The Client Comes First
Ted Peters, Chairman & CEO, Bryn Mawr Trust Company
Unlike most bank presidents, Ted Peters isn’t hidden away from public view in an upstairs corner suite. Instead, his offi ce is just off the main floor of the Bryn Mawr Trust Company, with full access to any client. This is more than a symbolic gesture on the part of Peters. Openness, access, and client satisfaction characterize his fundamental approach to the banking business.
“I could easily be upstairs,” Peters told me. “But we’re still a regional community bank, and lots of people stop by and say hello all the time. I want to be visible and accessible.”
Local business people founded the Bryn Mawr Trust Company in 1889. In 1955 the company merged with the Bryn Mawr National Bank. For years the firm has connoted longevity, strength, and security in the Philadelphia area.
Peters became CEO of Bryn Mawr Trust in 2001. The company’s longtime chief executive was retiring, and Peters, who had previously started and then sold a couple of banks, was contacted about his interest. He threw his hat into the ring, although at the time, he said, “I joked that the only thing I knew about ‘trust’ was that it had five letters.”
Perhaps so, but during his last eight years at the helm Peters has grown the bank impressively. Assets were $400 million when he came on board; they now total $1.2 billion. In the 16 years before he became CEO, Bryn Mawr Trust hadn’t built a single new branch. They’ve opened four in the last six years.
“We’ve accomplished a lot,” Peters said, “but at the same time, we want to make sure we maintain the quality of the brand.
“We don’t have customers,” he continued, “we have clients. We’re not selling money, we’re selling relationships. We’ve always had a great sense of caring for the community and for the clients. We’re known for obsessive service.”
When Bryn Mawr Trust recently conducted surveys of client satisfaction, the firm conducting the surveys thought the data was wrong. “They had never seen scores that high,” Peters said. “Some 99% of clients were happy with the bank.”
Bryn Mawr Trust promotes not just a culture of client service, but also of employee satisfaction. “We have a tremendous community here,” Peters noted. “Employee dinners, picnics, softball teams, holiday parties. The Bank is like a family to our employees. It’s important to treat people fairly, pay them fairly, and give them job security.”
Bryn Mawr Trust has two main businesses. It’s a community bank with nine full-service branches. The community bank includes a mortgage and insurance company. It also runs a trust company, which helps people manage assets and trusts, and companies set up 401K and pension plans. The company is well known for it’s fiduciary trust, which manages trusts, wills, and estates. The wealth management part of Bryn Mawr Trust oversees some $2.3 billion in assets.
A publicly traded company listed on NASDAQ, Bryn Mawr Trust also has a large business with local non-profit organizations. Its nonprofit practice includes private schools, colleges and universities, churches, synagogues, social service agencies, clubs, museums, and civic and fraternal organizations.
Did Peters dream of becoming a bank CEO as a kid?
“Not at all,” he replied. “I thought I was going to be a college lacrosse coach.”
Peters calls himself “a typical Philadelphian. I’ve never lived more than five miles from where I was born, which was Bryn Mawr Hospital, except for Amherst College in New England for four years.”
After attending the Haverford School and graduating from Amherst in 1972, Peters taught school for four years. Then, in his mid-twenties, he joined the commercial lending training program at Philadelphia National Bank and over four years worked his way up. In 1984, bitten by the entrepreneurial bug, he and some of his clients got together and decided to start their own bank.
“I look back and think that we must have been crazy,” Peters said. “We had no idea what we were doing. I was 34, already had three kids, and my wife was pregnant. I had a very good job at IVB as a regional vice president. It couldn’t have been a nicer place to work, but we just had this idea about starting something up.”
Peters took the risk. He left the bank, set up an office in his basement, raised capital, got a charter, and found a site in Wayne for the National Bank of the Main Line. They did very well. “For years, we were the most profitable new bank east of the Mississippi.”
After seven years, Peters and his partners sold the bank to a holding company in Harrisburg. Peters worked for the company, but he was used to calling his own shots. Once again, he caught the entrepreneurial bug. “This time I was really crazy,” he recalled, “because I was doing very well.”
Peters left the holding company and started the First Main Line Bank above a hoagie shop in Paoli. He and his corporate partner opened branches, built assets, and grew the bank to over $200 million in assets. It was merged into a holding company upon his departure to Bryn Mawr Trust.
Peters, who was just elected to the board of the Philadelphia Federal Reserve in January, 2010, has this advice for aspiring CEOs.
“Sometimes it can be lonely at the top. Surround yourself with people who will tell you exactly what they think. I have a CFO who’s a brilliant guy, we’re good friends, and yet we go at it all the time. You have to be open and willing to accept criticism and admit mistakes. If you screw up, tell people. I’ve screwed up plenty of times.
“And to be a successful entrepreneur,” he added, “you have to be a selfstarter. I’m out two or three nights a week talking to groups and meeting new people. I have lunch and breakfast every day with people I’ve never met before and love it.”
Peters said it’s also important to keep your work in perspective and not take it too seriously. “I remind myself that there”s a billion Chinese who haven’t heard of the Bryn Mawr Trust Company. We’re in a serious business, but it’s also important to enjoy what you’re doing.”
Earlier in his career, Peters did all the detail work. His typical day now is the big picture: “Where do we expand and how do we do it? Do we start a new company? Do we make an acquisition? I leave the details to others. There’s nothing better than growing and winning deals and building the business.
“My job is to turn it over to the next person in better shape than when I got it. I’ve taken something good and hopefully have made it stronger, bigger, and more profitable. Being CEO is really a form of stewardship. I want to walk away and say, ‘I’m proud of what I did.'”
Peters believes the recent abuses by CEOs are in the bigger public companies and are committed by perhaps 1% of chief executives.
“I’ve never seen such egregious abuses before, but they’re committed by a small number of CEOs. The American people get upset, and rightfully so, when someone runs a company into the ground and then walks away with a huge compensation package. The problem lies not only with the CEOs, but also with boards and compensation committees that are not paying attention and doing their duty to the shareholders.
“We should go to the Japanese or British model,” Peters continued, “and set a limit on CEO compensation. In big companies we have crazy numbers. CEOs were traditionally paid 20 or 30 times the average compensation of employees, but in some companies that’s moved up to 300 or 500 times the average pay.”
While Peters has always worked very hard throughout his career, he’s never sacrificed his family or personal life.
“I had four daughters who were active in sports,” he noted. “I made all their games, but then I’d go back to the office at 7 p.m. and put in a couple of more hours. I think I saw 44 field hockey games in one year. That has to be some kind of a record.”