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SVB’s new owner fights to rebuild brand and stem outflows

Silicon Valley Bank’s new owner is “fighting” to repair its damaged brand, stem deposit outflows and stop dozens more bankers quitting to join rivals as it attempts to rebuild the US technology bank that collapsed last month, according to one of its top executives.

“We are in the early days of getting them stabilised and back in business,” Peter Bristow, the president of North Carolina-based First Citizens, which acquired SVB in a landmark deal brokered by federal regulators in March, told the Financial Times.

First Citizens will maintain the SVB name and run the business as a distinct unit of its own bank, which has a network of more than 550 branches across the US.

However, it is struggling to restore trust in, and the stature of, SVB, whose failure after an ill-fated bet on long-dated government bonds sparked a banking crisis in the US and Europe and is expected to herald a stricter regulatory regime for banks globally.

“[SVB] was the number one bank in tech and life sciences for over 30 years and suddenly that went away, so we’ve spent a lot of time trying to give people confidence that we’re in the bank and plan to continue to run the model they were running,” Bristow said.

SVB in March suffered a fatal bank run that resulted in it being taken over and then sold by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corporation in the largest US banking collapse since the 2008 financial crisis. Since then, First Citizens has attempted to assure SVB’s customers and staff it is “business as usual” — even as many head for the exit, according to interviews with venture capital firms.

First Citizens, the largest family-controlled bank in the US, doubled its assets to $219bn when it bought SVB, taking it from the 30th largest bank in the US to the 16th.

As an east coast bank with little venture capital experience, some Silicon Valley investors and founders are sceptical that First Citizens will provide the same critical infrastructure to the tech start-up scene. SVB was known for making risky loans to struggling businesses based on decades of goodwill with their venture capital backers.

“A lot of what SVB did — events, mortgages, venture loans — made no sense economically unless you saw the full life cycle of the relationship,” the head of one multibillion-dollar venture firm said. “They were able to do it because they knew everyone in the ecosystem.”

As a newcomer to Silicon Valley, First Citizens must first decide whether it wants to maintain the same deep ties to the tech community as SVB, which ultimately left it with a highly-concentrated customer base that made it vulnerable to a run. About 95 per cent of customer deposits were over the $250,000 federal insurance cap.

It will have to incentivise SVB’s bankers to remain at the bank in order to preserve those relationships as rivals try to muscle into its market, at the same time as their pay packages have been stripped of SVB’s lucrative share awards. HSBC, which acquired SVB’s UK business, poached 40 of SVB’s US bankers this month, while MUFG hired 20 staffers last week.

Keeping its customers could prove even harder. SVB has continued to lose deposits in the weeks since the bank run on March 9. Disclosures by First Citizens to its investors showed that SVB had $56bn of deposits when it was acquired, about $134bn less than at the start of the year.

“We’re still seeing outflows,” Bristow said, citing the impact of pent-up demand for withdrawals during a two-week period in which the bank was shut down by regulators. “I have to admit it’s going to take a rebuild . . . but we’re already seeing green shoots.”

First Citizens is attempting to rebuild SVB as tech start-ups face the biggest collapse in value since the dotcom bubble burst in the early 2000s. So far, its management has provided little clarity on the strategy for navigating the downturn, remaining bogged down in a weeks-long due diligence process as a result of the speedy acquisition.

The tech downturn could put First Citizens in a tricky position as it looks to draw Silicon Valley’s top tech investors back into the bank.

More than half of SVB’s $72bn loan book was made up of financing for venture capitalists investing into start-ups. It also lent money directly to start-ups, taking equity warrants in their businesses and requiring them to bank exclusively with SVB.

Bristow suggested that First Citizens could re-examine SVB’s lending to venture capitalists and the companies they backed. “As much as [venture lending] was a core tenet of what SVB did, the question was, did it create a lumpiness in deposits you may not want?” he said.

Nonetheless, SVB’s venture debt business had become a critical part of Silicon Valley’s financial infrastructure. As one venture capitalist put it: “We need SVB to help us with companies that are struggling.”

First Citizens will leverage its history of buying other banks — it has acquired 15 of them from the FDIC’s ownership in the past 15 years — as it begins integrating SVB into its operations later this month. The SVB deal is its largest ever buyout, however, far surpassing its $2bn deal to buy business lender CIT Group for $2bn in 2020.

One issue will be aligning First Citizens’ leadership with SVB’s culture. SVB began in the 1980s IT boom and grew with Silicon Valley, prizing empathy for cash-strapped customers and a culture that closely resembled the start-ups it served. First Citizens, meanwhile, is a 125-year-old family dynasty: The bank is run by a board that includes chief executive Frank Holding and his sister, vice chair Hope Bryant, the third generation of Holdings in charge of the business. Bristow’s wife, Claire, is their sister.

Bristow played down worries of a possible clash. “Culture is the least of my concerns,” he said. “We’re both relationship-based first and foremost.”

Yet venture capitalists have privately expressed doubt that the new owners can recreate “SVB 2.0”.

Ultimately, the problems that led to SVB’s collapse were in its balance sheet risk management, not its ambition to capture tech and start-up banking. Bristow believes that First Citizens’ unusual family ownership means its leadership is unlikely to make the same balance sheet errors as SVB’s old management.

“The risk aversion that comes with owning a major portion of the bank . . . is a competitive advantage,” he said. “It’s different to outside managed banks [where] sometimes perspectives and priorities can get out of whack.”

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