Nobody, including Ira Brown, 59, M&T Bank’s regional president for greater Philadelphia and southern New Jersey markets, would disagree that banks needed more scrutiny after financial debacles pushed the U.S. and the world into a massive recession nearly 10 years ago.
“We fully understand why they’re asking for it, coming out of 2008 and 2009,” he said. “It’s just lumping all the banks into one category of having caused what happened seems a little unfair.
“All the banks got painted with a broad brush,” he said.
Yes, he said, M&T is a major bank, with $125 billion in assets. But, he said, it doesn’t do the kind of complicated, global financial transactions that got a lot of banks in trouble. M&T has “always been focused locally," he said. "So to have the same level of regulatory oversight for an organization like ours makes it more difficult for us to serve the local communities. We spend a lot of time complying, versus we could spend much more time out in the field working with companies.”
Do you think there will be any change with the Trump administration?
Trump has suggested there will be less regulatory scrutiny, which I think will be helpful. Exactly what he means is yet to be understood. We look forward to, potentially, a little bit more flexibility for banks our size.
What do you mean?
There’s no doubt that consumers should be afforded every protection from unscrupulous lenders, unscrupulous practices, whether it’s mortgages or credit cards. Where I think it becomes challenging for us is when [regulators] find one or two problems in a very large portfolio. To assume that it happened in all cases just because it happened in a couple of cases is punitive.
Post-recession, M&T had to pay a fine, partly because the bank didn’t have sufficient controls in place to detect the kind of substandard mortgages that led to the recession. Your point is that M&T, due to its large size, was held to a standard that really didn’t fit in with its business model of working locally for local customers?
M&T had a relatively minimal fine. We paid the fine. We made the corrections. We increased quality control so it would not happen again and stayed in the mortgage business. So we needed to incur the cost of the infrastructure to be able to monitor that as a $125 billion bank. Had we known the level of oversight coming down the line, there would have certainly been more expense driven into the compliance apparatus.
How did M&T handle the recession?
In an interesting way, it was a good time for M&T. There were a lot of lenders who were being super-aggressive in the market. When the recession hit, that spigot was turned off, almost overnight. For a bank like ours that really stuck to its knitting, it was an opportunity. So borrowers who suddenly found themselves without lenders — because we are conservative, financially strong, and well-positioned, we were able to jump into that breach.
Tell me some of the projects M&T is bankrolling.
We’re excited by the growth of multifamily residential in Center City. It’s a combination of low interest rates and investor interest in the city that has just driven a boom in building. Now, is Philly reaching a point where we’re maybe a little overbuilt? Probably. We need to be a little more cautious. The question developers are asking themselves today is whether the market has outpaced millennials’ ability to pay the rents.
You’ve talked about the importance of mentors in your career. How can someone take advantage of a mentor’s wisdom?
As a mentee, it would be to actively engage more senior people. Don’t be afraid to be in front of them. I’m trying to say that politely. Always be asking what you can do. Don’t assume that because they haven’t contacted you, it means they don’t want to talk to you. Interrupt. Get on their schedules. If you don’t take the initiative to manage your own career, you can get derailed fairly easily. We’re not afraid to have somebody tell us, `This isn’t working out for me; I want to do [something else]. That happens. Don’t be afraid to change course, as long as you put your effort in.
Interview questions and answers have been edited for space.
Family: Wife, Alicia; daughters, Rebecca Brown-Handley, 29, Marissa Brown, 26.
Diplomas: Muhlenberg College, political science; Seton Hall University, master's in business adminstration.
True love: 1983 Fiat Spider.
Headquarters: Buffalo; locally Philadelphia, Cherry Hill.
Branches: 800; 33 locally.
Employees: 16,000; 270 here.
Dollars: $125 billion in assets; about $5 billion locally in deposits and loans, with more than half in loans.