The day Emma Lou Brent, CEO of Phelps County Bank, in Rolla, Mo., overheard a teller in the lunchroom saying she had to get to the savings and loan down the street to apply for a home mortgage, Brent knew she had a problem to tackle. Phelps offered home mortgages, too. "It was kind of a slap in the face," recalls Bonita Prock, senior vice-president of operations. "How are our customers going to know what we offer if our own employees don't know?"
Ever since Phelps made its employees shareholders through a 1980 employee stock ownership plan, the bank had been trying to get its 45 employees to think like owners. Phelps's workers treated customers right -- the bank had a reputation for friendliness. But customers weren't aware of all the products Phelps offered.
The remedy was a self-styled, bankwide education program with an unusual twist. The bank's monthly staff meetings became the forum for educating employees about the functions and products of every department in the bank. Rather than have senior management lecture, however, Brent decided to give each department responsibility for the hour-long presentation. She also decided to devote one session to Phelps's ESOP, so new employees could be brought up to speed on how it worked.
The incentive for actually learning all the material came at the conclusion of the yearlong program. Phelps held a "Jeopardy" -- style contest. The bank's employees were divided into six teams. Brent dressed as "Vanna Bright," complete with fishnet stockings. The bank rigged up a big board with flashing lights around it. Contestants were equipped with washbasins and spoons for buzzers. Competition did wonders -- players held study sessions to prepare. "It got them to learn things they normally wouldn't," recalls Prock. The prize was two days off with pay. -- Ellyn E. Spragins