WSFS Bank planned to add its glowing green logo to the Philadelphia skyline at 8:30 p.m. Monday on two sides of 1818 Market St., replacing Beneficial Bank and reinforcing its status as the largest bank still based in the Philadelphia area.
“I checked, and you’ll be able to see us from the stadiums to the boathouses,” said WSFS president Rodger Levenson, a Broomall native who took over the bank’s top job last year, shortly after it bought its way into Center City by agreeing to pay $1.5 billion in stock and cash for Beneficial.
Despite months of planning, customers jammed the bank’s toll-free assistance line an hour before many WSFS branches’ 5 p.m. closing time. “We are experiencing an unusually high call volume,” a recorded message told callers, warning the wait would be “more than 10 minutes.”
One caller, who described himself as a veteran Beneficial customer, said he tried that number, then called Beneficial’s old headquarters in frustration, but couldn’t get the payments confirmation he wanted. "I can’t talk to anybody,” he said, declining to give his name because he didn’t want to publicly bare his problems. "I’m going to change banks.”
Reader Terrence Sweeney says he’s been waiting for his new WSFS checks for more than six weeks, despite a promise two weeks ago to “look into it” from regional WSFS manager Charles Kueny. He said he is disappointed that WSFS has cut back Saturday hours at his local branch on Street Road in Hulmeville, Bucks County. (Added Aug. 27.)
Bank spokesman Jimmy Hernandez said WSFS was busy Monday morning with customers needing password resets, and fell during the day. "We will get to all those customers,” he promised.
Levenson said mergers are typically “disruptive,” and it’s not unusually for some customers to leave. But he insisted the Beneficial combination, his bank’s largest to date, had gone smoothly.
WSFS will use part of Beneficial’s old headquarters as its Philadelphia regional office. It converted Beneficial computer systems to its own last weekend.
With 90 branches across the Philadelphia area and Delaware (after closing nearly 30 duplicate branches), the enlarged WSFS serves customers with around $10 billion in business and consumer deposits, or 5 percent of the regional market (not counting corporate deposits).
WSFS trails out-of-town giants Wells Fargo, PNC, Citizens, TD, and Bank of America, while leading Bryn Mawr Trust, Univest, Republic, Firstrust, and smaller community banks.
Why do customers care where a bank is based, when they offer similar menus of loans, deposits, and investments? “This is the only market we focus on. We’re the alternative to the big guys," with top decision-makers nearby, Levenson said, adding that’s useful in landing big accounts.
As recently as the 1990s, Philadelphia-based regional banks were some of the region’s largest employers. The last and largest, CoreStates, including the former Philadelphia National, First Pennsylvania, Meridian, and Germantown Savings, employed 17,000, centered in Philadelphia, when it was sold to a predecessor of today’s Wells Fargo in 1997. Wells Fargo now employs around 5,000 in the region, including 2,000 in Philadelphia.
WSFS employs around 1,800 in all after trimming 71 jobs from Beneficial’s former headquarters in July and other staff. The bank plans to expand in the city as it adds customers, Levenson said. For example, Beneficial didn’t have its own “wealth management” group to advise investors; new jobs have been created to sell WSFS products to ex-Beneficial customers, and the home mortgage and business banking teams have also expanded. (Beneficial had spun off its Beneficial Advisors LLC unit, which managed $200 million, in 2018; the group joined LPL Financial.)
Levenson called the decline of local banking “sad,” noting that when Philadelphia was a banking center, banks were among the Philadelphia institutions where “important decisions were made with a deep understanding of their impact on our area” — what businesses to finance, which charities to back, which political and civic projects to support or oppose.
The banks were also blamed for the city’s problems. After years of “redlining” neighborhoods where lenders doubted poor, black or immigrant residents were likely to pay back mortgages, Philadelphia banks, pressured by the Federal Reserve Bank of Philadelphia and the 1977 Community Reinvestment Act, funded a string of first-time home-buyer programs. But many bank-backed programs have shrunk or unraveled as their sponsoring banks were sold and went out of business.
Both WSFS and Beneficial started out as depositor-owned financial institutions for working people, in the mid-1800s, when most banks were owned by and served rich merchants, shippers, and industrialists. After converting to share ownership in recent decades, WSFS grew to be the largest bank in Delaware, while Beneficial bought smaller banks in South Jersey and on the Main Line.
Beneficial, which as a depositor-owned bank was strongly identified with the city’s Irish Catholic community (Philadelphia Bishop St. John Neumann’s solemn portrait hung in the boardroom), was blocked from buying smaller banks in the early 2010s while the government investigated its lending record; it was cleared in time for the WSFS takeover.
Some longtime depositors were disappointed Beneficial sold out instead of growing as WSFS has; they blamed chief executive Gerard Cuddy, who will collect a total of $23 million in cash, stock, bonuses and severance for preparing the bank for sale, selling it, and agreeing to leave, plus millions more for other insiders -- while cutting hourly staff.
Along with the big Center City banks with branches in many neighborhoods, the number of local community banks has also “shrunk as a result of growing operating and regulatory costs, cybersecurity investments, and rapidly evolving customer expectations driven by technology,” Levenson said. But that makes it easier for survivors like WSFS: “Expert local knowledge is invaluable when we approve loans, offer new products, and support our communities."
As of Monday morning, former Beneficial customers had access to all WSFS online, mobile and remote banking services.
Among the senior Beneficial officials lately named to new jobs at WSFS: Charles Kueny, vice president and regional manager for Northeast Philly and Bucks Counties; Phil Corradino, senior VP and regional manager, South Jersey; Gregg Strongin, Small Business Administration loan program relationship manager; and Jennifer Bongiovanni and Stephen D’Andrea, mortgage loan officers.
(Added 8/27): A readers asked: What does WSFS stand for?
It’s not a radio station. The bank was founded in the 1830s as the Wilmington Savings Fund Society, modeled on the older Philadelphia Savings Fund Society, as was the 1850s Beneficial Savings Bank: all were depositor-owned “mutual” institutions; each gave up that status after 1980 (Beneficial after 2010) and became for-profit, shareholder-owned companies, as managers sought to raise capital and expand faster (or sell out and collect millions.)
Beneficial folklore credits Bishop Neumann with early support for the bank, so Catholic immigrants from Ireland and other countries had a friendly place to store their savings instead of having to ask their parish priests -- the only Americans they sometimes trusted.
PSFS failed due to bad real estate loans in the 1980s and was taken over by regulators and sold to Mellon Bank (and then to Citizens). WSFS survived a near-failure in the 1980s, then outlasted its larger Delaware rival, Wilmington Trust Corp., the onetime du Pont family bank, which was forced by regulators to sell itself at a deep discount to M&T Bank Corp. after suffering massive write-downs in the mortgage-lending crisis of the late 2000s. (Four of Wilmington Trust’s five top executives were sentenced to federal prison in January for failing to disclose the bank’s true losses; they are still free pending appeals.)
WSFS has maintained its independence while its contemporaries disappeared, thanks to a tough credit culture, and energetic, incrementally-acquisitive management, including the last two CEOs, Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, who raised new capital to prevent the bank’s failure in the early 1990s, and Mark Turner, who guided it through the Great Recession and picked up staff and customers from Wilmington Trust as the larger bank faltered.
The WSFS board includes the current Wawa CEO, Chris Gheysens, and a former Wawa executive who was Gheysens’ rival for the post, Eleuthere “There” du Pont, who heads his family’s Longwood Foundation, among other area business people.