Wintrust Financial Corp. has long been called the biggest Chicago banking company that no one has ever heard of, but that could soon change.
The $15 billion-asset multibank holding company is in the midst of a large-scale campaign to market and leverage its own brand alongside its longtime hyperlocal approach of selling itself.
"We are a consortium of community banks and we are going to remain a consortium of community banks," Edward J. Wehmer, the company's president and CEO, said in an interview on Monday. "But collectively, we are the second-biggest bank headquartered in Chicago and, in a commoditized market, we need to differentiate ourselves."
Wintrust has 15 charters across the Chicago area and it operates under more than 50 bank names. For instance, Community Bank of Downers Grove is a branch of Hinsdale Bank and Trust Co.
Wehmer said localization has been one of Wintrust's biggest strengths, since it brings a familiarity to the experience and reflects the diversity of Chicago's neighborhoods and suburban markets.
Wehmer said he likes "to think of us as the 'Cheers' of banking," referring to the television bar that seemingly knew the name of every patron. "Our model also fits the Chicago market, which is just a big melting pot."
In coming months, each bank will be given the tagline "A Wintrust Community Bank." Alongside new marketing, customers will be able to access funds across the network. For now, Wintrust has radio spots and billboards touting a message that it is "Big enough for you to have it all. Small enough to care."
Wintrust also bought a highly visible 11-story office building in Rosemont, a suburb near Chicago O'Hare International Airport. The 275,000 square-foot building will be Wintrust's corporate headquarters, replacing Lake Forest, Ill. Various departments, now spread across the organization, will be consolidated there. It will also have Wintrust marquees visible on two busy highways.
Wehmer appears to thrive on duality, if not conflicted by it. On Monday, he discussed a desire to make Wintrust the predominate Chicago bank, but also expressed fears that too much focus on being big could be detrimental. "We can't lose sight of our identity as a community bank. The minute we start thinking like we are big, we are dead," he said.
Wintrust will have to be nimble at rolling out the dual strategy, said John Mathes, the director of brand services at Bancography, a bank consulting firm. "They are trying to play both sides of the fence and the ability to strike a nice balance will be key," he said.
Mathes said the company must commit to investing in a Wintrust-specific brand, rather than just a tagline.
"This could just add another layer of confusion and consumers are already so bombarded by all the noise in the market," Mathes said. "This adds a little more complexity, so for it to work they will have to invest in that Wintrust brand."
Dual branding is not unprecedented. About five years ago, Synovus Financial Corp. in Columbus, Ga., cobranded itself with the dozens of banks it owned. Synovus, however, went a step further in June 2010, consolidating more than 30 banks under a single charter. (The banks retained local brands.)
Mathes said that the Synovus strategy has largely gone unnoticed because, beyond a tagline, it didn't invest to build the brand. "The man on the street still has no idea who the heck Synovus is," he said.
A call to Synovus was not immediately returned.
Wintrust has emblazoned its name on several products and business lines, including its downtown Chicago commercial lending team, its mortgage division and wealth management. Mathes said those are good examples of building brand value.
Matthew Doubleday, a senior vice president of marketing at Wintrust, said that the dual branding strategy stems from the financial crisis.
"With 300 bank failures, customers were coming in and asking, 'are you guys OK?' " Doubleday said. "When we said 'Yes, we have Wintrust behind us and they have lots of capital,' they would ask 'who is that and when did they buy you'? "
Wintrust's banks are a mix of de novos and acquisitions. It went on a buying hiatus in 2006 until this summer when it agreed to buy Elgin State Bancorp Inc. in Illinois. It also has bought three failed banks, two mortgage companies and an asset manager in the past year.
Its most notable failed-bank acquisition was for the $959 million-asset First Chicago Bank and Trust in July. Since then, Wintrust's Northbrook Bank and Trust Co. has been involved in litigation with First Chicago Bancorp over ownership of the bank unit name.
First Chicago Bancorp believes it owns the trademark, according to a lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Illinois. Northbrook said in the lawsuit that it bought the name as part of its deal with Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. Northbrook wants a declaratory judgment.
First Chicago Bancorp had no comment.
Wehmer declined to discuss the case, but analysts said Wintrust could want to brand some operations under that name, or maybe it just doesn't want anyone else to have it. While this iteration of the First Chicago moniker failed, the last First Chicago Bank, sold to Bank One Corp. in 1998, was beloved in the Windy City.
"The First Chicago name does carry a lot of cachet. There is a lot of history there and it really resonates with businesses and consumers," said Brad Milsaps, an analyst at Sandler O'Neill & Partners LP. "Whatever their intentions are, it is certainly worth protecting."