Just finished covering a trial involving Vernon Hill 2d, the founder of Commerce Bank, who sued Commerce, and later TD Bank, which bought Commerce, in an effort to get his severance pay after he was ousted from the bank in June 2007 over regulatory issues.
I was glad I wasn't one of the jurors in U.S. District Judge Robert Kugler's courtroom in Camden. The arguments for both sides were pretty compelling.
What was also compelling was the glimpse into the world of big business, where talking about millions of dollars is just part of casual conversation. In this case, for example, the severance pay, with interest was $17.2 million and the attorneys representing Hill would be owed another $2 million on top of that for their efforts.
It was interesting to hear Hill, who took the stand, describe the business and his philosophies. From the start, he worked with his wife, Shirley, whose design company, Interarch, was responsible for the "look" of the branches, which, in turn, translated to the branding of the business.
This isn't about the merits of this case, or who was right, or whether there were improper connections between the bank and his wife's business.
The loss of the lawsuit will cost Hill $17.2 million in severance pay. Just betting, but most people would probably not expect him to need the money, whether or not he deserves it -- not after making tens of millions and maybe more when TD Bank bought Commerce in March 2008.
Money isn't everything.
It was poignant to think of Hill being pushed out of the bank that he built up from nothing. Maybe he deserved it. I don't know. Maybe those dealings with his wife and his real estate company hurt the bank and its shareholders. There was testimony that went both ways, but mostly that the dealings didn't hurt the bank. But they clearly riled the regulators, which did hurt Commerce.
In 1973, when Hill was in his 20s, he convinced investors to put up enough money to open one branch in Marlton. Hill has a pronounced stutter, but that didn't hold him back. His company grew to more than 425 branches, employing 15,000. Then, in 2007, rightly or wrongly, federal regulators decided that it would approve no more branches unless Hill left. The bank's board had no choice but to boot him and he had no choice but to resign.
Particularly telling was testimony from Fred Graziano, now TD Bank's head of commercial and government banking, as reported by Joshua Alston of Law360, a newsletter. Graziano had worked for Hill and testified about a conversation that he had with Hill, in Hill's office in the bank, just hours after he was ousted. At one point, Hill swiveled his chair away from Graziano. "I think he was, if not crying already, about to cry."