This is one of 10 social enterprise case studies in Impact to Last: Lessons from the Front Lines of Social Enterprise, a REDF case study initiative.
Bank of America’s Support Services Division (Support Services) is a fully integrated team of 300 back office workers in three U.S. cities (Newark, DE; Dallas, TX; and Belfast, ME), most of whom are individuals with disabilities. Support Services was created by MBNA in 1990 and added to Bank of America through acquisition in 2006, where it has played an important, growing role for the organization by providing primarily warehousing, printing, and fulfillment. Support Services has exceeded the company’s expectations due to several important factors:
A business focused on quality, commitment, and longevity. There is no difference between Support Services and any other line of business at Bank of America. Employees are provided the same benefits and wages and are expected to meet the same quality standards as in other departments. In the 25 years Support Services has been in operation, neither MBNA nor Bank of America has touted the success of the division, and rarely shared the story externally. Staff at all levels talk about Support Services as a family
An integrated business relationship with Bank of America as a whole. Support Services provides back office and logistics support to the bank only, and would not survive but for the cost savings and exceptional service delivered to internal clients. As with any other enterprise, Support Services treats its internal customers as clients and management spends most of its time developing business (in this case, within the bank).
Laser-like focus on quality and precision. Support Services does work that requires perfect accuracy and high efficiency rates, for which the team is well-suited. These metrics are tracked for each individual client and employee daily, allowing management to implement changes in real time.
Support Services provides meaningful, stable jobs for people with disabilities. Support Services hires from outside agency partners who provide candidates with skills to match job openings. The agencies then provide outside support to employees so that, while at Bank of America, they can focus entirely on their work. As Support Services’ senior executive, Mark Feinour, explains, “We’re just like any other business, we just happen to have a different talent pool to draw from.”
Support Services provides back office support to other divisions at Bank of America, taking on projects that range from t-shirt printing to mail room fulfillment and kitting services. When Support Services was integrated into the company in 2006, the leadership team decided to treat the division like every other line of business—cementing Support Services’ commitment to providing meaningful work to employees through their contribution to the success of the bank as a whole.
In recent years, a significant change in the way the division’s services were priced proved catalytic to its growth. Bank of America now absorbs this unit’s overhead expenses and charges clients the direct costs of services only. Prior to this change, Support Services charged the fully loaded cost of each job to each individual customer. Management realized that, since Support Services’ employees were working in the same buildings and receiving the same benefits as the rest of the bank’s employees, these costs weren’t competitive and they were losing business to external suppliers. This shift has allowed Support Services to continue to expand, bringing on new clients and opening offices in Dallas, TX and Belfast, ME.
The program and business models of the Support Services Division are one and the same given the unit’s full integration at Bank of America. The bank calibrates the work to suit an individual’s skills, while all support services are provided by partner agencies. Support Services engages with three to five external agencies in each location. These agencies play several roles:
- Recruitment. Support Services brings all new job opportunities to its partner agencies, the agencies match their clients to the skills needed, and sends them to Support Services for job interviews.
- Employee support. Agencies serve as the conduit between Support Services, the employee, and his or her family.
- Conflict resolution/employment issues. If for any reason an employee is having trouble at work, the partner agency is brought in to provide assistance.
Culturally, both Support Services’ leadership and its employees emphasize that working there is like being part of a family. As Troy Witmer, one of the division’s fulfillment managers, explains: “We are first and foremost a team. We succeed together, we fail together. We are there for each other.”
Beyond Support Services, Bank of America works to break down barriers to employment through partnerships with nonprofits engaged in social enterprise. “We’ve been a longtime funder of organizations, including REDF, that are creating opportunities for hard-to-employ populations,” said Kerry Sullivan, president of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation. “It’s part of our broader commitment to connect individuals to jobs and education, all of which strengthens local economies.”
