O’Connell, metro market executive for Citizens Bank, details how bank is integrating itself into N.J. — and where she thinks economy is going

Bank’s motto as it makes push into Garden State: ‘Big enough to matter, small enough to care’

Rebecca O’Connell, the New York City metro market executive for Citizens Bank, can talk about how the acquisition of Investors Bank in 2022 helped give the bank a big footprint in New Jersey … can talk about how the acquisition of HSBC gave it 80 additional branches on the East Coast … can talk about how Citizens is a strong corporate sponsor at the Prudential Center, MetLife Stadium and, of course, Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia, giving it big-time branding power in all parts of the state.

She’d rather talk about how small the bank is. Or, rather, how, despite its size, Citizens Bank still prides itself on offering the personal service corporate customers are demanding.

“I like to use the tagline that we use here internally as well as externally all the time: ‘We’re big enough to matter; small enough to care,’” she said. “What do I mean by that? It means we are a nimble organization. We can go to market effectively. We can make decisions quickly. And we can deliver for our clients in a very seamless way. 

“The acquisitions of Investors Bank, as well as with the HSBC retail branches, puts our footprint out there in a wider capacity. I’m really excited about being able to deliver white-glove service in a very saturated banking market.”

O’Connell, who came to Citizens last fall after more than 25 years as a banking executive and senior management consultant at JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and McKinsey & Co., said she is eager to integrate herself into the New Jersey business community — where she will oversee a portfolio of middle-market and mid-corporate clients, acting as a strategic and financial partner.

“We are prepared to emerge into the market through thought leadership, client experience and bringing continued value to the market,” she said. “It’s being where we need to be — knowing what those organizations are, who the key players are key stakeholders are and continuing to be in front of them.”

O’Connell recently talked with ROI-NJ about Citizens’ plans for the state — and the state of the economy. Here’s a look at the conversation, edited for space and clarity.

ROI-NJ: Let’s start with the question to which everyone wants the answer: Are we in — or headed to — a recession?

Rebecca O’Connell: Recession risk is obviously something that we have our eyes on along with everybody else. Our view at this point in time is that it may manifest as a shallow and short recession, rather than a hard landing.

ROI: What are you watching? 

RO: Some of the trends that I personally am monitoring, as well as Citizens as an organization, is the labor market, the (Consumer Price Index) data, supply chain issues and as well as China reopening, and how will that potentially impact businesses in the U.S.? But a lot really depends upon (Federal Reserve) action — how they take this forward. 

“We are prepared to emerge into the market through thought leadership, client experience and bringing continued value to the market. It’s being where we need to be — knowing what those organizations are, who the key players are key stakeholders are and continuing to be in front of them.”
— Rebecca O’Connell, New York City metro market executive, Citizens Bank

A focus in the underlying term is stabilizing rates. Not necessarily a decline in rates, but just stabilizing the rate environment, which will help improve some of the uncertainty that’s out there and boost competence and what our economy looks like on a go-forward basis.

ROI: Confidence always is key. Some are saying this is a unique time in that we seem to be convincing ourselves that we’re headed to a downturn.

RO: There’s certainly a sober undertone right now. We’ve been talking ourselves into a recession since summer 2022, but the data out there really isn’t supporting it. It’s amazing. It’s an interesting time, for sure. 

ROI: What do you tell clients during times such as this?

RO: We’re advising them to be planning for a slowdown. That it can’t hurt. If it doesn’t come, great, you’re in a better situation. And if it does, you’re very well prepared. And I think businesses are prepared. It’s Citizens’ view, as well as my own personal view, that management teams became a lot more efficient as they went through the pandemic. They are a lot more nimble and agile, and they’ve proven their resilience.

ROI: Let’s talk about New Jersey specifically. The state has a lot of international and national companies, but, compared to New York City, it may be better viewed as an area with a large number of middle-market and small business clients. How do you see it?

RO: I see a lot of opportunities in the middle-market space. When you think about middle-market companies, you think generational and privately-held companies. As they’re looking forward, I think they go back to how they navigated the pandemic. I think they are relying on the efficiencies and the stabilizations that they brought to their organizations to help them be resilient through that time.

ROI: Which, we’re guessing, will only enhance merger & acquisition activity. Talk about Citizens’ recent M&A report and gives us your thoughts on M&A in 2023.

RO: Our view is that M&A activity will pick up in 2023 despite the headwinds. That optimistic view came out in our M&A outlook, which came directly from talking with company owners as well as (private equity) firms. 

Take a look back: In 2020, M&A was down — and I think that’s simply because of the uncertainty around the pandemic and what was happening globally and in the world. And then, 2021 had peak valuations and M&A activity. We’ve retreated from that in 2022, given the potential recession and all of the uncertainty that was ahead of us, but our view for 2023 is that it will remain stable, with some upside potential as well. 

Business owners remained very focused on growth, despite the slowdown. Their desire for economic growth can be delivered through M&A activity.

ROI: Let’s turn back to Citizens and New Jersey. Investors Bank was hugely respected in the business marketplace for a number of reasons. One was this: They were considered a Jersey-first institution. How do you keep that feeling while being a bigger East Coast bank?

RO: The integration with Investors Bank as well as HSBC has been a great success. We call it our one-two punch. The Investors acquisition certainly has helped deepen our commercial banking footprint in New Jersey, but it also has widened our retail presence. We have significant plans to continue to build upon that. 

We have great assets that were brought over — from personal resources as well as client relationships. And yes, we’re the bank of the Phillies and the Devils and the Giants. That helps embed us into the New Jersey market. 

Now, it’s about being able to leverage those relationships, bringing thought leadership to the table. We’re looking forward to continuing to use the resources that we have to continue to build out our footprint across the New York City metro, particularly in the New Jersey region.

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