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How Philly lost its big banks, and a little survivor that’s grown in the vacuum

From the fall of CoreStates to the success of WSFS, two new books go behind the scenes of Philly’s banks.

The building, on Broad Street between City Hall and Chestnut Street, was once owned by Philadelphia National Bank. Until 2014, it retained the 16-foot-high "PNB" letters.
The building, on Broad Street between City Hall and Chestnut Street, was once owned by Philadelphia National Bank. Until 2014, it retained the 16-foot-high "PNB" letters.Read moreTom Gralish / Staff Photographer

Philly’s big banks lived for generations. That includes Girard and Fidelity, Provident and PSFS, and especially the grandest and toughest, PNB and First Pennsylvania, whose combination as CoreStates was designed to keep Philadelphia in business as the nation’s oldest financial center.

These big banks funded factories, transport, and trade, taught school kids to save, guarded fortunes, decided who in the divided city got to buy property and who had to rent, intervened in public crises, and hired armies of workers, many of them low-paid women with little power but vast responsibilities.

These banks all vanished in the merger mania of the 1980s and 1990s, amid mass layoffs that emptied Center City office towers. The biggest bank still based in the metro area is now Delaware’s WSFS, which bought its way into the vacuum left by the passing of the big lenders after enduring its own near-death experiences.

As it happens, Charles Coltman III, the No. 2 executive at CoreStates when it vanished in a $20 billion 1997 merger, and Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, the man who saved WSFS from a near-shutdown, then a threatened takeover, have now published memoirs giving their insider accounts of the news events of more than a quarter century ago. What can we learn?

CoreStates: The last bank standing

In A Banker’s Journey (Outskirts Press), Coltman sketches his adventures as a young PNB agent shuttling between dictators and traders in Asia; his rise though a deceptively easy-mannered but high-pressure meritocracy; and a tough but supple credit culture that he argues has been stripped, leaving promising businesses without hope of healthy funding, by rigid regulators captive to the Wall Street mega-banks.

Coltman also aims to correct what he perceives as an unfair legend blaming his old boss, CoreStates CEO Terrence Larsen, for bungling a deal to acquire Maryland National, which might have made CoreStates too big to get acquired; for letting himself get intimidated by Wall Street investors, who wanted the bank sold for a fast payday; and for choosing North Carolina-based First Union National Bank as the buyer, over a potentially sweeter offer from Pennsylvania’s own Mellon.

In fact, Coltman writes, Maryland National’s late boss, Cleveland Browns owner Alfred Lerner, refused to sell Maryland National’s key asset — the future credit card giant MBNA — and just wanted to unload its doomed home-loan business. The New York brokerage analysts, led by Nancy Bush, were indeed influential figures whose disapproval hurt CoreStates stock and forced it toward a takeover. And the First Union offer really was the highest available — at six times the bank’s book value, a good deal for shareholders who wanted to grab the money and run, not minding the damage to employees, customers, and the city.

Coltman also calls Larsen ahead of his time for his long and detailed campaign to push his lieutenants to hire and advance more women and people of color into management, in a period when diversity was not in fashion at regional banks — though with limited success.

And he shows how the bank’s sale proved a disaster. It wasn’t just that Ed Crutchfield, the First Union boss, insisted he could cut nearly half of CoreStates’ costs (axing 10,000 jobs), while boosting profits by 20% (he couldn’t). It was also the way the new managers showed a conqueror’s contempt in ignoring CoreStates veterans’ warnings, made costly and avoidable mistakes (like betting big on the Money Store, a shaky lender CoreStates had turned down), and driving away key people. First Union, rebranded Wachovia, collapsed in the 2008 financial crisis and is now part of Wells Fargo & Co.

Beyond the scope of the book is the larger question of why Philadelphia bankers, so strong for so long, lost public influence, their sense of personal responsibility, and the moral will to excel, leaving a hole in the city’s leadership.

Coltman does note, without much explaining, how three bankers who were offered the top CoreStates job — Richard Ravenscroft, Rosemarie Greco, and Coltman himself — refused the responsibility. Another who might have succeeded, payment-cards pioneer Bipin Shah, was forced out, in one of the power struggles Coltman details. Shah left the sinking ship of Philadelphia commercial banking and made fortunes in digital payments. He died in September.

WSFS: The bank that lived

Schoenhals’ is a narrower but happier tale. His self-published memoir, From Failing to Phenomenal, tells of the near-failure and rescue of Wilmington Savings Fund Society (WSFS) from the savings-and-loan crisis of the early 1990s.

Schoenhals’ book, cowritten with Brittany Kriegstein, is, like Coltman’s, part life story. It goes on to recount the rescue takeover of the badly over-extended former Wilmington Savings Fund Society by canny investors who put the well-connected, straight-arrow manager in charge. And it shows how he avoided their plan to resell the bank for a fast profit, won time to rebuild the staff and its credit culture, and boost its stock to stay independent..

While WSFS recovered as Philly’s banks vanished in the ‘90s, there’s a more recent moral lesson, in WSFS’s eclipse of Delaware’s once-dominant Wilmington Trust Co. At a reception in Wilmington on Dec. 12, Schoenhals recalled how he had limited developer loans to just over 10% of his bank’s portfolio on the eve of the Great Recession — vs. Wilmington Trust’s 40%, enough to sink that bigger company when land values fell. But that story isn’t in this book; he plans a sequel.