The company has also created a “Best Buddies” program internally in the Delaware branch. The Best Buddies program matches Support Services employees with employees from other bank branches, providing a social outlet, a professional mentor for Support Services employees, and a personal insight into Support Services for other employees.
MBNA’s former CEO, Charles Cawley, created the Support Services Division in 1990 in order to employ a friend’s son with a disability. Its first three employees—the friend’s son and two others—were hired and placed into competitive roles at the bank. Support Services was created shortly thereafter, but did not operate like a business at that time. Cawley determined how many new workers to add and, with an abiding commitment to supporting individuals with disabilities, grew the division to over 200 employees. When Bank of America acquired MNBA in 2006, he and the executive team had an opportunity to think about Support Services more strategically.
Hiring for the work
When Bank of America acquired MBNA, it would have been easy to set Support Services aside. Instead, the leadership team was challenged to integrate the division into Bank of America not as a “charity case,” says Feinour, but as a valuable line of business. Prior to the acquisition, employees were first hired into Support Services before leadership would pursue a work placement in order to keep them busy. Feinour refers to the model as “trying to put a square peg in a round hole.” One of the biggest challenges for staff was trying to identify the right type of work. After the acquisition, however, Feinour and his team began to run Support Services like a real business. They would look for high-value work that was in-demand at the bank, and only then hire for the specific skills needed to complete it.
Employees’ disabilities are not viewed as detriments and management has never been trained to handle the specific disability of each employee. Instead, managers can come to Support Services from any other line of business in the bank and manage a team in “the same way they would manage a team of people anywhere, in any industry, doing a similar type of job,” says Feinour. Managers look at the team as a whole, determine what skills each member possesses, and then provide the conditions for success. Tasks on any given team can range from unfolding and flattening booklets for mailing to tracking quality control on 20 different types of ATMs nationwide, or processing hundreds of detailed, confidential documents every day.
The focus on first finding work, then hiring has allowed Support Services to provide services of a higher quality than clients were receiving from external vendors. Melissa Bentley, Dallas Branch Manager, explains the results this way: “If you look at my team, everyone has had, in some way, a limitation placed on their life. As people have figured out how to deal with the limitations in their own life, they have figured out their own way to get the job done and follow that same process to make sure they are successful.” Each accommodation made by an employee then becomes a procedure and, as a result, Support Services has honed the ideal workforce for replicating customized, detailed-oriented tasks time after time.
Focus on quality and accuracy
The work delivered by Support Services employees requires perfect accuracy and high efficiency rates. These are measured for each individual employee and client daily, enabling management to implement changes expeditiously. In the early years, many clients were skeptical of the possibility that people with disabilities could do the very meticulous and often time sensitive work in which Support Services specializes. Nowadays their consistently high expectations are always met or exceeded.
In 2007, the bank initiated an “ATM refresh,” developing a quality control program for post-installation replacement and upgrade quality checks. The ATM delivery team hired Support Services to perform the initial post-installation review as a first test of their abilities. The project launched so quickly and successfully that results were almost immediate. Over a four-month period, quality scores went from 95 to 99 percent and have stayed at that level ever since. Because of such accuracy, the ATM team has since hired Support Services for more projects and benefited from the same results each time. When Mark McQuade, the client and manager at the ATM Division, is asked what about Support Services helps them provide such dependable work, he describes “an extraordinary commitment and an excitement for what the team does. They truly are dedicated to making sure everything is correct.” A new “ATM refresh” was launched in 2015, and Support Services was hired to take on the entire project because, as McQuade says, “there has been no end to what we can do and will be doing going forward with this team.”
