Vernon’s Back in Town!

Vernon's Back in Town!

Vernon Hill, former Chairman and CEO of Commerce Bank and more recently a co-founder and chairman of Metro Bank in England, was back in New Jersey in March to open a new Republic Bank "store" in Cherry Hill.  

Hill resigned from  Commerce in 2007 in a dispute with banking  regulators. The following year the bank was purchased by Canada's Toronto-Dominion Bank and the name was changed to TD Bank. The bank that Vernon Hill built was gone, but not Vernon.

Hill bought nearly 10% of Republic Bank and, with the approval of Republic's chief executive, Harry Madonna, is now following the Commerce model in growing the Republic brand, even "copying" the distinctive red Commerce C with the new red Republic R and the  slogan, "The Power of Red Is Back."

For those who are not familiar with Vernon Hill, it is no exaggeration to say that he revolutionized modern banking, with his banking stores open seven days a week, longer and evening hours with drive-through service and a variety of other services offered by no other banks at the time. It took a while, but other banks had no choice but to follow his lead and the staid old days of banking were gone forever. 

It was Hill's entrepreneurial style to actively compete for customers. This was honed by his experience in the fast food field, first as a developer of new restaurant sites for McDonald's and then as a long-time partner in a major Burger King franchise operation. In the process, he built Commerce into a multi-billion dollar bank with more than 460 stores in a number of states up and down the east coast. All of this started with just one branch in Marlton, NJ, in the early 1970s.

Now, with 14 Philadelphia-area branches and plans for more Republic Bank stores in Marlton, Moorestown, Mount Holly, Medford, Glassboro, Washington Township and a second store in Cherry Hill, you might wonder if Republic's Madonna and Hill have the ability to repeat the scope and success of Commerce Bank. If you asked me, I would say, "Don't underestimate Vernon Hill."

I did the public relations for Commerce Bank for 10 years, starting with Commerce's first branch in Philadelphia at 19th & Market Streets in 1983. At that time, Commerce was still headquartered in that first bank in Marlton, NJ. I had a front row seat at the Vernon Hill "show" during those years and he was nothing short of amazing — and driven.

Can he do it again? He just did! As co-founder and vice chairman of Metro Bank in 2010, he opened the first high-street bank in the United Kingdom in more than 100 years — in direct competition with five major banking institutions that held 85% of the country's current accounts. 

In a BBC News interview, Hill's co-founder and Metro's chairman at the time, Anthony Thomson, said the cost-driven model of traditional British banks required that they discourage customers from visiting branches, whereas Metro Bank encouraged customers to come into their branches by offering longer opening hours and pet-friendly policies. 

As one noted investor commented at the time, "The question is whether (Hill's) promotional flair and service concept will produce enough  customers to offset the extra operational cost of providing the extra space."

As of September 2013, Metro had 225,000 accounts and was opening a new branch every month with the goal of having 25 open by the close of the year. In May, Metro opened the UK's first ever drive-through bank in Slough.

In April 2013, Vernon Hill was awarded the Institute of Economic Affairs' Free Enterprise Award for his work at Metro Bank. Previous winners were Margaret Thatcher and Sir Richard Branson.

In August 2013, Tom Brown of wrote: "So Vernon Hill has, not once, but twice, and in two different markets, built growth machines in the supposedly mature and sleepy banking business. That has to make him the world's greatest growth-oriented banker, probably of all time." In the same month, Hill received the 2013 Stevie Award for International Chairman of the Year.

Can he do it again? What do you think?

Beau Weisman, Editor