For 88 years the Green family patriarchs owned and ran what is now Firstrust Bank – founder Samuel, son Daniel, grandson Richard.
But as soon as On January 1, Richard J. Green steps down as CEO of Firstrust. For the first time, a non-Green takes the head of the company: the current bank second-ranking officer, Timothy J. Abell.
The Conshohocken-based lender has $5 billion in loans and other assets, and nearly 500 employees across headquarters and its 19 branches: five in Philadelphia, 14 in the suburbs, plus outposts in Allentown, Pennsylvania, Cherry Hill, NJ, and Towson , Md. many branches as similarly sized rivals – which has become an advantage at a time when US banks are closing their remaining 72,000 offices at the rate of 1,000 a year, as customers do their banking through phone and online.
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Firstrust is also one of the last of the old herd of banks based in the region, and which competition to finance small employers, family businesses and family loans. And the bank founded by the Greens is the largest of the very few banks in the region that are still family owned.
Most local banks have sold out to larger lenders as technology has made it easier to find loan and deposit rates and investments remotely, which has reduced sales and profits. But federal filing records show that Firstrust is more profitable, on a gross return on assets basis, than remaining local rivals WSFS, Univest or Republic.
Green, co-owner of the Philadelphia Eagles, in addition to owning Firstrust, will remain as executive chairman, looking over Abell’s shoulder, calling on familiar customers. And he does not exclude that a young Green (he has three children, none at Firstrust) could one day take over.
Green and Abell spoke to The Inquirer about the transition and the state of their business. Responses have been edited for clarity and conciseness.
GREEN: I’m an older man—I’m 70. I’ve been doing this for 45 years, getting paid. When I was a kid, I used to hang out, unpaid, with my dad [who lived to age 98] and grandfather [to 89]. I’m in good shape, and the bank is in good shape. I want to pay attention to the Green Family Foundation. And now Tim and I have worked together for 18 years. It is the right time.
GREEN: I’m not saying it’s impossible, but it’s not in my head right now to go public or sell. We can do more of what we do, with Tim.
GREEN: This bank has never been too heavy on bricks and mortar. [It has about half as many branches as Univest or Republic, whose loans and deposit totals are similar to Firstrust’s.] In our lifetime, there will still be a place for a branch.
There are many family businesses in our region. I know a lot of people you see in The Inquirer who own really big companies – the Yohs [Day & Zimmerman]Woods [Wawa]; Harold Scattergood [Boenning & Scattergood] was my neighbor. They all know us and know that we are also a family business.
GREEN: Technology is actually a great leveler between big and small banks. We spend a lot of money on our digital transformation. And we will spend more; that’s where the bank is headed.
We are big enough to make these expenses when we are thoughtful. Some things we have to customize, but we can take a lot off the shelf, from the same vendors that much bigger banks select as well.
The size is therefore not necessarily decisive. It’s useful to have a single shareholder: I’m demanding, but patient. This allows us to focus on long-term value creation, not growth for growth’s sake. We are not succeeding today because of what we did last week, but because we made decisions months and years in advance.
GREEN: It’s a kind of laboratory, like Betsy Cohen’s [Delaware-based)] Bancorp Bank, to find what services we can do for the new financial technology [fintech] lenders. And we have Apex Commercial Capital, which does equipment leasing and real estate financing, which not everyone else does. And Firstrust Financial Resources is wealth management. And we are the official bank of the Philadelphia Eagles.
ABELL: There are a lot of advantages to being privately owned. We operate within the framework of this long-term vision. We don’t have to worry so much about quarterly earnings reports. So, as other community banks have sold, it has given us more opportunities – their customers are coming to us. I want to speed this up.
Our story resonates — we are a family business; we like to fund other family businesses. Five billion dollars is enough to fund a lot of [client] transactions, but small enough to maintain our relationships. We have plenty of room to grow in Philadelphia.