Lehman Brothers Inc., the global investment bank, whose consumer services have been limited to managing money for wealthy people, has set out to build a national consumer banking business.
The plan is to use a newly acquired thrift charter to serve customers on its own, and to offer banking capabilities to other companies.
Lehman set out on this path last June, when it acquired Delaware Savings Bank of Wilmington and rebranded it Lehman Brothers Bank. At the time, the brokerage said little about why it had bought the bank, which at yearend had assets of $2.9 billion and now provides limited financial products - such as mortgages - to Lehman's employees and rich clients.
In a recent interview Jacqueline A. Frommer, president of Lehman Bank, explained that the ultimate goal is to enable prominent nonbank companies with well-known brands - such as real estate firms and national retailers - to offer retail banking services, particularly mortgages, to their customers under their own brand names.
Lehman will begin testing the private-label program in August and will introduce it soon after, Ms. Frommer said. "We saw this as a natural extension of our business," she said. "In the long run, we will enable companies to become one-stop financial shops."
Lehman Bank will continue to run two branches in Wilmington as well as a loan production office in Frederick, Md., but its emphasis will be on providing a platform for other companies to offer private-label banking. Ms. Frommer said Lehman Bank is in talks with "various institutions" but would not name them.
Ms. Frommer said Lehman Bank will let customer institutions offer basic checking, savings accounts, and perhaps other products. She said Lehman will seek partnerships to expand its product lineup.
Lehman Bank is not the first company to try to sell banking services to other institutions. M&I Data Services, the Marshall & Ilsley Corp. subsidiary, last year set up Origins, a business unit designed to sell technology and expertise to nonbanks looking to get into online banking. Origins announced a contract earlier this month with AAA, the national automobile association.
Eighteen-month-old Compubank of Houston also is hoping to profit by offering private-label banking. Last month the Internet-only bank signed an agreement with GE Financial Network, a division of GE Capital.
Similarly, Security First Network Bank, a division of Royal Bank of Canada, has said it is gearing up to offer private-label Internet banking to nonbank financial companies, such as insurers and brokers.
Industry observers said Lehman Bank is well-positioned to provide financial services that combine banking and brokerage accounts, and to facilitate funds transfers between the two. Only a handful of institutions, including TD Waterhouse, Citigroup, and FleetBoston Financial Group, have so far managed to build links connecting these two businesses on behalf of consumers.
But some observers questioned the need for so many private-label banking options. "It is going to take a lot to change the mentality of the consumer to, 'Oh, my telephone or energy company is going to do the banking for me,'" said Jeff Baker, an analyst at SunTrust Equitable Securities.
Brook Newcomb, a senior analyst with Forrester Research of Cambridge, Mass., said that the increasingly popular "bank in a box" strategy is not going to be successful, even for Lehman's strong brand among institutions. "The last thing this country needs is more banks," he said.
On the other hand, Christopher Musto, director of financial services at Lincoln, Mass.-based Gomez Advisors, said Lehman's strategy to market its banking services directly to institutions makes sense because of its strong brand among corporations and financial companies.
"It's not like they have to say, 'We are Lehman Brothers - that is L, E, H.' They can just say, 'Hey, we are Lehman Brothers!' "
Ms. Frommer said Lehman Bank did not want to build a national consumer bank under its own brand name, though it will allow companies to use the Lehman name if they want. With the private-label approach, the bank figured it could take advantage of the strong presence its parent company already has in the institutional world, she said.
"We didn't want to spend a lot of dollars trying to go out and market in our own name," Ms. Frommer said.
Lehman Bank plans to use the Internet "as one of the delivery mechanisms" for its banking products, Ms. Frommer said. Its partners can also offer the products and services through their own networks of branches or kiosks, if they have them.
Lehman Bank signed an agreement last week to license electronic banking software from Corillian Corp. of Beaverton, Ore. The agreement lets Lehman Bank, as well as the corporate clients it is seeking, offer online banking and bill payment.