TCF’s tough-guy CEO had a soft spot for working-class customers

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In a straight-laced industry, William Cooper stood out for his brazenness. The longtime chairman and CEO at TCF Financial, who died Tuesday at the age of 73, once sued the Federal Reserve and often used colorful language to describe Washington regulators.

But those who worked with Cooper — both as colleagues and competitors — say that beneath the rough exterior was a bank CEO who always maintained a soft spot for TCF’s working-class customer base.

Under Cooper, TCF, based in Wayzata, Minn., pioneered free checking and was one of the few banks in the country that offered evening hours and stayed open seven days a week — all in an effort to better serve what Cooper called the “Joe Lunch-Bucket crowd.”

“He always felt his role was to represent the average American,” said Richard Davis, the chairman and CEO of U.S. Bancorp in Minneapolis. Noting Cooper’s own blue-collar upbringing, Davis added, “He never really changed his stripes.”

Greg Pulles, a former colleague, said that seeing things from the customer’s point of view was one of Cooper’s strengths as a leader.

“Mondays were always exciting, because he would over the weekend call up the phone bank, and see how long it would take” to get his call answered, said Pulles, TCF’s general counsel from 1985 until 2011.

Cooper made it a priority to drive by “every darn billboard that was up” around town, Pulles said. If he couldn’t read them in two seconds, he would make his displeasure known to the bank’s marketing staff.

TCF announced Cooper’s death on Wednesday. A company spokesman said that he had been battling cancer. Cooper stepped down as CEO less than 14 months ago and handed the reins to protégé Craig Dahl. He was chairman at the time of his death.

TCF was on the verge of failing when Cooper, then in his early 40s, took the helm in 1985. Over the next three decades, he steered the bank through two crises and built it into a regional powerhouse through a series of acquisitions. The bank now has $21 billion of assets and nearly 340 branches in seven states.

Those who knew Cooper well described him as an innovator. In the early 1990s, when debit cards were new to the scene, he saw a business proposition — and quickly made a move. TCF began offering the cards to customers for free, making interchange revenue a key revenue source.

Cooper was also an early proponent of supermarket branches and extended hours. Joe Witt, president and CEO of the Minnesota Bankers Association, recalled an advertising campaign in which TCF used the slogan “Always Open.”

“He challenged the notion of what we think of as bankers’ hours,” Witt said.

Cooper was innovative on the lending side as well. A case in point: After the housing market crashed in 2008, TCF moved quickly to de-emphasize real estate and construction lending and focus on new business lines, including auto lending and specialty finance.

In the industry, Cooper was viewed as somewhat of a hero for taking on the Fed over its implementation of a provision in the Dodd-Frank Act that slashed interchange fees on card transactions for banks with more than $10 billion of assets. In the 2010 lawsuit, TCF argued that caps on swipe fees amounted to illegal price fixing. (At the time, TCF was the country’s 12th-largest issuer of Visa debit cards.) TCF eventually dropped the suit, but not before the Fed raised the caps to 21 cents from 12 cents.

Pulles said that Cooper’s upbringing shaped his worldview as a CEO.

“He didn’t just grow up poor,” Pulles said. “He was damned poor.”

Cooper was raised in Detroit. He often said that his big break in life was getting chosen to attend one of the city’s most select high schools.

Cooper worked as a beat cop during college, while he attended Wayne State University. He often worked overnight and on weekends so that he could take classes during the day.

"There were two men in a [patrol] car, and after around 3 o'clock in the morning there wasn't much going on," Cooper recalled, during a 2015 interview with American Banker. "We would just go park somewhere, and my partner would go to sleep and I'd do my homework."

After college he got a job in accounting. He then parlayed that experience in 1971 into a top job at Michigan National Bank in Detroit, and 14 years later he was recruited to run TCF.

Over the years, some have criticized TCF for pursuing a business model that relies heavily on overdraft fees — now an area of regulatory scrutiny.

The Consumer Financial Protection Bureau last month sued TCF, accusing it of tricking customers into signing up for overdraft protection policies. TCF has disputed the allegations and, in true Bill Cooper fashion, said it plans to fight the suit.

Alan Kline contributed to this story.

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