Sunday, November 23, 2014
Inquirer Daily News

Dorrance's last decision doomed Philly as a bank center

Morris Dorrance didn't explain why he picked an economist as a successor, and how he felt when his bank was sold, to Philly's loss.

Dorrance's last decision doomed Philly as a bank center

G. Morris Dorrance lived a long and useful life, and deserved the attention he has received, including a front-page Inquirer obituary, since his death Aug. 11 at age 88.

But it's a mixed legacy. As the paper noted, Dorrance was the nephew of Campbell's Soup's founder, a leading backer of Fox Chase Cancer Center and other good causes, and, especially, the founding boss of CoreStates Financial Corp., the biggest and last of the Philadelphia banks, combining Philadelphia National and First Pennsylvania into one big company designed to dominate mid-Atlantic finance and ensure Philadelphia remained a center of banking decisions and thousands of headquarters jobs and regional and charitable leadership as banks across the US consolidated.

But Dorrance's legacy also includes the loss of that bank, due, as much as anything, to his surprising decision to bypass a generation of canny and brainy lenders and investors, some with fancy degrees and blue-chip client rosters, some with deep foreign-banking and military leadership experience, to name outsider Terrence Larsen, a 40-year-old economist, as Dorrance's successor in 1988.

Larsen was a dedicated golfer, and a rare hand at growing peppers for the Philadelphia Flower Show, and an afficionado of Hawaii's beaches. But he lacked the skills or will  to defy short-term Wall Street criticism in pursuit of a long-term strategy, and to retain, not just the many bright people who left on his watch, but also CoreStates' designated merger partners, notably Maryland National Corp., which owned what became the biggest credit card and home loan businesses in the nation.

Larsen did a great job selling CoreStates, at the top of the market, in 1997, for a record six times book value, to First Union (later Wachovia) Corp., which never recovered from the deal (it's now part of Wells Fargo & Co.) "We got one hell of a price," as he told me after it was all over.

But in that deal Philadelphia lost its banking sector, more than 10,000 jobs, and its old status as a headquarters city where businesspeople made big decisions that mattered here. It's now a branch town, with a downtown workforce that hasn't grown since CoreStates went away, and office valuations to match.

How did Larsen repay his mentor? I was told Dorrance learned his bank was sold, not from Larsen, but from his barber. At the time, Dorrance declined to comment, or to second-guess his successor. Maybe he agreed that taking the money and running was the right thing to do. (Larsen got $50 million to sell, plus royal benefits for life. That in itself wasn't unusual; Corbin McNeill, who sold what used to be Philadelphia Electric a few years later, retired to his ranch in the Rockies with $86 million in stock and payments; David LeVan was awarded $22 million in severance for selling Conrail. Think about that when you sputter over Philly schools chief Arlene Ackerman taking not quite $1 million to go away.) 

But I'd like to think Dorrance hoped for more for the community he loved. PNC Bank has thrived in Pittsburgh, by absorbing other banks, some of them deeply troubled, in Philadelphia and Washington, Baltimore and Cleveland. PNC is what CoreStates should have been: one of the nation's largest banks, solvent in crisis, profitable in almost all seasons, and a major hometown employer and patron of good causes. PNC is even building a 40-story skyscraper headquarters in Pittsburgh as Philadelphia suffers a commercial construction freeze (except hospitals). That should have been us.

Joseph N. DiStefano
About this blog

PhillyDeals posts raw drafts and updates of Joseph N. DiStefano's columns and stories about Philly-area finance, investment, commercial real estate, tech, hiring and public spending, which he's been writing since 1989, mostly for the Philadelphia Inquirer.

DiStefano studied economics, history and a little engineering at Penn, taught writing at St. Joe's, and has written the book Comcasted, more than a thousand columns, and thousands of articles, and raised six children with his wife, who is a saint.

Reach Joseph N. at JoeD@phillynews.com or 215 854 5194.

Joseph N. DiStefano
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