In It Together

Nearly all Bank of San Francisco shareholders are local—some so local that they work at the bank. President Wendy Ross tells us why that matters

By Ellen Ryan

It was 2005. The Bank of San Francisco had opened a few weeks before. The 11 founders planned a grand opening party, and 500 invitations were ready to hit the mail.

But first they needed postage. At 9 p.m. Friday, then senior vice president Wendy Ross, one of the relationship managers and another banker were huddled around the supply-room stamp machine, asking, “How does this thing work?”

“No mailing department like in a big bank!” laughs Ross. To her, this moment—when, together, they figured out how the machine worked—exemplifies the way community bankers roll up their sleeves and get the job done.

“I want to keep that entrepreneurial spirit and experience,” says Ross, now president of the approximately $235 million-asset bank in downtown San Francisco. “It helps ground people, and clients appreciate that we can relate to what they’re going through.”

All for one and one for all—Wendy Ross (center) with employees (L-R) Cassidy Wong, Ed Obuchowski, Roberta Achtenberg, Emily Kruger, Lokesh Agoramurthy, Sam Clonmell, Lia Economopoulos and Victor Vazquez

That’s because the Bank of San Francisco matches its client base: small to medium-size businesses, nonprofits and their owners in a thriving cosmopolitan area.

In fact, 8 of its 35 technologically savvy, demographically diverse, mostly young employees have skin in the game.

Business brain
Ross majored in history at Connecticut College, which showed her that commerce built America. An entrepreneur’s daughter, she went into banking some 35 years ago because “I was interested in learning about business, and nothing influences business as much as banking.”

Starting her career at Manufacturers Hanover Trust Co. put Ross in good company at the Bank of San Francisco, where all founders had big-bank experience. Building their own bank meant they could create important differences.

For one thing, the Bank of San Francisco combines state-of-the-art technology on a high-rise’s ninth floor with service that any small-town football booster would recognize. Relationship managers take calls evenings and weekends, and clients often say, “Wow, I’ve never had a banker come see me in my place of business.”

A collaborative approach means that ideas come at least as often from the front line as from the C-suite, and everyone can access daily financial statements. With both open doors and a formal feedback system, employees show they appreciate the confidence.

Forging links—Wendy Ross, here with Mitchell Nomura, EVP and chief credit officer, and Lisa Lau, SVP and chief financial officer, connects with the CEO, board and community

Finally, and importantly, nearly a quarter of the community bank’s employees own a piece of their workplace. “It’s fascinating to see the change when an employee buys stock in the bank,” says Ross. “They start acting like an owner—keeping an eye on potential waste and acting a little more managerial.”

Workplace ownership goes back to the founding. The late Capitol Bancorp Ltd. would start small banks around the country, then buy out local shareholders after three years. Ross remembers that “we were their 36th bank or so. … They got up to approximately 64, I think, before the downturn.” The Bank of San Francisco had become profitable in its 33rd month, while the parent company faltered.

“Regulatory pressure created the opportunity for us to buy-out our majority shareholders’ interest,” Ross says. “We were so proud of being able to raise the funds to do that, especially when banks were not so popular during the recession.” “So many community banks start small and sell out; we kind of did the opposite.” Of course, that meant new operating systems, policies and procedures.

Now almost all of the 370 or so shareholders are local. The largest ownership groups are current and retired employees, 12.3 percent, and directors, 12.3 percent. Purchases by employees, directors and the public have been on the same terms.

Transformational role
As president, Ross oversees all departments and connects with the CEO, board and community. She was pivotal to carving niches such as health-care practice financing, and diversifying the bank’s revenue streams by adding a residential loan capability. Since 2013, residential loans have grown to become roughly one third of the bank’s loan portfolio.

The bank plans to grow, too, while keeping to one location. “We’re still so small, and it’s such a fertile market,” says Ross.

Six of the 11 founders have retired. Board Vice Chair Roberta Achtenberg is glad Ross hasn’t. “Wendy is extraordinarily experienced and talented, a motivational and collaborative leader,” says Achtenberg, who watched Ross craft the buyback deal. “She was strategic and tenacious … absolutely instrumental to securing our independence.”

What about the future? Echoing Ross about the value of recruiting young bankers, Achtenberg praises her guidance: “We’ve crafted ourselves in her image … so [the bank] will be here for the next generation.”

Ellen Ryan is a writer in Maryland.