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Lunch at the Four Seasons with: Vernon W. Hill II

Published by The New York Sun on 2005-03-22

Vernon W. Hill II, founder and chairman of Commerce Bancorp, had done his homework on the reporter. He said he'd read his Web site. He greeted him with knowledgeable comments about his journalistic career. He even asked him keen questions about his native India. The reporter immediately understood that, with his informed introductory kibitzing, his steady eye contact, his open-faced smile, and his ready humor, here was a man accomplished in the art of retailing.

So did he always greet a new acquaintance with such bonhomie, the reporter asked Mr. Hill?

"Of course," Mr. Hill said. "You get only one opportunity to make a first impression. If you're in the retail business, as I am, every person you meet is a potential customer."

Then Mr. Hill proceeded to engage in what he called the "shock and wow" part of the lunch conversation.

Here's the shock part: "Am I surprised that banks continue to abuse their customers? This amazes me every day. We're not in this business to make friends with our competitors -- we're here to take away their market share. I don't see myself as a banker -- I'm a retailer who happens to deliver banking services. Do I lose sleep over the fact that the big boys in banking are sharpening their knives for me? Not the least."

And here's the wow part: "If you'd invested $10,000 in my bank when I started it in 1973 as a small storefront facility, your money would have grown to $4 million today. So where've you been?"

The reporter practically choked over his grilled salmon.

Mr. Hill continued relentlessly:

"We're out to get 100% of the market share. Our assets are now $30 billion. In five years, they will climb to $130 billion. That'll still be only 5% of the market. I say that's not enough. We're out to capture most of the market out there."

That may seem ambitious but Mr. Hill points out that Commerce Bancorp's market capitalization is already $5 billion, and that its annual growth rate has averaged more than 39% for a decade, while the industry average has been 3%.

"Banking should be fun," he said.

That's why, for example, Commerce Bancorp's 319 branches in four states -- including 37 in New York City and 178 in the New York metropolitan area -- all have definite cheerfulness to them. The dominant color is red; all staff members wear uniforms with -- what else -- red shirts or blouses. Red lollipops are freely handed out to all comers. Branches -- Mr. Hill prefers the word "stores" -- also feature penny arcades, machines that accept loose change, count the money, and issue vouchers that the user can then exchange for bank notes. (The Federal Reserve once turned to Commerce Bancorp when it needed more pennies to inject into America's monetary system.)

"I've tried to develop a very strong customer-oriented, value-differentiating model for our 12,000 employees," Mr. Hill said. "I emphasize fanatical execution of our customer-oriented strategy. And I mean fanatical. The power of successful retailing lies in enhancing customers' experience."

Well before Mr. Hill started Commerce Bancorp with 9 employees and $1.5 million in borrowed capital, he'd learned about what it takes to enhance customers' experience. His father -- who was a check runner in the postwar years -- encouraged him to be an entrepreneur from an early age. Mr. Hill worked at several places while he attended the Wharton School at the University of Pennsylvania. He was most impressed by how McDonald's and Wal-Mart served their customers.

"I got up one morning and decided that I wanted to start a bank," Mr. Hill said. "An unrealistic ambition? My mental shorthand was: 'Just do it!'"

When he started his enterprise at the age of 27, of course, there was no way that Mr. Hill could have anticipated that the number of banks in America would shrink because of mergers from 14,000 in 1973 to 8,000 in 2005. He could not have anticipated the scandals at various savings and loan institutions, which significantly undercut consumer confidence in America's banking system.

"But I did anticipate that there would be room for a retail bank that wasn't impersonal, that treated every customer as if that person were the only customer," Mr. Hill said. "I did anticipate that an institution that was run with transparency and where employees were fiercely held to the highest standards of performance and personal conduct -- that such an institution would flourish."

As the Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Commerce Bancorp grew under his stewardship -- which fetches him an annual compensation of $3.2 million, and has also gotten him vested stock options worth $65 million -- Mr. Hill recognized that New York City would be a lucrative market. For one, there was more than $500 billion in customer deposits; for another, he was convinced that the giant banks were alienating everyday customers through their cost-saving computerized banking under which it was increasingly difficult to get a real-life person to tend to a customer's grievances.

"So we went to where the everyday folks -- in all five boroughs of the city," Mr. Hill said. "We decided that everyday folks should be given a choice of when and where to do their banking. That's why all our stores are open seven days a week, from 7:30 in the morning to 8 in the evening. No exceptions. If you've got a transaction to conduct, we're there waiting for you. It's the customer's convenience that matters to me." (Commerce Bancorp will soon open a 14,314-square-foot "store" at Two Wall Street, one of the financial district's historic locations.)

Mr. Hill also knew that he couldn't ignore online banking in this cyber age. Now more than 47% of customer transactions are conducted online, the highest figure in the banking industry.

And he knew that, while branding and deposit gathering were essential to his bank's growth, Commerce Bancorp also needed to attract government deposits -- the money that towns and counties use for payroll and other expenditures. Mr. Hill tripled these deposits -- from 7% of Commerce Bancorp's deposits in 1981 to more than 21% last year. The industry average is 5%. Commerce Bancorp now has more than 1,200 government accounts in New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Delaware.

It's not that the bank has not had occasional headaches. Two bank employees -- Glenn Holck and Steve Umbrell -- are on trial in a federal court in Philadelphia for allegedly making loans to the city treasurer in exchange for preferential treatment, a charge they deny. Last night, Mr. Hill emphasized that Commerce Bancorp itself has not been charged in this case. He also emphasized that no ethical lapses of any sort would be tolerated on his watch.

Aside from government deposits, Mr. Hill is also expanding his commercial lending operations. Commerce Bancorp also refunds fees charged to its 400,000 customers if they withdraw funds from ATMs at other institutions.
And how does Mr. Hill ensure quality control at his "stores"?

"I send out 'mystery shoppers' who monitor performance," he said. "I frequently visit our stores unannounced. Go see for yourself how Commerce Bancorp works."

After the lunch, the reporter did just that. He walked to a branch near his home in Brooklyn. The atmosphere inside was lively. He grabbed a lollipop, then another. Then, entirely on a whim, he decided to open an account. A representative named Joann Nardi completed his paperwork and issued a brand new ATM card in less than 15 minutes.

Pranay Gupte,
Senior Writer and Global-Affairs Columnist

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