Hitching its wagon to central Indiana: Wells Fargo quietly lassoes big share of local loans

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How big is the portfolio? Very big.

How does it stack up to its rivals? Nobody knows for sure.

The Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. requires banks to report the deposits they hold at branches, but it doesn’t require banks to spell out how much commercial business they’re generating geographically.

“It’s one of the biggest frustrations of the bank information that we [compile],” said Karen Dorway, president of Bauer Financial Inc., a Coral

Gables, Fla.-based bank rating service that tracks market share data.

Nonetheless, banking sources agree that Wells Fargo is now a top-10 player on the local commercial lending scene. Some say top five. That’s impressive by any standards for such a short tenure.

“We’re off to a great start,” said Lex Curry, Wells Fargo’s regional vice president, who opened the local commercial banking office, which now employs 10. “We’ve been pleased with how the name’s been received.”

The Mount Everest and Mount Kilimanjaro remain New York-based Chase and Cleveland-based National City, both of which are thought to hold more than 20 percent of the commercial banking market locally.

Wells Fargo has been able to sniff the rarefied air of those banks thanks to Curry’s impressive Rolodex, say banking insiders. He came to Wells Fargo with more than 25 years of experience in central Indiana’s banking community.

“[Lex Curry’s] good reputation in the community has led him to be successful,” said Keith Slifer, senior vice president and region head of commercial banking for Chicago-based LaSalle Bank, arguably the third-biggest player on the local commercial lending scene.

Previously, Curry worked in a similar role for National City.

The quick success doesn’t surprise analysts who follow the company.

“Wells Fargo is one of the best banks in the country in terms of overall performance, revenue growth, profitability and risk profile,” said Fred Cummings, a bank analyst with KeyBanc Capital Markets. “This is a company that’s historically been able to grow its earnings over a doubledigit pace.”

Wells Fargo is the fifth-largest bank in the country, according to Charlottesville, Va.-based SNL Financial. It has assets approaching $500 billion.

Local commercial bankers say they haven’t seen business flee to Wells Fargo, but they’re keeping a close eye on the bank’s progress.

“We have not, to my knowledge, lost any relationships to them,” said Pete Munson, a market manager for Chase’s commercial banking operations in central Indiana, who added, “They’re a good competitor for a bank that doesn’t have a branch presence locally.”

Branching out?

Wells Fargo isn’t just posting long numbers in its commercial operations. Wells Capital Management has $7.3 billion in assets under management in Indiana, Curry said. Its private banking group has another $4 billion of assets under management in the state.

The sizeable numbers lead some to believe the bank is positioning itself to open retail outlets in central Indiana.

It already operates more than 40 branches in northern Indiana as a result of the 1998 acquisition of Minneapolis-based Norwest Corp., bringing its total employee count in Indiana to 1,300. Those branches alone give Wells Fargo the 10th-largest share of deposits in the state, according to
the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.

“I would think there’s a long-term strategy to have brick and mortar in the Midwest,” Slifer said.

The bank “doesn’t need retail necessarily” to continue to grow in central Indiana, Curry said, but he added that it “just makes sense” at some point.

Bank analysts said it might not happen anytime soon.

“It wouldn’t surprise me if they [added retail branches] in Indiana, but I don’t think that’s high on their radar,” Cummings said.

The bank has opened commercial operations, similar to what it’s done in central Indiana, in several markets, such as Cleveland, Atlanta and Philadelphia, without getting into the retail banking business.

“The fact they keep doing it would suggest that they’ve had some success,” Cummings said.

Keys to growth

The bank’s emphasis on technology has helped it gain its foothold in the market, Curry said.

CEO, which stands for Commercial Electronic Office, is proprietary software the bank developed that helps businesses keep track of their bank accounts. It also allows business owners to deposit checks directly from their desk via a desktop scanner and keep track of multiple accounts.

About 30,000 businesses nationwide, and 176 in Indiana, use the technology.

While the program costs money, Curry said it has the “ability to reduce headcount” and “save people meaningful chunks of time” by eliminating trips to the bank to deposit checks.

Small-business lending is also an important part of the bank’s growth strategy. At this point in fiscal year 2005, Wells Fargo had made 32 SBA loans in Indiana. This year, it’s made 49 such loans for more than $5 million.

It’s now the eighth-largest SBA lender in Indiana. In its first year of participation with the program in 2001, Wells Fargo made only 20 SBA loans statewide.

This year’s loans include everything from $100,000 for a Ritter’s Frozen Custard restaurant to $350,000 for a Subway sandwich shop and $304,000 for an Orkin pest control franchise.

The small-business owners who receive the loans have been thrilled with how fast the stagecoach delivered.

“They’ve been great,” said Mike Pasciak, who’s trying to open an Ace Hardware franchise near the southeast corner of 86th Street and Ditch Road in an old Sears Hardware space. “They’ve been very helpful and cooperative. I had called other banks, like National City Bank, but unlike Wells Fargo, National City wanted a boatload of stuff right off the bat, where Wells Fargo didn’t require that.”

The bank loaned Pasciak almost $700,000.

Ruth Cooke, who owns a UPS Store franchise in Noblesville, had the same experience.

“I had been warned that SBA loans would get me mired down in paperwork,” said Cooke, who borrowed $156,000 from Wells Fargo. “But they just couldn’t have been easier to work with. If I called them and said I need $10,000, I’d have it the next day.”

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