CoreStates Financial Corp. chairman Terrence A. Larsen insisted Monday that there is still room for banks like his to survive below the top tier of megabanks.
"People see the future of banking and predict six to 12 big banks and a handful of small boutiques, but I think the future of banking is a lot more complex," Mr. Larsen said.
He said he envisions a "pluralistic" banking world that includes alternatives to the giants offering one-stop convenience across multiple regions.
Mr. Larsen's remarks, in an address at the Bank Administration Institute's annual asset/liability and treasury management conference, came at a time when Philadelphia-based CoreStates is under considerable pressure to define its future. To some shareholders, the best course would be to sell.
CoreStates has seriously considered four offers from companies in the past year alone, according to a bank official. Recently it rebuffed one, said to be worth $88 a share, from Mellon Bank Corp. It also reportedly broke off talks with First Union Corp.
With Mr. Larsen strongly advocating independence, CoreStates has hired Credit Suisse First Boston and J.P. Morgan & Co. to advise on its future.
In its zeal to pursue deals, Wall Street is failing to recognize that not all banks operate in the same way, Mr. Larsen said.
Some banks will resemble securities firms, while others will become known for expertise in areas such as lending.
"There is no one business philosophy that works for everyone," Mr. Larsen said. He said many banks may be focusing on expanding geographically at the expense of customer service.
He was not specific about the organization he ultimately wants to create at CoreStates, but he underlined the importance of customer service, assembling a strong staff, and building shareholder value.
Mr. Larsen touted CoreStates' strong, risk-averse balance sheet, pointing out that the bank's return on equity is the best among the 25 largest banks.
But banking is not just a numbers game, Mr. Larsen said. It is important to have a culture that encourages employees to make decisions without having to worry about being second-guessed by higher-ups.
He said the key to survival for banks in CoreStates' size range-it has $47 billion of assets-is to regain the market share they have lost over the years.
In conversation after his speech, Mr. Larsen gave few details on how CoreStates intends to regain its share. He said CoreStates is unlikely to buy a securities firm because it prefers to build from within. He also hinted that the bank is developing an "insurance initiative."
To survive as an independent, the company must over time increase earnings at or above the industry average. "There is no need to do it every quarter," he said, because such aggressive tactics can lead to trouble.
Mr. Larsen declined to say how much time he has to prove that "pluralistic banking" will work in CoreStates' favor, given Wall Street demands for instant earnings gratification. But he acknowledged that the time line "is getting faster."