As many large companies plan mass layoffs to cope with a slowing economy, Commerce Bancorp in Cherry Hill, N.J., says it is beefing up its work force by more than 25% this year.

The $8.3 billion-asset company announced Thursday that it plans to hire 1,500 people — from tellers to branch managers to senior-level lenders — by the end of the year. The jobs will be created in 30 new branches that Commerce is planning to open this year in northern New Jersey and the Delaware Valley, according to president and chairman Vernon W. Hill. Five branches are slated to open by the end of the first quarter.

Blanketing the Northeast with branches — all of which are open seven days a week — is Commerce’s strategy for growth. It opened 30 branches in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware last year, adding some 1,100 jobs. And despite the recent downturn in the economy, the company, which operates about 150 branches, is not backing down from its promise to open 30 more per year for the next several years.

“While everyone is getting out of the retail business and cutting back jobs, we seem to be the only ones going the other way,” Mr. Hill said.

To fill all the new positions, Commerce is likely to tap former employees of several large banks that recently announced layoffs. First Union Corp. of Charlotte, N.C., one of Commerce’s major competitors, is eliminating some 5,300 jobs, while the newly formed J.P. Morgan Chase & Co. is laying off about 5,000 employees, according to recent reports.

Commerce is also going after employees of Summit Bancorp in New Jersey, which is merging with FleetBoston Financial Inc. Shortly after that deal was announced in September, Commerce ran advertisements in northern New Jersey newspapers targeting disgruntled Summit employees.

“We expect a major disruption in the market and we want to take full advantage of it,” Mr. Hill said.

Kenneth Thomas, a banking consultant in Miami, said that many former CoreStates employees went to Commerce and Summit after that company merged with First Union in 1998. He said he expects a similar shakeout in the Summit/Fleet merger and that Commerce, with its community bank style and customer-friendly attitude, will attract those looking to escape the “big bank culture.”

“The bank’s strategy is the opposite of what I have seen at the bigger banks that have been cutting back on staff because of loan losses,” Mr. Thomas said. But that’s what makes Commerce’s strategy successful, he added.

Though Commerce is primarily looking for experienced bankers, it is also scoping out other industries. Sandra Martin, the public relations manager at Commerce, said that since the company prides itself on being retail friendly, it is looking to hire from the retail sector. Stores in the Delaware Valley that have recently announced layoffs include Bradlee’s and Montgomery Ward, both of which are going out of business, and J.C. Penney, which is downsizing.

Still, Mr. Hill does not expect the search for employees to be easy and admits that finding well-trained managers could be downright difficult.

James Malfetti, president of Management Recruitment/OfficeMates in Mountainside, N.J., agreed that the search for senior-level employees may take time and said that from his experience, qualified loan officers will be the hardest to find.

“The market for qualified individuals is tight in New Jersey and I think we will keep seeing companies struggling to locate people,” Mr. Malfetti said.


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