This has been a difficult year to run a foreign-owned bank in the United States, but Manolo Sanchez has managed to find some silver linings.
The head of BBVA Compass (BBVA), the U.S. unit of Spain's Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA, says his bank's international focus has been especially helpful as it revamps its systems. In the past few months, BBVA Compass has unveiled bilingual mobile banking programs, several tablet-based apps and even an automated debt collection system. Sanchez has also spent the past two years overseeing a massive internal technology overhaul at BBVA Compass — something he says would not have been possible without the benefit of the parent company's expertise in Europe, as well as emerging markets like Mexico and Latin America.
"We are an organization that believes that there is a case for international banking conglomerates," Sanchez said. "We see a lot of ideas flowing from emerging markets to developed economies … and we as a group really work to extract the value and to transport it to another market."
Some of that value has come from the cost cuts and improved service provided by new technology. The Birmingham, Ala., company has spent years overhauling its systems core, so that it can process customer transactions in real time rather than in the overnight batches that are standard for most of the industry. BBVA Compass is now processing checking, savings and certificates of deposit transactions on the new system, and expects that consumer loan transactions should be migrated over by the first quarter of next year.
The process has cost BBVA Compass $362 million, including the value of a contract with partner Accenture. Sanchez, speaking in late October, called the expense necessary to give the bank a competitive advantage for the future, as traditional branch networks shrink and more customers expect their banks to offer online, mobile and other high-tech options.
The overhaul has shortened the time it takes to open a new deposit account to five minutes from about 45 minutes, Sanchez said. While the bank expected the new core to reduce costs by 15% by 2015, executives told American Banker last month that they are close to hitting that goal already.
"We have seen how banking technology has become a feature in many other markets," Sanchez said. "There's a whole generation coming that … they don't go to a bank branch, they don't know what that is for."
Still, there are certain challenges to being a European-owned bank. The debt problems on the continent have placed pressure on the parent company and the overall European banking system, and foreign banks operating here are coming under increased regulatory scrutiny.
The Federal Reserve this month released a proposal that would overhaul the way regulators will supervise foreign banks that operate in the United States. Foreign banks with more than $50 billion of globally consolidated assets would be required to place their operations under a first-tier U.S. intermediary holding company, something that BBVA has already done for "the vast majority of the U.S. business entities," according to spokesman Thaddeus Herrick.
"While there will be some impact to our U.S. operations, we believe our business model already lines up well with the proposed rule," he said in an email last week.
BBVA entered the U.S. in 2005, buying a series of banks over the next four years. Its U.S. franchise now ranks among the 20 largest banks by deposits in the U.S., with $66 billion of assets and more than 700 branches.
Still, its growth in the U.S. has been slowed by problem loans it inherited in some of its acquisitions. While the unit boosted loans and profits in the third quarter, one year ago the parent company took a $1.3 billion goodwill writedown on BBVA Compass, citing expected side effects from the sluggish economic recovery.
For the moment, Sanchez, 47, is more focused on trying to grow in some very local markets, including what he calls the "very competitive environment" of Texas. BBVA Compass is the fourth-largest bank by deposits in the booming state, where it has more than half U.S. branches and has built up a commercial banking team to capitalize on the regional demand for business loans. The bank even recently funded the Museum of Fine Arts Houston's exhibition of paintings on loan from the world-famous Prado museum in Madrid.
Those efforts are paying off; Sanchez says that in Texas, BBVA is selling an average of five products to each new household that comes into the bank, versus about two products per household seven years ago. Across the company's entire U.S. business, cross-selling has improved to 3.6 products per household this year, versus 2.4 products four years ago.
Sanchez, a Spanish native now living in Houston, is quick to defend the strength of BBVA's parent (which did not receive funds in Europe's recent bailout of Spanish banks), while simultaneously pointing out how little his company relies on Europe to survive.
Spain only represents about 15% of the parent company's bottom line now, he says, whereas the U.S. accounts for about 10%. The bulk of BBVA's overall profit comes from emerging markets in Mexico and Latin America.
"Like you saw in the U.S., when there's a severe crisis it doesn't mean that all of the banks are necessarily going to be in trouble," Sanchez says.
Corrected January 3, 2013 at 5:23PM: BBVA Compass confirmed last month that the core overhaul process had cost it $362 million, not including the value of a contract with partner Accenture. A spokesman said Thursday that the $362 million cost estimate did include the value of the contract.