Exclusive Profile: Keeping It Simple Is Key To Consistent Profits For First Republic Bank

Harriet Davies Americas Editor New York 7 October 2011

Exclusive Profile: Keeping It Simple Is Key To Consistent Profits For First Republic Bank

It’s a well-known fact in business: simple ideas stick better than complicated ones. It’s a message First Republic Bank seems to have taken to the heart of its operations - and is perhaps what has allowed it to be consistently profitable for 26 years.

“We started 26 years ago and built a bank focused on delivering extraordinary service in the private banking markets, in urban coastal affluent markets,” Katherine August-deWilde, president and chief operating officer, tells this publication in a rare interview. “We built it based on what the high net worth market wants and values – which is a highly-personalized service.

“We’re in concentrated markets and have a simple, focused model. We have a growing client base in our markets, we have strong credit and well-matched assets and liabilities ” she says.

It seems so simple – maybe banking doesn’t have to be complicated. But every company must grow, and managing this while retaining its boutique feel is one of the challenges for the senior management of First Republic. Part of this, according to August-deWilde, is ensuring employees understand the ethics of a company, and this view has to come from the top.

A brief history

The bank was incorporated in 1985, when August-deWilde joined, and started out with 10 employees and one office. It was listed on the Nasdaq in 1986 with a common value of $23 million. It underwent a brief period as part of Merrill Lynch, which acquired the bank in 2007. However, after Merrill was merged into Bank of America in 2009 there was a management-led buyout at First Republic, and last year it became a listed company again with an IPO and valuation of $3.3 billion on the New York Stock Exchange.

Its latest financials show: net income of $173.6 million for the first half of the year; bank assets of $23.8 billion and total loans outstanding of $20.3 billion, as of 30 June 2011.

The wealth business

First Republic really started developing its private wealth offering around 10 years ago, by building a brokerage and making a few boutique acquisitions, explains Bob Thornton, head of the firm's Private Wealth Management business. Five years ago it went through the consolidation process. “We looked at the different [wealth] brands and businesses and we wanted simplicity for clients, and to provide integrated wealth management.” At the same time, the bank moved towards an open architecture approach and away from being a product provider on the investment management side, he says.

That clients are much happier with an open architecture approach directed by a portfolio is one of the most important things August-deWilde says she has learned in her career at the bank.

The latest figures, at the end of the first half of 2011, show wealth management assets of $19.6 billion – up by 17 per cent from the end of 2010.

The key to growth

“The most key way our business has grown is really referrals,” says Thornton. First Republic does advertise through selected radio and print channels (its aggregated advertising and marketing spend was $11.6 million for the second half of 2010), but mainly puts its growth as through referrals, both within other areas of the bank and from word-of-mouth recommendations from clients. Thornton also makes the enviable claim that First Republic “rarely loses a wealth management pitch.”

The two cornerstone client segments for the private wealth division are for clients with $2-$10 million or $10-$100 million – segments where the level of service is paramount.

As the firm grows, “our job is to maintain the culture,” says Thornton. He says that while the firm has high growth expectations, “specific targets could actually limit growth and affect the quality we deliver to clients.” He adds that the bank will not take on all clients or staff if it doesn’t feel the fit is right.

The firm is focused on the full-service, integrated approach. “There are no compensation or structural barriers” to the client experience, says Thornton.

Meanwhile, with difficult client queries you can reach the top-level management to get a resolution within a day, he says.

The idea is to capitalize on the firm’s entire platform, and when a client comes through the door the first question to consider, according to Thornton, is: what are his or her needs?

The stress on balancing assets and liabilities is evident in the mandate the bank’s relationship managers in the wealth division are given, which encompasses delivering banking, investment management, trust, brokerage and real estate lending services.

As well as referrals and the development of an integrated service, hiring has been an important driver of growth within the private wealth division and the wider bank, as "this brings in clients and skills,” says Thornton.

Future plans

Going forwards, the bank intends to do more of the same. Its expansion plans concentrate on its core markets of San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, Boston, Portland and San Diego. It will be hiring staff within the wealth management business but only when there is a cultural fit, says Thornton, adding that the bank is “open to talking to the right people.”

Meanwhile, Thornton thinks there’s a lot more mileage for the private wealth side, saying: “While we are growing quite rapidly, there’s a lot more visibility we can have in wealth management, and lots of clients [of the bank] that still aren’t part of wealth management – so we just want carefully managed growth.”

Watch this space.

(An earlier version of this item appeared in Family Wealth Report, sister publication of WealthBriefing).

Register for WealthBriefing today

Gain access to regular and exclusive research on the global wealth management sector along with the opportunity to attend industry events such as exclusive invites to Breakfast Briefings and Summits in the major wealth management centres and industry leading awards programmes