FleetBoston Financial Corp. is preparing a marketing assault on its New Jersey competitors now that the conversion of deposit and other computer systems it acquired from Summit Bancorp is safely behind it.
Competitors were eagerly waiting to pounce on any glitch in the process, but to their private chagrin Fleet managed to convert 3.5 million Summit customer accounts on two summer weekends with few problems. That is a departure from its previous integration experiences, and one that the company has been happily flaunting.
In a recent advertisement in New Jersey and Pennsylvania newspapers, Fleet thanked customers for their patience during the June and July conversions and offered each branch a $1,000 donation toward a charity of its choice. Its been the smoothest, most trouble-free transition our company has experienced, former Summit chief executive Joseph Semrod, now the head of Fleets New Jersey operations, said in the ad.
In buying Princeton, N.J.-based Summit this year, Fleet took the No. 1 market share in the state, with 21% of deposits. In doing so, it leapfrogged from a distant sixth place over other out-of-state rivals, including First Union Corp. and PNC Financial Services Group, as well as local rivals, including Sovereign Bancorp and Commerce Bancorp.
Fleets deposits have inched up 3% since the final July 13 New Jersey conversion, said Robert Hedges, a company senior vice president and the head of retail distribution. And New Jersey residents have been signing up for the companys online banking product, Homelink, at a rate of 6,000 accounts a week, he said, about 40% of the new online accounts from all the states where it operates.
Now that were through the conversion, its an opportunity for us to go on the growth offensive, Mr. Hedges said in a recent interview. Fleet is planning a major print and television marketing campaign this fall in its newly expanded New York metropolitan market, which includes New Jersey and Pennsylvania, and it has earmarked 60% of its multimillion-dollar marketing budget for the region in the near term.
Fleet is particularly keen on pushing sales of Homelink to people and small businesses in the new market, Mr. Hedges said, and boosting interest in its Quick & Reilly brokerage operations. But some analysts doubt whether Fleet can capture much more of the market. Theyll do well to hold onto share, said Nancy Bush, an analyst at Ryan, Beck & Co. in Livingston, N.J.
Perhaps that is because of the tenacity of smaller, more local competitors, which have grown accustomed to the incursions of out-of-state banking companies over the years. Its not going to be a piece of cake for them, said Jay Sidhu, president of Wyomissing, Pa.-based Sovereign Bancorp, which now ranks fifth in New Jersey deposit share, with $6.5 billion, or 4%. Sovereign has also been building in New Jersey and in Fleets own backyard in New England. We dont believe in just holding what we have, Mr. Sidhu said. We are blocking and tackling to get more.
And Commerce Bancorp, whose executives are mobilizing around a sales and marketing plan they are privately calling Sink the Fleet, is counting on disruptions to send Summit customers fleeing in its direction. Since the Fleet-Summit merger, Commerce ranks seventh in New Jersey, with $5.5 billion of deposits, or a 3.4% share.
Vernon Hill, chief executive officer of the Cherry Hill, N.J.-based Commerce, says deposits at the end of June were up 28% from last year and that 40% of account openings are coming from Summit customers. New accounts, he said, are opening at almost double the rate achieved before the merger.
We have been very aggressive, Mr. Hill said, adding that deposit growth rates are going up all the time. (The nicest thing he would say about Fleet was that theyre not doing as bad a job as First Union did with the CoreStates conversion.)
Both Sovereign and Commerce say they refuse to cut rates or otherwise alter product offerings to compete with Fleet, which itself admits to tinkering with pricing on some deposit offerings in an effort to keep Summit customers from bolting. We tried to minimize the changes and grandfathered certain product features in the Summit accounts, Mr. Hedges said. We repriced some of our products to be more like Summit products. We are evolving the way we handle product and pricing.
That Fleet could pull off the Summit deposit system conversion without a hitch is something of a milestone for the Boston banking company, which has been an aggressive acquirer throughout the 1990s but which ran into several highly publicized problems with its integration efforts.
It struggled with the conversion of systems acquired in its 1999 merger with BankBoston Corp. to such an extent that the post-merger company has undertaken a major effort to improve customer service.
Indeed Mr. Hedges spent the last two days with 25 other Fleet managers at a call center site in Scranton, Pa., listening to customers and holding meetings about how the process could be improved. The success of the Summit conversion is a sign that the customer service effort is working, he said.
We have held back on selling our story, Mr. Hedges said. Now, we are going to shift.