Robbins has plans to take Valley National in new directions — but no desire to build bank around himself

By Brett Johnson
Wayne | Jul 9, 2018 at 6:30 am
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There are big shoes to fill … and then there are CEO-whose-face-was-in-advertisements-sized shoes to fill.

Gerald H. Lipkin spent around three decades as Valley National Bank’s chairman, CEO and president. And between appearing in television and radio ad campaigns, he grew the institution to the largest bank headquartered in the Garden State, with around $30 billion in assets.

Lipkin announced last year he was retiring after 42 total years of working for the Wayne-based institution.

To put that in perspective, the person who was selected as his replacement was born only two years before Lipkin started working for the bank.

Ira Robbins, 44, took on the title of CEO of both Valley National Bank and its parent organization, Valley National Bancorp, at the start of the year.

He has a different vision for the organization, which he outlined in this interview with ROI-NJ.

ROI-NJ: First off, do you get the sense that running a bank at your age is a rare sight in the industry?

Ira Robbins: You find it’s relative, when you look at different organizations. At smaller banks, you have leaders my age or sometimes younger. But for banks our size, in the $10 billion to $50 billion space, there’s really no one that would be my age. You’ve seen a few at larger organizations, but most of the time bank leaders are in their mid-50s.

Then again, the prime minister of Canada and the president of France are younger than me — if they can run a country, I think I can run a bank.

ROI: Also fairly novel is how the entirety of your career in banking has been with the bank you’re now leading. Can you talk about why you joined the bank in your early 20s?

IR: Well, living under my parents’ roof really wasn’t an option unless there was revenue coming in on my end, so I would routinely get classified ads sent to me to make me aware of what opportunities there were in northern New Jersey. One of the ads was for a management associate program at Valley National Bank. That was 22 years ago; that’s how I started here. And I just worked my way up throughout the entire organization, largely in the corporate finance, treasury and accounting area; then, about a year and a half ago, I became president of the bank, before taking the CEO role in January.

ROI: How has your path of internal promotion at the bank informed your perspective on what Valley›s leadership should look like?

IR: Leadership is something important for us, and the bank certainly provided a great opportunity for me to grow myself. One of the things we’ve done is to formalize leadership programs throughout the organization. We have leadership academies now. That’s something we started about two years ago. We’re very focused on making sure we have the right talent.

Succession in our organization is different than it was historically. It’s more holistic, as we’ve started to look at what are the skillsets required of individuals today and what that skillset will be a few years from now if we achieve our strategic plan. And then we need to figure out if we have the individuals in place that have the ability to meet those skillsets. If not, we’re identifying external sources, or, more importantly, training current staff to make sure they have the opportunity as well to lead under a different organizational structure.

ROI: As someone who rose through the ranks and never worked for another bank, talk about the difference between finding talent internally and externally?

IR: In my mind, the organization is a pretty good mix of talent from internal and external sources. One of the things we’ve done historically is only had people work their way up from the inside. But a challenge is that a bank like Valley, which has gone through acquisitions in the past 20 to 30 years, is having people leading the organization who maybe haven’t worked for larger organizations or complex, different industries.

When you get to the size we are, that creates a big hindrance at the top in terms of understanding what’s relevant in this space at this size. So, one of the things I’ve tried to do throughout the organization is take a blend of internal individuals and provide them additional opportunities while really bringing in some external people to the bank to have a good breadth of executive leadership across the entire platform. That was something lacking significantly.

ROI: What are some other challenges facing the bank you›re inheriting control of as the new CEO?

IR: Valley was a wonderful community bank, operating for 91 years and never having a losing quarter. It always put employees, customers and communities first. It’s a wonderful attribute; it’s what community banks look like, and there’s enormous value in that. But, as we got larger, there was a learning curve in how you effectively do that across a larger footprint. And, to be candid, the stock probably has underperformed for the past few years as a result of that.

It was an imperative for us to make sure our relevance to shareholders was equally important in our view as our relevance to employees, customers and communities. To deliver that relevance to our shareholders, something of a new direction was required.

ROI: Given that you’re replacing a previous CEO that spent decades at the helm of the bank, how are you ensuring that it›s going to be a smooth transition?

IR: In certain ways, I don’t want a smooth transition. I think, once again, that there were things we had done really well in terms of serving the community. But when you look at our return to our shareholders in the past couple years, I’m not sure that it’s been an enviable path to follow. And I think that needs to change.That said, I think Gerry (Lipkin) was — and is — an icon within the banking industry, there’s no question. No one leads an organization for as long as he has with the types of results he has delivered. That’s challenging to achieve.

ROI: Do you see yourself as replacing him as the face of the franchise?

IR: I think there’s many opportunities for us, and I think having one figure at the top being known as the organization isn’t necessarily the correct approach for long-term sustainability for any bank. So, while I might be the leader today, it’s incumbent for there to be many faces to this organization. We can only expand based on how many people we connect with.

I can’t be the face of the bank and connect with enough people. But, if we empower employees to have a really sustainable influence as to what happens with certain customers, we have the ability to grow to a greater degree than we ever have.

ROI: What’s going to be your main areas of focus for setting Valley apart in the competitive banking industry?

IR: You really attempt as an executive to allocate resources and own the areas that provide you the ability to differentiate your organization. I think, historically, we looked at it through our physical presence. And I think, today, banking is much different. There’s only two variables that allow us to differentiate ourselves today: technology and our people.

So, we look like our allocations of resources, it’s focusing on investing in our people as well as making sure we have relevant technology today — technology that empowers employees to make decisions, technology that’s relevant to the customer base we want to go after, technology that makes us relevant five years from now. What I think we’re focused on is reallocating resources to those areas. We believe that will differentiate us, not just buying a building somewhere.

ROI: Speaking of that, Valley made a surprising addition its physical footprint by expanding with branches in Florida several years back. How has that market done for the bank — and what else can people expect from the bank as far as expansion goes?

IR: Overall, it has been great for us. Understanding who we were as a bank led to us going there. Now we have about $7 billion to $9 billion in that market. We have a relevancy there. And a foundation for growth.

ROI: Should we expect more of that?

IR: Florida probably won’t be a huge focus for us for expansion in the future because we already established that foundation. But, overall, there are very few banks with the geographic diversity we have. And the product diversity, too. It’s a wonderful organization. It makes us a unique organization from an investor perspective, but we also have the ability to serve well all the communities we’re in.

We’re pleased with the growth we’re seeing there in Florida, here, as well as places like New York. As we move forward, we’re going to continue making sure we understand who we are as a bank and who the target customers are we want to go after.

Conversation Starter

Reach Ira Robbins at: irobbins@valleynationalbank.com or 800-522-4100.

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