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Citizens Bank shares up; smaller branches planned

"The customer wants everything," sighs CEO Van Saun

Shares of Citizens Financial Group are up 13 percent since the bank's initial public stock offering (IPO) on the New York Stock Exchange last September. That beats the KBW Index of big-bank stocks, which has been flat, as bank profits have been squeezed by low interest rates.

Last Wednesday, Citizens sold a second chunk of shares, at $23.75 a share, and has since moved above $24, as mutual funds joined last fall's hedge funds among Citizens' lead investors.

Citizens, a Rhode Island company which locally operates the Philadelphia area's third-largest bank branch (after Wells Fargo and PNC) and naming right sto the Phillies stadium, is a "turnaround" story, says Bruce Van Saun, the New Jersey native who serves as Citizens' chief executive officer. Rising share values shows "our strategy is working, and investors want to own the stock," he told me, citing two quarters as a public company posting higher profits.

Past owner Royal Bank of Scotland, ordered by regulators to divest its U.S. assets as part of a bailout, will be down to just 42% (corrected) ownership by the time the underwriters' trades clear. The company felt starved for capital as RBS struggled to stay solvent since the 2008 financial crisis. "Citizens was undermanaged as part of RBS. We've got a good team, a good plan,: says Van Saun. He's hired a team of New York bankers -- Eric Abouaf, from Citi, as CFO; Don McCree, from JPMorgan, to run commercial banking.

Citizens has 166 branches in the Philadelphia area, many inherited from long-vanished PSFS and Girard Banks. That's down from 179 locally ten years ago. "The number of points of presence we have now is about right," Van Saun says. "We do need to work on the size. There is too much space in a typical branch. It's configured the way banking was done yesterday and not how banking needs to be done. We are shrinking the square footage. We will have more private meeting space to meet with specialists, and less devoted to teller platforms," since more people now bank online.

"But the customer wants everything," he acknowledged. "They want the branch, and a great mobile experience, and a good online capacity, 24/7. We need to work hard to make each of those channels work for our customers."

With a branch network spreading from New England into the Midwest, Van Saun spends a lot of time on the road. "I'll be in Philadelphia for the Philllies' Opening Day, April 6."