Philly Deals: Valley Green Bank gets an award for actually making loans

Jay R. Goldstein, president and CEO of Valley Green Bank, said his bank's investors' capital has created "room to grow" to 25 percent this year.
Jay R. Goldstein, president and CEO of Valley Green Bank, said his bank's investors' capital has created "room to grow" to 25 percent this year.
Posted: July 19, 2012

Northwest Philadelphia-based Valley Green Bank grew 40 percent last year, to a modest $250 million in loans and investments, and plans to grow 25 percent more this year, said boss Jay Goldstein.

That's unusual, at a time when large U.S. banks are sluggish at extending credit to businesses — their supposed social purpose — given low interest rates, weak demand, tough competition, and disappearing profit margins.

Valley Green is a rare institution, one of just 14 based in the Philadelphia region that reported more than one-quarter of its loans are to small businesses, rather than homeowners or real estate developers, said Amir Kassar, a former Advanta Corp. executive who now runs Blue Bell business-loan broker Multifunding L.L.C., which Tuesday honored Valley Green with an award as the largest such bank still based in the city.

Most banks on Kassar's list are growing slowly. What's different at Valley Green is a well-connected board of directors — led by chairman Algot F. Thorell Jr., ex-head of Lincoln Benefits, and including real estate broker Robert Elfant, Homecare Associates boss Karen Culp, Trolley Car Diner owner/developer Ken Weinstein, and Saul Ewing law partner/ex-State Rep. Richard Hayden — backed by 300 local shareholders who, Goldstein said, keep adding to their personal investments in the bank's capital.

Valley Green hedges its bets, working with the taxpayer-funded Philadelphia Authority for Industrial Development on credits to manufacturers like Zitner's Chocolates and also making some loans guaranteed by the Small Business Administration.

Banks that lend mostly to real estate projects remain "hestitant," Goldstein said, given the fall in property values. Lenders are now "more comfortable" making business loans secured by accounts receivable or inventory. Valley Green investors' capital has created "room to grow."

IPO in the works

Paul Russell is one of those Philadelphia serial entrepreneurs who grew from real estate to industry buyouts to info tech. In 1991, he started Fiberlink as a "dark fiber" long-distance service for AT&T competitors. He and partner Jim Sheward evolved it as a laptop-computer connector, dial-up Internet developer, connectivity-software supplier, and most recently an iPhone and smart-device secure cloud service to Vodafone, LinkedIn, Sunoco, Independence Blue Cross, and 1,000 other clients.

In the 2000s, Fiberlink raised tens of millions from Edison Ventures, Goldman Sachs, GE, and Technology Crossover Ventures, and other venture capitalists. "We were almost went public in 2000, and then again in 2003," Russell said, but each time markets and sales shifted too fast to sell shares.

Now, with a highest-ever payroll of 300 workers — "We hired 100 people last year, and expect to hire 100 this year," said Sheward, who is CEO, with Russell as board chairman — the company sees another chance at mass capitalization.

"Maybe next spring," Russell said about an IPO. Then Sheward and Mayor Nutter cut the ribbon on the Montgomery County-based company's new office at 1601 Benjamin Franklin Parkway. (Center City, Sheward said, is where young engineers and marketing people want to work.) "We're on a great track now," said Russell. "We'll keep our heads down and keep pushing."

Student shortage

Pennsylvania's shrinking high school population is bad for the financial health of West Chester University and other state-backed colleges, Moody's Investors Service warns in a report by analyst Diane Viacava.

The bond-rating agency is weighing a downgrade to nearly $1 billion in debt owed by the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education. Moody's cites "enrollment challenges" …that will hurt future tuition income, as well as "reduced state funding" and rising pension and health-insurance costs.

Moody's plans to study fall enrollment and tuition projections and the Corbett administration's budget plans and will announce any changes to the system's Aa2 ratings by October.

Contact columnist Joseph N. DiStefano at 215-854-5194, JoeD@phillynews.com, or @PhillyJoeD on Twitter.

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