Meet the CEO of America's Most Exciting Bank - at least as he's branded it

To Michael Daly, who runs Berkshire Hills Bancorp Inc., banking is too often blasé.

So Mr. Daly has adapted an unconventional rulebook meant to energize and empower his 1,900 employees. Suits are not allowed. Rock music must be played at every meeting. 

And ziplines are an acceptable form of transportation: Mr. Daly once arrived at an employee town hall on one, slinging $100 bills to the crowd below.

“We’re not boring,” says Mr. Daly, a wiry 57-year-old who is never at a loss for an inspirational anecdote, whether it’s from President Theodore Roosevelt or crime boss Whitey Bulger.

In an industry built on numbers, Mr. Daly believes in emotions and that employees who feel good will do good work. 

He started calling his company “America’s Most Exciting Bank” years ago, because workers told him they wanted jobs they enjoyed.

If his tactics sound like gimmickry, Mr. Daly disagrees. Employees who don’t believe in the bank’s culture tend to leave quickly, he says, and he expects buy-in from his executives, who have dressed like members of the rock band KISS or engaged in lip-sync battles at other employee meetings.

Since he became chief executive in 2002, the bank has grown to $11.5 billion in assets as of the first quarter, from about $1 billion. During acquisitions and their accompanying job cuts,  Daly hands out his cellphone number freely and encourages employees whose jobs are on the line to “come get in my face.” 

The ones that do call often prove worth keeping. “You would be shocked at how many high performers we find through that,” he says. Daly often hires from outside the banking industry, valuing scrappiness over pedigree. 

He likes to tell the story of two customers that he struck up a conversation with at a branch in Albany, N.Y.

He liked their energy, and hired them away from the clothing store where they worked to do customer service for the bank.

The bank—named for its longtime home in the Berkshires region—last year moved its headquarters from Pittsfield, Mass., to Boston. 

The move, Mr. Daly says, places him closer to some business clients—and will let him poach employees and customers from rivals like Bank of America Corp. and Citizens Financial Group Inc.

For all his swagger, Mr. Daly also likes to play the part of a small-town banker. He said he sends a couple hundred handwritten notes to employees every month, and replies to just as many employee emails. 

“I care about the employees more than anything,” he says, “even though my No. 1 job is shareholders.”

For the near term, Mr. Daly is focused on expanding commercial lending and wealth management, and settling in at the new headquarters.

He is also planning how to top the zipline.

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