PhillyDeals: New Republic branch in Cherry Hill much like Hill's Commerce

Vernon Hill now owns 10 percent of Republic Bank, which is starting to follow his old Commerce Bank model.
Vernon Hill now owns 10 percent of Republic Bank, which is starting to follow his old Commerce Bank model. (CHRIS RATCLIFFE / Bloomberg)
Posted: March 07, 2014

At its peak in the mid-2000s, Vernon Hill's Commerce Bank was adding its boxy, sunlit branches up and down the East Coast at the rate of one a week.

On Saturday, Hill was back, in Cherry Hill, near his Moorestown mansion, opening a new glass-walled Republic Bank branch that looks like the next generation of Commerce - or Metro Bank Plc, his fast-growing operation in England.

Seven years after he stepped down as Commerce CEO amid a dispute with regulators - and six years after Canada's Toronto-Dominion Bank paid $8.5 billion for Marlton-based Commerce and its 460 branches and $48 billion in loans and other assets, then scrapped the big red C signs and replaced them with white-on-green TD placards - Hill sees new opportunity in his old front yard.

After leaving Commerce, Hill bought nearly 10 percent of Republic. Republic chief executive Harry Madonna vowed to pattern the bank on Hill's model. Republic has now rebranded under a big red R sign and started opening new offices under the slogan, "The Power of Red is back." Hill promises "a completely new look, delivering the same service and convenience we had before."

South Jersey needs another bank?

"Toronto-Dominion, we believe, has lost the essence of what's Commerce," Hill said. "We hear that from retail and commercial clients all the time."

TD, which once sued Hill over his autobiography, now takes a nonconfrontational approach to its would-be rival.

"Choice and competition are always good for consumers and the economy," Mike Carbone, TD's metro Philadelphia regional president, told me by e-mail. "We are always happy to see new businesses open in the neighborhood."

Republic is a mosquito compared to TD, with assets of not quite $1 billion, 14 Philadelphia-area branches, and a share price in the low single digits. But it's growing, while larger banks are shutting branches. A second new office is to open May 10 in Voorhees and up to four more by the end of next year.

A few Commerce veterans occupy key jobs at Republic, including president Andy Logue and retail boss Rhonda Costello. Commerce veteran Gina Iacoviello will manage the Cherry Hill branch.  

Despite its small size and weak earnings, Republic owner Republic First Bancorp Inc. has lately notched "very strong" loan growth, and deposits are up, too, Frank Schiraldi, managing director at Sandler O'Neill & Partners, told investors in a note last month.

What about the other Metro Bank, Commerce's former central Pennsylvania affiliate, where Hill is also an investor, and which was blocked by U.S. regulatory inaction from combining with Republic after the 2008 U.S. banking crisis? "There's no talk of combination at this point," Hill told me.

If this sounds like small stuff, Commerce also started small, with Hill's wife, Shirley, supplying furniture and enforcing a standard look for each branch. She does the same for Metro Bank UK, whose recent private-share sale boosted its implied market value to $1.2 billion. Assets total more than $3 billion.

Republic CEO Madonna says Saturday's rush of new accounts - he won't say how many - shows that basic, efficient banking remains in demand, alongside smartphone-based finance.

"People want to go back" to Commerce's heyday: "free checking, free ATMs, the atrium entranceway, people coming in with their dogs," Madonna said.

The bank will concentrate its next few branches in South Jersey, though Republic also plans Philadelphia-area expansion - especially if, as Madonna maintains, small-business borrowing keeps "growing like crazy."


JoeD@phillynews.com215-854-5194

@PhillyJoeD www.inquirer.com/phillydeals

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