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Shore bank is snapping up competitors, moving into Philly and claiming to be taking N.J. business from big banks

OceanFirst in the past two years has also placed 50 people into a digital-banking group at its Toms River headquarters to communicate with customers by video. “If you’re not going to invest in these things,” CEO Christopher Maher says, "you won’t be here.”

Christopher Maher, CEO of OceanFirst
Christopher Maher, CEO of OceanFirstRead morecompany (custom credit)

As if Philly needs another bank: Christopher Maher’s looking for a local headquarters office in Center City.

He’s chief executive of OceanFirst, the Shore bank — based in Toms River — that bought Cape Bancorp in 2016, and added Sun Bancorp. and its offices from Vineland to Princeton last year. It also is “taking business away from Wells Fargo, PNC, TD and Santander” in South Jersey, Maher maintains. “We think we can do that here.” He recently hired a trio of TD Bank business lenders to help make it happen.

The Sun deal put Maher across the table from veteran deal makers. Sun CEO Thomas O’Brien had “turned the company around” since the last recession, Maher said, pleasing regulators and boosting the depressed stock to make it worth selling.

Wilbur Ross, the buyout artist who currently serves as President Trump’s commerce secretary, was a major Sun shareholder. So was the Brown family, owners of the NFI group of trucking and warehouse companies, among the top business families in South Jersey. After satisfying himself that OceanFirst could afford the deal, Ross waited until it closed, then sold his shares. The Browns kept theirs, but didn’t get a board seat, and are along for the ride under Maher.

Maher has been closing branches — a third of the company’s locations in recent years, American Banker reports — and opening select new ones. He closed Cape’s Rittenhouse Square outpost in 2016, “because we weren’t ready for Philadelphia.” Having studied the market, listened to family-business owners and hired some area banking veterans, Maher now says he’s ready to move his Newtown Square team into town, at a location he expects to pick this month.

So OceanFirst occupies somewhat the position where Vernon Hill’s Commerce Bank was 20 years ago, a big presence in South Jersey, muscling into Philly. Hill changed East Coast banking by speeding branch lines and simplifying services, Maher says. But “community banking is not as easy as it was.” Big banks learned from Hill and improved their branch and digital services.

Like rival WSFS Financial Group, which recently purchased Philadelphia’s Beneficial Bank, OceanFirst is pouring the money saved from branch cuts into upgrading its digital banking and security services. Customers who do one online transaction a month show “stratospherically high” satisfaction with their banks, Maher says. So that transaction better work smoothly.

Maher notes that OceanFirst, WSFS and giant JPMorgan Chase & Co are among the banks adding offices in Philadelphia. They’re doing it not because the city is growing — it trails cities in Texas, Florida and other markets — but because banks like Wells Fargo (whose CEO, Tim Sloan, resigned last week after two years of scandals over the bank’s aggressive branch marketing), PNC, Citizens and TD are in his opinion too big to serve regional and small businesses efficiently.

He praises FirstTrust, Univest and Bryn Mawr Trust among the Philly-area banks that remains competitive. But that leaves plenty of opportunity, Maher insists. “We’re in a scale business and a consolidating industry.” WIth $8 billion in loans and other banking assets, OceanFIrst trails WSFS but is larger than the other locally-based banks.

OceanFirst in the past two years has placed 50 people into a digital-banking group at its Toms River headquarters to communicate with customers by video. “If you’re not going to invest in these things,” Maher says, "you won’t be here.”

Citing a report showing there is more property (by value) at risk from increased flooding in New Jersey than any other state, I asked Maher if he was moving inland to avoid the liability of writing more 30-year mortgages in a flood-prone area.

Maher says New Jersey is actually better equipped to face high waters than other coastal markets. “We learned a lot from Sandy,” he told me. By spreading its risks with other banks and turning around properties fast, his company’s losses were limited. “But we had to become expert in land values.”

Jersey shore towns’ advantage includes their density, the small, urban-sized lots, and the many builders ready to make repairs and elevate houses relatively faster than in other beach resorts. “If you don’t want that waterfront house, someone will come around and raise it 14 feet. A well-built house won’t have that level of damage.”

One big challenge is to ensure Shore towns enforce the new, tougher building codes. The biggest Sandy losses fell on owners without flood insurance, often retired people who owned their homes free and clear and didn’t have a bank to nag them about insurance. Even when homes were wrecked and owners unable to fix them, the lots sold relatively fast given continued strong area demand. Maher said the bank’s hundreds of home reconstruction loans since Sandy “have performed beautifully.”

Shore business patterns have been tougher to fix. Maher estimates half the barrier island restaurants in the state were damaged by Sandy. They have rebuilt, but who wants to walk up two flights of stairs for dinner? Maher says owners have been careful to move their freezers and other equipment to the highest parts of their buildings to avoid damage.

The bank also stepped in to keep key Shore-area businesses running during the late 2000s recession. It owned the Renault winery, golf course and hotel, largest employer in Egg Harbor Township, for three years, keeping the doors open and making the many decisions a liquor business has to make until a buyer could be arranged.

Maher takes credit for keeping open Whitehaven Lumber, a major Shore building supplier that’s now “bigger than ever.” He’s specially proud of the transistor-shaped former Bell Labs office center in Holmdel. Abandoned by Bell successor Lucent, developers couldn’t get major banks to lend. OceanFirst stepped up and the complex is now a major tech employer. Maher says the town of Holmdel understood the value of the project and made permits and tax arrangements simpler, instead of getting in the way as suburban towns often do.

A former depositor-owned mutual savings bank (like WSFS and Beneficial), OceanFirst is five percent owned by a charitable foundation that uses its dividends to donate college scholarships, emergency food supplies and more.

Even though it’s growing slowly, Philadelphia is still the sixth-largest U.S. metro area, Maher concludes. “We don’t need a big piece of the pie to do quite well.”