Mark Turner, chief executive of WSFS, the largest bank still based in the Philadelphia area, grew up in Philly’s Logan section, where as a kid “you could walk out your door and pick up 10 friends to go do something.”
But he and his wife, a veterinarian, raised their family out in the Brandywine Valley, where associating with your fellow humans means relying on large vehicles, driven hard. So it was no surprise that Turner rolled through Thursday’s frigid snowstorm to keep our predawn appointment, fireside at the cafe where he does performance reviews, in the WSFS tower that looms over I-95 in Wilmington.
WSFS has accumulated nearly $7 billion in loans and other assets, ahead of Beneficial, Univest, and Bryn Mawr Trust. These independent banks are dwarfed by Wells Fargo, PNC, and other out-of-town lenders that bought Philly’s main banks years ago; still, WSFS has gained market share in the last decade, with acquisitions of its own and by appealing to small-business borrowers and developers whose projects might not quite fit the big-bank models.
Indeed, though a majority of its 70-plus offices are in Delaware, more than half of WSFS’s business loans were in Pennsylvania last year. The company helped fund projects including the Philadelphia Fillmore performing-arts space in Fishtown, new condos and factory conversions, the Sheraton Suites at Philadelphia International Airport, and Constitution Health Plaza — a total of $60 million in commercial real estate loans in the city. Plus, $140 million in suburban projects — condos in Norristown, a hotel in Phoenixville, stores in Audubon, offices in Devon and Towamencin.
WSFS is “our primary construction lender” on projects like a 350,000 square foot office building at the Lansdale exit of the Pennsylvania Turnpike, slated to open in April, says Mark Nicoletti, owner of Philadelphia Suburban Corp. “The head of their real estate lending department, Joe Walker, might be the best at it in the region.”
Bank analyst Frank Schiraldi at Sandler O’Neill & Partners, a New York investment bank specializing in financial stocks, on Thursday rated WSFS his “Top Idea” for 2018. The tax reform President Trump signed last month — after forcing a “noisy” unwinding of the company’s insurance and prior-loss tax shelters — will save WSFS millions, as the bank’s effective income tax rate drops to 23 percent a year, from 34 percent, he noted.
A Republican (though “not a supporter” of Trump’s political style), Turner says he’s a “strong supporter” of the tax cuts. Besides higher profits — WSFS last week said it would transfer $1.5 million to its charitable foundation — he says bank customers “are feeling emboldened to borrow, to expand. People sense that the president and Congress can get something done.”
For all his interest in Pennsylvania, Turner also sees opportunity in the bank’s hometown, which has suffered a corporate exodus downtown and gang shootings in its poor neighborhoods. Two years ago, Turner joined Eleuthère du Pont of the Longwood Foundation, developer Chris Buccini, Christiana Hospital chief Janice Nevin, Jim Kelly of Capital One Corp., and Nick Lambrow of M&T Bank for a”behind-the-scenes” business leaders team to address the city’s “bad reputations around public education and safety” and the “red tape” that made it less attractive to employers, as Turner put it.
Turner has also backed Delaware business groups’ support for local antiunion “right to work” law proposals in the Nanticoke Valley towns of Republican-led Sussex County, where the Koch brothers’ Invista Corp. owns the shell of the former DuPont Co. nylon mill, and local politicians hope the measure will attract new employers.
Turner praises Delaware’s Democratic governor, John Carney, for overriding environmentalists’ objections and easing the Coastal Zone Act, making former steel, iron, and chemical factory sites along the Delaware River waterfront more attractive to new industries drawn to the cheap fuel passing through Sunoco Logistics’ Marcus Hook plant nearby.
He’s hopeful Wilmington will continue to draw young people and empty nesters, who have boosted real estate values in parts of Philadelphia and its older suburbs. “SEPTA has begun running more trains down here. We have three [live] theaters on Market Street. We’ve got pop-up beer gardens.” Rents and home prices are still “a lot cheaper down here.”
So much potential, it’s tough to prioritize, Turner concludes. “I have no time for average information,” he told me. “There’s so much of it. It would be great if someone could filter it for us.”
(This story has been updated to include the number of WSFS branches outside the metro area.)