Most of the people in the room used to owe him money, cracked Vernon W. Hill II, who had no trouble selling out a 150-seat Union League real estate luncheon last week.
It’s 10 years since Vernon W. Hill II’s apple-red Commerce Bank signs and logos vanished from his 400 boxy, glassy branches in every downtown and suburban neighborhood in Philadelphia, New York, and Washington. Buyer Toronto Dominion Corp., removed the trademark coin-changing machines and replaced Hill’s signature color with what he calls “puke green. The customers went berserk.”
Fresh off a doubling of assets, higher profits, and a thumping 96 percent shareholder reelection vote at his U.K.-based Metro Bank Plc (and a profit spike that gave a stock pop to his smaller Philly bank, Republic), Hill stayed on message, giving out copies of, and preaching straight from the pages of, the 2016 edition of his book, Fans! Not Customers (forward by In Search of Excellence author Tom Peters). He offered to sign free copies, acknowledging that wouldn’t boost their value.
Hill talked about opening Commerce branches in Manhattan way back in 2001, but didn’t drop the name of his golfing pal and fellow Wharton grad, Donald Trump, who used that occasion to bash the New York banks that had foreclosed his Atlantic City casinos, and promised to deposit $5 million with Hill (which Trump did, though it took awhile to collect).
Hill praised his wife, Shirley’s, design prowess — her key contributions to the Commerce, Metro, and Republic brands — and didn’t mention how Metro president Craig Donaldson has agreed to meet with a British index-fund investor who is bent out of shape because Hill’s bank has paid Shirley’s firm 30 million pounds since 2011 (duly disclosed in annual proxy statements).
“I am a real estate developer by training,” Hill said, showing solidarity with his audience. His company, Site Development Inc., “is still in that business, single-tenant leasing. We’ve done 1,000 deals across America.” But banking “is what I love.” He said he’s built “growth companies,” more Starbucks than Wells Fargo, in the slow-growth commercial banking business by getting staff and customers to identify with his brands.
Unlike Vanguard Group, which competes on price, Hill said, his companies compete on clean, modern branch design, fast, pleasant staff service, and a willingness to invite customers’ pets; rent busy Main Street locations as rival chains try to economize almost as fast as Catholic archbishops closing urban parishes; and expand safe-deposit boxes and other old-fashioned services, while rivals cut those back, too.
All to set his brands apart: “If you want to build a growth business, you have to create a differentiated value-added model. The customer has to clearly see a value added. The model is the first step and the most important thing. The culture is the second most important thing: It has to be unique, it has to be everywhere, and it has to match the model. And you have to execute the model.” Make the customers “fans.” Respond quickly to problems.
Hill says he’s still “killing stupid rules.” He’s still proud of an old Forbes story ranking him with Oracle’s Larry Ellison and Berkshire Hathaway’s Warren Buffett as CEOs who deliver high profits for decades, and a more recent British survey ranking Metro just behind Apple and ahead of Amazon and Starbucks as a popular brand. And he says the growth-starved, slow-changing U.K., despite its reputation for big government, turns out to be a “much, much easier place to do business” than the U.S. with its national banking and securities regulators and its layered local planning, zoning, and licensing rules.
In British home lending, “there’s no Fannie Mae, no Freddie Mac, and you can foreclose in just two weeks,” Hill said, to amazed applause from Philly bankers in the crowd, who are used to longer fights to displace broke borrowers in city courts.
Is Hill a relic? Not many banks are still building branches in this smartphone-commerce era.
Yet, Hill has continued to win fans on Wall Street and in London’s City: He showed how Metro and Republic share prices have followed the old Commerce growth curve, rising alongside deposits and loans at rates far faster than competitors’.
At a time when Anglo-American investors are still flush with record profits, but searching hard for growth stories as share prices flatten and interest rates begin to rise, Hill still has banks to sell. On both sides of the ocean.