Expansion to new lines of business
Results have been just as impressive for the Home Loans Division Support Services teams in Dallas. In 2010, the Home Loans group looked for vendors to centralize printing and mailing for the mortgage branch, and included Support Services in the search. After a visit to the Delaware site to observe the work of Support Services in person, Home Loans launched a pilot project in 2011. The project was designed to run 10 months, but as Support Services’ strong performance surfaced again, it was extended to a full year and ultimately led to the opening of a Dallas Support Services branch in 2012 that would deal specifically with the client. During the first year of operation for the Dallas branch, Home Loans continued to add to the scope of the project. Accuracy rates are at nearly 100 percent and Cheryl Moncure, a senior vice president and the Manager of Home Loans Services Vendor Management Operations at Home Loans, says Support Services has done a “phenomenal job with a long list of controls they need through the entire process, enabling [the Home Loans Division] to have a consistent, on time, and accurate experience for customers.”
Support Services leadership is busy developing client relationships within the bank. This includes work with existing customers to determine their long-range plans, and finding space for Support Services to work with the 95 percent of customers providing repeat business. Feinour also understands the importance of diversifying the customer base. When Support Services was part of MBNA, the enterprise supported only the Card Services Division and was relatively unstable as a result. Feinour and the team believe the success of Support Services in the last five to seven years is directly related to the division’s ability to expand its customer base. That same drive for sustainability led Feinour and his team to approach the leadership of the bank on the issue of overhead costs.
Performance and Impacts
Support Services employs 300 individuals with disabilities full-time. Employees are paid wages commensurate with all other Bank of America employees, and provided the same benefits. The attrition rate is almost zero, with most employees working for Support Services until retirement. In fact, employees so enjoy and appreciate the work with Support Services, they often need to be forced to take vacation.
Support Services tracks a range of metrics related to quality and accuracy, and also looks at the utilization of employee capacity. In 2006, immediately following the Bank of America acquisition, the employee utilization rate was around 35 percent and managers found themselves looking to create work for employees. Today, employees operate at full capacity, doing work that is both meaningful and fundamental to the success of the bank.
Quality metrics are tracked by project, and the “quality score” has become an important source of pride for employees and management alike. Quantity is not measured per employee, but for the project as a whole, so each employee can “work to the best of his or her ability,” says Feinour. Managers reward employee success and put emphasis on recognition for a job well done. In the Maine office, there is a certification program for every job function of which employees are capable. This program not only helps employees work toward professional goals, but also helps management place them in the right positions to accommodate business needs, especially during challenging personnel times like holidays.
Support Services is poised for significant growth and stands as a unique example of a self-sufficient social enterprise created within a major corporation. There are projects on the horizon that will provide more diversity of work, which means increased opportunities for employees to learn and tackle new projects. Managers and clients agree that the expansion of Support Services will continue as the evidence of the division’s work is introduced to an increasing number of bank employees. Cheryl Moncure, a client and advocate of Support Services within the bank, says “We can only benefit as an organization by continuing to see the group grow.” She will continue to leverage Support Services for jobs that need to be done in the Home Equity Division, and knows that expanded work means a larger range of services that Support Services can provide—therefore increasing opportunities for other lines of business at Bank of America to tap into the same, high-quality deliverables.
Feinour’s vision for Support Services is to continue to grow, which relies on a number of priorities:
- Bring on work in Support Services’ areas of core competency that can reduce costs for the bank;
- Expand nationally to have a presence in each time zone; and
- Diversify client business and the skill set of employees in Support Services.
Feinour considers his second job to be encouraging more corporations to do what Support Services does – provide dynamic employment opportunities for people with disabilities. He believes Support Services’ track record shows what people with disabilities are capable of, and stands as a testament to the value of aligning job design with talent.
Until now, Bank of America has rarely shared the story of Support Services. As Kerry Sullivan, President of the Bank of America Charitable Foundation, says, “Support Services is a quiet gem. It started with MBNA and, through all the mergers and acquisitions, it has survived because everyone sees the value in it.”
Many factors that have supported Support Services’ success, but the inherent attention to quality service delivery and the care for each and every associate are perhaps the fundamental differences that have allowed, and will continue to allow, the division to grow and develop. This is Support Services’ core identity. For Bank of America, the time is right to tell the story – not only to grow Support Services, but to challenge and inspire other companies to do the same.