After Betsy Z. Cohen sold Philadelphia's old Jefferson Bank 10 years ago, she puzzled over how her next bank could win business without the expense of branches or the profit-eating struggle of Internet-based competition.
The result is Bancorp Bank, a $1.8 billion-asset, Wilmington- and Philadelphia-based company that numbers Legg Mason Inc., SEI Investments Inc., Independence Blue Cross and Western Union Co. among its clients.
Bancorp is invisible to many of its users. It collects the money Independence Blue Cross members put in health-savings accounts, low-wage workers put in Western Union prepaid debit cards, and SEI and Legg Mason clients move in and out of their savings and loan accounts.
It also lends to Philadelphia-area developers and small-business owners; delivery businesses are a specialty.
Bancorp is only slightly profitable, partly because banking is like that these days, but also because it's in expansion mode. Last week, it paid about $9 million for a $100-million-asset federally chartered savings bank belonging to bankrupt subprime lender American Home Mortgage Holdings Inc., of Chicago. Cohen says the national charter will make it easier to attract national clients.
SEI and SunGard Data Systems Inc. built similar grab-bag financial-tech conglomerates in their early days. Cohen prefers a comparison with the information-technology arms of banking giants Citigroup Inc. and JPMorgan Chase & Co., which she says are her main competitors.
Sound complicated? "We like complicated," Cohen said. "It's a barrier to entry" by would-be competitors. And still a lot cheaper than "building new branches on Walnut Street."
Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo, ambassador to the United States from the Arab nation of Bahrain, stopped by Philadelphia this week "to promote our country" and its three-year-old Free Trade Agreement with the United States.
Nonoo's not what Americans might expect in an ambassador from a mostly Muslim Arab country: She's a member of one of Bahrain's few but prominent Jewish families, noted Joseph Jacovini, chairman of law firm Dilworth Paxson L.L.P., which hosted a reception for Nonoo (Jacovini represents The Inquirer, among other corporate clients.)
Bahrain is about as big as Delaware County, and a little more crowded. It lies between conservative Saudi Arabia (run by Sunni Muslims, like Bahrain's ruling family) and radical Iran (run by rival Shia Muslims, like Bahrain's majority). There's a big U.S. military base in Bahrain.
"We were the first to find oil in the Gulf, in 1932," she told the lawyers. "And we're the first to realize we're going to be running out of oil soon."
So Bahrain has tried to make itself "one of the major financial hubs in the Middle East," she said. It's developed a small textile industry. It's looking for more.
What does she think of Muslim backlash against Bahrain's liberal ways?
"Bahrain has always been a very welcoming country," she said. "Very religious people say some things in Bahrain shouldn't be happening. . . . But the beautiful thing about Bahrain is, you have a choice. You want to drink, you drink. You want to cover, you cover." And women can drive, unlike in Saudi Arabia.
Bahrain is already a big importer of Boeing Co. airliners and General Motors Corp. cars. What can Bahrain import from Philadelphia? "We're looking for finance, education, information technology. Real estate expertise. Hotels and tourism." And law firms? they asked her. "And law firms," she agreed.
Zipcar Inc., the for-profit "carshare" rental firm that's been battering PhillyCarShare Inc. and other nonprofit urban rent-a-rides, expects to make money for the first time in the third quarter, and its investors could cash out in an initial public offering next year, says Bloomberg News.
Carshares use software and neighborhood parking spaces instead of expensive local offices to match vehicles and drivers; they can afford to charge lower rates. Now Hertz and other mainstream rentals are getting into the business. So selling the firm, either in an IPO or to a competitor like Hertz, will allow backers like Silicon Valley's Greylock Partners, Benchmark Capital, and AOL founder Steve Case to cash out.
"Zipcar has no plans for a sale and no immediate plans for an IPO," said spokeswoman Nancy Lyon. "We will cross over into profitability this year."