For Barry Sommers, moving upstairs at JPMorgan Chase (JPM) means going somewhat downmarket.
Sommers, 44, has spent most of his career focusing on selling fee-heavy investment products to wealthy customers, most recently through select Chase branches. Now his oversight is expanding to encompass all of the bank's branches and related retail businesses, after Chase's former head of consumer banking, Ryan McInerney, decamped to Visa (NYSE:V).
His promotion underlines the emphasis that JPMorgan and its competitors are placing on wealth-management services at a time when low interest rates and lackluster loan demand are compressing margins and loan yields. But Sommers, who trained in the rarified ranks of Goldman Sachs (GS) and Bear Stearns, says that he is prepared to serve more than just JPMorgan's most affluent customers.
"One of the things we think about all the time is, as our customers change are we able to change with them?" he says. "The reason I was picked for the job was much less to do with the affluent platform and much more to do with [the fact that Chase's private-client business] was an example of what we do here: build the right products and services for customers as they need them."
The country's largest bank has divided its retail bank customers into three main segments according to their investable assets and annual income. As CEO of Chase Wealth Management, Sommers focused on the smallest and richest segment: the 3.2 million households with at least $500,000 in investments or $150,000 in annual income. As of March 31, Chase offered private wealth-management in roughly 1,400 of its branches and it is planning to add the service in another 600 branches by the end of this year.
Now Sommers' responsibilities have multiplied. He "is going from running what would still be considered a large retail bank for higher net-worth individuals, to running a larger retail bank for the less affluent," says Andrew Reese, a managing director at the recruiting firm Boyden, who focuses on wealth-management executives.
As he takes on the 18 million less-affluent households in Chase's retail bank, Sommers says he is thinking about how to build products for customers early in their careers who will eventually get wealthier.
New customers at Chase often "start out [with] a deposit, savings, banking relationship, but what you've seen more than ever is, they're actually looking for a primary provider" for all of their banking and eventual investments, he says.
Sommers spoke to American Banker last week, on the day that McInerney officially began his new job as Visa's president. He greeted a reporter in his office, a small corner room some 10 floors below the top of 270 Park Avenue, where the bank's senior executives — including his longtime boss, Consumer and Community Bank chief Gordon Smith — sit. He will join them, though, as soon as he packs up the ties hanging on the back of his door.
Sommers was just back from a trip to visit employees in Columbus, Ohio, and was wearing what looked like a Chase consumer-bank uniform — a white shirt, without a tie, with the Chase octagon embroidered on a pocket. Perhaps deliberately, it made him look more like a branch employee than a bespoke-suited private banker.
In his new role, Sommers will have to spend more time worrying about the company's declining consumer-banking revenues. First-quarter deposits in the consumer bank rose 11% in the first quarter from a year earlier, but revenue, interest income and overall profits in the unit all fell. Low interest rates have steadily squeezed JPMorgan Chase's deposit margins over the past year, to 2.36% in the first quarter from 2.68% a year ago.
"Most consumer banks are not as profitable as they have been. The low interest rate environment really destroys value coming out of the deposit side," says Guggenheim Securities analyst Marty Mosby.
Mosby praises Chase's use of mobile banking and other new technology to help replace some of the costs of serving customers in branches: "The heavy use of mobile banking gives these banks an opportunity to transition their branch costs," and Chase is "well ahead of the curve," he says.
Sommers is relatively sanguine about interest rates, saying that while "we obviously don't have control over the interest rate environment," the bank is focusing on building "really good products and listening to our customers." He has a similar reaction to the seemingly unending string of executive departures, of which McInerney is only the latest example.
Chief Executive Jamie Dimon is trying to assure regulators and shareholders that the bank has fully recovered from the fallout of last year's London Whale trading losses and the resulting management overhaul. Last month, Dimon successfully defeated a much-watched shareholder challenge to his joint titles as Chairman and CEO. But McInerney's decision to go work for Visa CEO Charlie Scharf, another one of Dimon's former lieutenants, has raised questions about management's stability.
Still, Sommers says he had no hesitations about accepting his promotion.
"There's been some turnover here, but if you came to work here every single day, you'd be hard-pressed to feel that there's been any dislocation in the last few months, or 12 months, by anyone leaving this firm," he says.
He also emphasizes repeatedly that he has no plans to change the retail business and will stick to the plan the board and senior management have mapped out. At its annual investor meeting in February, the bank gave out thick binders laying out its strategy in every part of the company, including 72 pages on its consumer and community banking unit.
"To me it's business as usual," Sommers says. "The plan was built by many people at this organization. I was part of that, I continue to execute on that plan and listen to our customers, and not put a stamp on anything for the sake of putting a stamp on something."