During a meeting last week at the Firstrust Bank branch in Southampton, Bucks County, Terry D'Alessandro, head of retail banking since June, asked manager Susan Schneider whether she was concerned about any of the branch's sales goals for 2011.
Schneider, a 25-year Firstrust employee and a vice president, had one: new checking accounts, which are a crucial source of deposits for banks because little, if any, interest is paid on them.
"It's hard to move people from their checking account," said Schneider, referring to the challenge of motivating customers to switch.
If that turns out to be a problem, D'Alessandro assured Schneider, the bank might be able to make a special offer to win customers.
D'Alessandro's 15-minute conference with Schneider Tuesday showed the veteran banking executive working to instill a stronger sales culture at Firstrust, which was started in 1934 and is still owned by the founding Green family.
"If you look at checking accounts per salesperson or loan applications per salesperson, there's a lot of room there to do more," said D'Alessandro, 59, who started her career as a teller at the Ardmore branch of Main Line Federal Savings in 1970.
After Main Line Federal was bought by Sovereign Bancorp in 1998, she stayed, serving for a time as chief executive for the region.
D'Alessandro, who prefers bright colors over somber banker gray, left Sovereign in September 2009 and intended to explore new fields - until a chance meeting with Firstrust president Tim Abell led to her new job as executive vice president and director of community banking.
Like all banks, Firstrust, with 24 local offices, took its lumps during the economic downturn. But it got through without posting a money-losing year, and without taking a government bailout or other outside investment.
Today, Firstrust has more capital than it had five years ago, helped by the Green family's decision to forgo dividends in all but two quarters from the summer of 2007 through this year's first quarter, according to the Conshohocken-based bank's quarterly reports to the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
"The Greens are not going to take any distributions if they feel we need to increase our capital," Abell said.
As a privately held institution, Firstrust operates on a timescale not possible for its publicly traded rivals. This year, the bank is completing a "five-year visionary period." As a reward for their strong performances, employees are getting 20 percent bonuses based on average salaries for the period, Abell said.
The bank has a strong pipeline of loans for next year, he said, but also plans to expand with two operations: a Small Business Administration lending arm and a residential-mortgage division.
D'Alessandro's efforts are all about getting more out of Firstrust's branches, which as a whole are not performing to capacity, she said.
"I had shopped Firstrust before I joined, so that I actually looked at the experience from a customer's perspective," she said. "We're really great at servicing and very friendly, but nobody really asked me to open a checking account. So I thought, this is really a good opportunity."
After starting at Firstrust and talking to branch employees about their goals and how they were doing, she found another problem.
"They didn't really know. They thought they were doing OK" even if they weren't, D'Alessandro said.
Mort Kolman and Ann Mulderig, the top managers at Firstrust's Krewstown branch in Northeast Philadelphia, were among the exceptions, D'Alessandro said.
That branch is the bank's biggest by deposits, not counting the headquarters in Conshohocken. Its $182 million in deposits as of June 30 made it the biggest retail branch in the 19115 zip code.
Mulderig and Kolman, who was hired 45 years ago by founder Samuel Green, were excited last week about a new customer, a church that borrowed $850,000 to buy an industrial building for conversion into worship space.
The bank managers had to overcome resistance to the loan because it was for more money than credit policy typically would allow.
"This was an opportunity for us to grow our area" through exposure to 160 professional families, Mulderig said.
After being convinced the loan was a good idea, D'Alessandro pushed it.
"What's great about the culture," she said, "is I just walk across the hall to Tim Abell and say, 'We've got this really great deal. We really want to do it. Let's look at it again,' and we do."
Tom Varughese, a representative of Christos Mar Thoma Church, said the bank lent $100,000 more than its normal loan-to-value standard would have allowed.
"They got to know us, and they felt comfortable," he said.