Banking isn’t what it was, and Gerard M. Banmiller is getting out. It is 50 years after he joined the old Girard Bank at its Roman-temple headquarters (now a Ritz-Carlton Hotel) on Philly’s South Broad Street, 32 years after he started his first South Jersey bank, and 20 years after he opened the one he still runs, 1st Colonial Community Bank, which helped fund the revitalization of Collingswood, at least until Banmiller’s little break with the mayor. More on that later.
Banmiller grew up within smelling distance of Norristown’s Elmwood Park Zoo. He played football for little Bishop Kenrick in the tough old Philadelphia Catholic League (“Cardinal Dougherty’s band guys were bigger than we were. We got the crap kicked out of us.”) and graduated from Villanova in liberal arts with honors.
“The guy who hired me at Girard told me I wouldn’t last. Too arrogant,” he says, laughing. “We used to call it the Blue-Haired Ladies Bank, with those branches up the Main Line. Then I was recruited over Midlantic [National Bank], which financed the first casino in Atlantic City,” Resorts International, which opened in 1978.
Did he ever lend to President Donald Trump’s star-crossed casinos? Banmiller laughed some more. No more than his South Jersey rival, the former Commerce Bank, whose boss, Vernon Hill, Trump’s sometimes golf buddy, declined to finance Trump’s doomed-to-bankruptcy gambling halls, either. Hill made loans only to businesses he knew he could collect from, Banmiller noted.
Banmiller was of a generation of cocky lenders who made money as Reagan deregulation made business easier and then built banks of their own, hoping to sell at fat profits. He started Community National Bank in 1987, sold it to Hudson United 12 years later, and started 1st Colonial, as if for an encore.
Bankers were still collegial in those years. Rival lenders would lunch together, golf a round, talk over dinner. When you got beat for a loan, “you slapped the other guy on the back and went out and had a drink. Nowadays it’s cutthroat. They take it personally when you beat them. When they beat you, they revel in it.”
With his resonant pipes, Banmiller has the proverbial “voice for radio.” He used it in a string of manically grouchy radio ads. One reveled in dissing his kids’ generation (he has three daughters and five grandchildren, all in Camden County). “The Zombie Apocalypse is upon us,” Banmiller boomed. It’s the millennials: “They are on their smartphones. They walk into walls. They fall into ponds.” He defended old-fashioned banking, with its plain, useful mortgages and deposits. He refused “to adjust to their expectations” in matters of mere style.
And he closed with the sound he attributed to banks that caved in to the millennial menace: a pack of snarling dogs — a dig at Hill’s old Commerce Bank (and his current Republic Bank), which famously invited savers to bring their pets indoors.
Banmiller says he fielded “vicious complaints” on that ad, especially. One threatened a reverse age discrimination lawsuit. But “I’d been through enough compliance examinations to weather the storm.”
The ads worked, Banmiller said, for the same reason that President Trump’s outrageous statements work: They rally fans. “Trump has a loyal base of voters, and I have a loyal base of customers.” Especially millionaires: For a bank with just half a billion dollars in loans and other assets, “we have three full pages of accounts with more than the FDIC coverage,” for people who trust Banmiller’s bank with more than the federally insured maximum $250,000 insured deposits.
Though other banks have expressed interest — most recently OceanFirst, which has been expanding from the Shore into the Philadelphia region, as if a rising Atlantic were driving them west — Banmiller’s board has never yet gotten an offer it couldn’t refuse. He will step down next fall. A successor search is underway.
“What’s the matter with South Jersey?” I asked. Hiring and office vacancies trail behind Philadelphia and its suburbs. Are the taxes too high?
“South Jersey has gone sideways,” he agreed. But it’s not high taxes, which vary from town to town. To be sure, Republican towns generally charge less. But the real problem, to Banmiller, is “a matter of no competition” among the shrunken ranks of local bankers.
He says it’s not low-interest rates or small business trends that encourage expansion and borrowing. It’s bank loan officers, who boost business owner confidence and persuade them to borrow with persistent, creative attention. When one or more lenders are hungry enough to ease loan terms a bit, it makes rivals work harder — and more people borrow, spurring growth. “You have to have legions of soldiers, knocking on doors.”
Banmiller lives near Hill’s sprawling Villa Collina, a modern Moorestown mansion as big as a strip mall. Banmiller denies he was actually planning to shoot Hill’s helicopter with his 30.-06 hunting rifle the morning he called his wife to bring it to him when its “thump, thump, thump” interrupted his Sunday morning soak with cigar and brandy glass. (His office is studded with hunting trophies, including the multipoint buck he brought down in the Alberta Rockies one morning “at 10 below zero.”)
I asked Banmiller why rich people such as Trump and Hill sometimes gain a reputation for haggling over small bills. Is it really that contractors are always trying to rip them off? No: “For them, it’s a game,” he told me.
That’s not a reputation Banmiller cultivated. “Our line is, ‘We’re nice people with money.’ I ride that as hard as we can. Of course, everybody says that. But I know my customers,” he said. "We have one” — a construction contractor — “who keeps $20 million in his account. His controller asked him one day, ‘Do you realize what would happen [to those uninsured deposits] if that bank failed?’ He said, ‘Yes. Banmiller would have one of my front-end loaders drive through his living room.’”
They trust each other, but also watch each other closely, these Jersey guys.
“I rely on the integrity of the people around me,” Banmiller said. “They’ve been with me 20 years, 30 years.” Customers and senior staff. “I don’t like chasing business I don’t know. I don’t like a learning curve. I know who I can trust.”
What will he leave behind? “Drive down the main drag of Collingswood. A lot of those businesses, we funded them. Villa Barone, that Italian joint everyone likes? My wife’s accounting office was right across the street. She’s very Italian. And very busy. Vincenzo Barone cooked her lunch and sent it to her. He’s very entrepreneurial. Classic South Philly. He accommodates his customers. Puts service above and beyond. He doesn’t say he’s ‘too busy.’ He gets his kid to deliver. He appreciates business. So he now owns three or four restaurants. And he puts one hell of a product out.”
Banmiller has nothing but nice things to say about Collingswood Mayor Jim Maley. “He was one hell of a cheerleader for Collingswood. He hired a bus to drive restaurateurs up Haddon Avenue and show them the possibilities. A very active mayor.” Banmiller lived there. His bank was there. But they don’t talk much anymore.
Banmiller says his old friendly competitor Vito Pantilione’s ParkeBank lured away Maley’s law practice and the town accounts. “I’m sure Vito made a deal that’s fair and above board.” But naturally, Banmiller and Maley, “we don’t throw rocks at each other, but we’re not as close. We are two huge egos. When I saw that [ParkeBank] sign go up [on Maley’s law office project] next to my bank, which I built, brick by brick,” Banmiller decided maybe the town wasn’t big enough anymore. His office is now in Cherry Hill.
“The bank has been a huge help for the town, a great asset to the community, and it’s all due to him,” Mayor Maley told me, wishing his ex-banker “the best.”
What needs to change in South Jersey? “I’d try to diversify the politics a little bit. I’d like to see the Democrats get some competition for offices or mayoral elections. It’s dominated by one party.” Though, “I’ve never been turned down just because I was a Republican.”
I asked Banmiller about his Maserati out front. “It’s like driving in a living room,” Banmiller purrs. It cost a little less than his back doctor’s Mercedes S (and not quite as much as his last house in Collingswood).