Viewpoint: WSFS purchase of Beneficial is a big deal for Delaware

One of the great things about being a Delawarean is we can be provincial. We can thrive on the exploits of fellow natives who achieve success beyond our borders.

We’ve got Elena DelleDonne in the WNBA. Rich Gannon and Joe Flacco quarterbacking in the NFL. Joe Biden becoming VP. Elizabeth Shue, Judge Reinhold and Ryan Phillippe becoming movie stars. Music greats Clifford Brown, Stephen Marley and Bob Marley. Dogfish Head beer!

But we’re perhaps at risk of missing the true import of the announcement just weeks ago that our own WSFS Bank, one of America’s oldest banks, is purchasing and combining with Philadelphia-based Beneficial Bank.

WSFS Bank, headquartered in Wilmington, will be far-and-away the largest bank based in the Delaware Valley.

Founded in 1832, WSFS already is the oldest in the region, and one of the 10 oldest in America continuously operating under the same name.

Assets – cash reserves, investments and interest income generating loans, among other things – are the most important universal metric that banks use to determine size, and for banks like WSFS, the key benchmark number is $10 billion in assets to enter the big leagues.

WSFS had been growing steadily since its near bankruptcy in 1990 to more than $6 billion in assets. Its merger with near-equal Beneficial vaults it past that $10 billion number to $13 billion in assets. It’s a “good news, bad news” scenario, though, with different reporting and regulatory requirements, as WSFS moves up a notch to play with “the big boys.”

Mark Turner, CEO of WSFS, was beaming like a proud father when I talked with him last week.

“Banking is changing,” said Turner, who joined WSFS 22 years ago, “and we at WSFS have to change with it. We know that our customers are doing more and more in the digital universe, with technology, and they rely less and less on the bricks-and-mortar retail branch. But they still want to see that branch, and to know that it’s there.”

“Each of us, Beneficial and WSFS, had about 60 branches, so together we’ll have 120, which we’ll scale back to 90, so we will minimize duplication and overlap, but our customers will see about 45 legacy branches from each of the banks when this is finished.”

Always a Delaware bank, WSFS has been extending its strategic reach into Philadelphia’s northern and western suburbs over the last decade. Earlier in the summer, I stopped into WSFS branches in King of Prussia and Limerick, Pennsylvania, just to see if they had that same “WSFS feel” as Delaware, and I came away convinced.

“Culture trumps strategy,” I’ve often told colleagues and friends, and it’s culture that has been “the secret sauce” of the WSFS growth strategy, along with its executive ranks. WSFS has redefined its name away from Wilmington Savings Fund Society to “We Stand For Service,” and it has been able to execute on that message. Very well.

Mark Turner apprenticed well under his mentor and boss Marvin “Skip” Schoenhals, who the Bank’s board brought to town to save it in 1990, just days before regulators would have closed the bank. Skip turned it around, and nurtured back into the growth lane.

In the last year, in fact, the last decade, as Schoenhals had progressively “stood down” from leadership roles, Turner completed the succession, becoming WSFS chairman. In doing so, he promoted Rodger Levenson to CEO with full responsibility for day-to-day operations of the bank.

It was interesting for many of us to see Turner to take off three months early this year for the banking equivalent of a self-study sabbatical, where he traveled 44,000 miles and talked to representatives and leaders of 49 companies and organizations.

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