As Northern Trust Corp. prepares for national expansion, its highly profitable Florida operation is likely to serve as a model for future growth.
The Chicago-based banking company has made a name for itself in the Sunshine State by hawking private banking services to millionaires - whether they hail from Illinois or not. That separates it from other out- of-state banks, which have entered Florida mostly to follow customers who have moved there upon retirement.
Northern may now seek to duplicate its Florida strategy in California, Arizona, and Texas. Last week, Northern said it was planning to expand its presence in those states as well as in Florida, boosting its national network of offices to 75 over the next three years, from 54 now.
In Florida, expansion has already proved extremely profitable for Northern. Earnings at Miami-based Northern Trust of Florida Corp. jumped 43% in the first quarter to $10.7 million. The profit ranked the $2 billion-asset bank as the best performing unit of Northern, which had total profits of $62 million in the period.
Northern officials attribute the success of their 22-office Florida network to its emphasis on marketing. Because it is so far from Northern's home base, the Florida unit does not rely on the Northern name to bring in business.
"If we had to rely on people who came here from Chicago we'd starve to death," said Ray E. Marchman Jr., a senior vice president. "Less than half our clients know we're headquartered in Chicago," added Mr. Marchman, who is also the chairman of the bank's national marketing council.
So the Florida subsidiary carved out its own image and marketed heavily to the state's millionaires. It stays visible by sponsoring numerous galas and art exhibitions.
"What makes Northern Trust different is they recognize the potential of the Florida market in and of itself, as opposed to Bessemer, Morgan, and Bankers Trust, who followed their retirees." said John DeMarco, president of PSI Inc., a Tampa-based research firm.
Northern's strategy is to let its prospects know it is nearby. It locates its offices within a 20-minute drive of 85% of the affluent households it is targeting, Mr. Marchman said.
Executives use conventional means to find prospects, such as perusing lists from data bases and meeting people through social organizations. But they also take a more direct approach.
"People drive around the area and write down streets and addresses that look like they'd be inhabited by prospects," Mr. Marchman said. "It works."
The private banking operation in Florida targets people over 65 years of age with annual incomes of at least $100,000 and investable assets of $500,000 or more. The Florida unit, which has $13.7 billion in assets under management, logged a 30% return on equity and a 23.4% return on assets in the first quarter.
"The reason for their success is their marketing and their people," Mr. DeMarco said. "They've gone out and stolen the best people they can find."
Northern Trust has added four new private banking offices in Florida during the past five months. The majority of its Florida offices have opened in the last five years.
The newest office opened in April in Stuart, Fla. The others are in Bradenton, Bonita Springs, and Delray Beach.
Stuart is smack dab in the middle of what is shaping up to be a prime area for wealthy clients: Martin County. Mr. Marchman said the percentage of Martin households with investable assets of over $500,000 there is 6.33%, compared with an average of 4% in the Illinois counties in which Northern operates.
Northern traces the changing demographics of the state, then follows the money, he explained.
"In Naples people are complaining like crazy that it's just getting too crowded so they're moving to Bonita Springs," Mr. Marchman said.
"We want to be the first major player in these areas and lock up the market," he added.
Northern has mostly expanded in Florida by building offices rather than buying them. Last year, however, it bought Beach Bank in Vero Beach.
But it takes more than acquisitions to build a business base, Mr. Marchman said. But he said building is more economical, considering many banks are sold for two-and-a-half times book vale.
"That's a lot of money. You can do a lot in terms of facilities and staff with that money," he said.