Faced with a slowdown in its capital markets businesses and having already maxed out its market share growth opportunities in its New England home base, FleetBoston Financial Corp. has been diverting resources to New York, where it aims to become a more formidable competitor for retail and middle-market customers.
But the companys expansion drive targets one of the most competitive regions in the country, and Fleet is simultaneously looking to slash up to $700 million of expenses this year. To raise the bar higher still, it seems that the expansion must be done without making any further major acquisitions in the region.
Fleets chief executive officer, Terrence Murray, reiterated last week that he has no plan for any major bank deal before he passes the baton to his long-designated successor, Charles K. Gifford, at yearend.
Nonetheless, Fleet says it has not stepped back from its commitment to grow in the Big Apple and the surrounding region. The $200 billion-asset banking company has spent $40 million on advertising in the area, about half of its overall advertising budget, in an effort to raise its profile during the last year.
Though some of its planned expense cuts would hit the advertising and marketing budget, they will not affect Fleets New York campaign, the company said.
So far the company has engaged in what its communications chief calls guerrilla marketing: plastering Fleets name on billboards citywide, notably in Times Square and at Yankee Stadium; installing ATMs to stretch its local network of 171 branches; and engaging in some strategic philanthropy, such as buying 1,000 bulletproof vests for the New York City Police Department.
And today, as part of a broader marketing blitz, Fleet has engaged former Yankee and Hall of Famer-elect Dave Winfield to give a pep talk to 150 Fleet loan officers and other bankers who make sales calls in New York and to hand out Yankees tickets to fans in Times Square in an effort to promote itself as the the hometown bank.
The marketing push is meant to coincide with the teams opening day at Yankee Stadium.
Fleet has also made inroads by acquisition. Its recently completed deal for Summit Bancorp of Princeton, N.J., solidified its reach for suburban commuters in the state. Fleet has also picked up branches in southern Connecticut and Long Island commuter neighborhoods.
And the company recently opened sites on 42d Street in Manhattan, including an investment access center in the MetLife Building and an ATM installation in the HBO Building.
But perhaps the most obvious sign that Fleet is serious about New York was its decision last year to dispatch Henrique de Campos Meirelles, its vice chairman and head of corporate banking, to stake out a new headquarters in midtown Manhattan.
Mr. Meirelles is getting set to move into Fleets new command post on Avenue of the Americas in Rockefeller Center. The building, whose exterior will bear the companys name, sits just blocks away from the home offices of J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. and Citigroup Inc.
There is an opportunity in the market, Mr. Meirelles said in a recent interview. There has been lots of consolidation a little too much for the size and the diversity of this market. And other companies havent really moved as aggressively here.
The former Fleet Financial Group (which bought BankBoston Corp. in 1999 to form FleetBoston) has been slowly migrating toward New York through a series of seemingly unrelated deals. Its first foray was in 1988, when it bought Norstar Bancorp of Albany, N.Y. In 1996 it bought the retail operations of NatWest Bank of Jersey City. Both deals included Manhattan branches.
Then Fleet started getting unconventional. In 1997 it bought Quick & Reilly Group, a New York family-run discount brokerage that also gave it a presence on the New York Stock Exchange as a specialist firm. This presence has since been amended with other deals, most recently for M.J. Meehan & Co., and has made Fleet one of the three largest specialist firms working the floor of the NYSE.
Robertson Stephens & Co., the San Francisco investment banking firm that BankBoston acquired in 1998, had been busy expanding its presence here. However, last week Fleet said it is cutting 11% of the headcount in that unit because of the slowdown in capital markets.
This year, in addition to buying Summit, Fleet also eyed European American Bank, the Long Island-based commercial bank unit of the Dutch financial company ABN Amro Holding NV. Citigroup ultimately agreed to buy EAB for $1.9 billion in a move that Mark Fitzgibbon, an equity analyst at Sandler ONeill & Partners, described as largely defensive.
Citi wanted to prevent a strong competitor like Fleet from coming in and eating their lunch, Mr. Fitzgibbon said. But there is still an opportunity for Fleet to do a smaller acquisition in the New York metro area, he said.
He pointed to North Fork Bancorp as a possible target and said the fact that the company is trimming expenses should not be an issue. Fleet has historically utilized acquisitions and the consolidation that occurs with them to reduce costs throughout the company, he said.
Mr. Meirelles said Fleet is now betting that its best opportunities in New York will come by raising the profile of its investment services businesses in the region and by expanding in middle-market lending.
We are trying to leverage all the relationships we have, he said. When you look ahead at who the surviving players will be Chase, Schwab, Merrill they are all moving toward convergence. Thats exactly why we are betting on this strategy.
The real push into New York began last year, with the launching of a branding campaign designed to play up Fleets investment and business banking services. Anne Finucane, Fleets head of marketing and communications, said that all the moves before that anticipated a larger presence in New York. She said she has been planning the New York blitz for years.
We are going after market share, Ms. Finucane said. We are building a business that doesnt require bricks and mortar to be successful.
In investment services, Fleet aims to double its brokerage sales force and retrain its existing 500 brokers to offer more integrated investment advisory and banking services. The company hired Keith Banks two years ago from the former J.P. Morgan & Co. to run the investment management business from New York.
Mr. Meirelles said Fleet wants to use the eight existing Quick & Reilly branches in New York to cross-sell a broader array of investment and banking products and to lure deposit customers through that channel as well as through its Internet banking service.
Fleet is also selectively opening full-service bank branches in Manhattan but may also boost the number of Quick & Reilly offices, which incur less overhead, he said.
In middle-market lending, Mr. Meirelles said, the company wants 15% to 20% annual growth in New York. To achieve this, Fleets 70 local bankers are using a practice common in this business: constant calling.
Were out on the street calling on companies we dont bank and trying to impress the ones that we do bank, said John Simon, Fleets head of middle-market banking in New York. Its taken us a couple of years to prove we are here to stay.
But Fleet still has an uphill prospect. It ranks third behind Morgan Chase, which dominates middle-market lending in the area, and HSBC USA, according to bankers. Citi is also a threat. With its acquisition of EAB, the company is moving aggressively to boost market share and set up a dedicated middle-market banking unit.
And smaller companies, including North Fork and Dime Bancorp, are trying to chip away at middle-market business in the city.
Specific market share data are tracked by the Connecticut-based Greenwich Associates, which said it will not release numbers publicly for fear of offending lenders. But Mr. Simon said his company had a 23% share at last count, up from 12% in 1996.
Fleets goal is to win business any way it can, even if that means taking second seat to another leading bank company for an interim period. Its hard to go from no relationship to lead bank at once, unless the other bank really screwed up, Mr. Simon said. It could take a year or more to bump them out. We have goals to chip away until were successful.
As Fleets largest New York competitor, Morgan Chase seems unconcerned.
Theyve tried, but it takes a lot of time to build this business, said Frank Lourenso, head of middle-market banking at Morgan Chase, referring to his Fleet rivals. They still dont have the face recognition. Fleets out there, and they can be aggressive, but you cant just go around offering loan products.
Undaunted, Fleet has been stealing from its competitors playbook by poaching bankers from rival companies, particularly Morgan Chase. Mr. Simon is a former Morgan Chase middle-market banker, as are 15 others in his group.
Having Mr. Meirelles join the group in the last couple of years was meant to be a shot across the competitions bow. Hes a very important center of influence, Mr. Simon said. It signifies a lot internally, and I hope it signifies a lot externally.
Niamh Ring contributed to this article.