businessman. But I know enough about banks to know the banking system isn’t what it was.
My wife passed away in June. Years ago, I found what I thought was a good bank; got good accountants, and after years of just rolling along with banks doing bank things, tax accountants doing accountant things, and other business services doing their things I suddenly found myself needing to go to the bank.
I happened to need a copy of my tax return substantially out of season, and that experience was a real eye-opener. What I learned was more indicative of what this American business has become than anything I could have imagined.
I went there as an individual needing services; not a businessman whose business is the real reason my banks like me. When you are a business with substantial assets, your tax account quickly hops to whatever you need, even if it is only to change a name. Business folks get banks’ attention.
These days, it seems that banks regard little folks as necessary nuisances.
Today, I bank with two different banks – a big one from Columbus, and a little bank growing bigger (maybe because guys like me took their business there when they were really little) from Toledo.
Big bank from Columbus could clearly not care less what I think, even though I have been an customer for more than 40 years at one of their main branches in a growing suburb. It’s clear to me why this is; on a profit-per-hour basis, my business isn’t even worth pocket change.
If I should I go away it would make their lives easier. And for me, going away is probably not such a bad idea. The amount of interest the big bank from Columbus pays on any of my accounts is less than my grandfather received from the hometown bank he started immediately after World War II, the most expensive war America ever fought. That is to say, at least he could count on one percent.
What’s wrong with the big bank from Columbus? Serving one branch of O-I Glass, once the mighty firm Owens Illinois, needs little more personal time than I needed today. For as long as the bank’s IT systems are well maintained, big bank from Columbus can take care of their needs and not use many people to do so.
Indeed, O-I can do its banking electronically. And even if they happen to need a financial document notarized, their needs are so infinitesimally small with respect to how much the bank is making from them that you can bet the bank will supply them with immediate accesses to any services required.
Yet on one particular day after Thanksgiving when I needed a banker at two separate banks to deal with matters from my wife’s estate, big bank from Columbus’ offices were mostly closed. It was easy for me to pick up a few dollars from the service window at the big bank from Columbus, but somewhere between hard and impossible to do anything requiring a person to serve my needs.
You might say banks have the John Elway disease -- contracture. But while the football player suffers from a legitimate muscle problem, banks are contracting to make money, and there is no pill to fix what they have.
They have gotten too big for our own good, are handling too much money, and they no longer need the little guy to survive.
That is appalling --but may not be all bad, if it sends the little guy back to his hometown bank. Frankly, this is the way it once was and again should be --- friends supporting friends, neighbors working with neighbors.
Don’t think I am against progress. For example, I tend to make little mistakes in arithmetic that caused my late wife to take our joint checking account away from me six months after we were married. For almost 60 years she wrote the checks and balanced the checkbook.
When she reached the point where she could no longer do this, electronic banking kept me accurate – so long as I typed the numbers in correctly! For most situations my bank needs have been taken over by machines, and that’s just fine.
But what about taxes - state and local? The same situation pertains: As long as I was in business, my little accounting firm grown big from their good business practices was very happy to do my individual return. They made money from me because of the business account.
Doing my individual returns was probably a money loser, but they did them because they didn’t want my business accounting done by a rival. But as soon as the business was sold, and I needed a copy of my tax return from last year, the now big accounting firm wasn’t eager to help.
My take is this presents a real opportunity for a lot of independent accountants, guys with or without the traditional green eye shades willing and eager to do individual tax returns for reasonably successful professionals.
Who knows – maybe one of them could call his or her business the Rescue Squad -- a squad willing to do something bigger firms no longer are: Provide their customers with service.
Douglas Neckers is an organic chemist, the McMaster distinguished professor emeritus and the founder of the Center for Photochemical Sciences at Bowling Green State University. He is also a former board chair of the Robert H. Jackson Center in Jamestown, N.Y.