A rock & roll bank

Ok, I admit it. I’m still mourning the loss of Commerce Bank (the one headquartered in New Jersey, that had branches up and down the eastern seaboard of the US). Commerce was famous for its wild and crazy workforce and its fanatic customer focus—until it was gobbled up by TD Bank in 2008.

Founded by its innovative chairman, Vernon Hill, and captained by its fun-loving president, Dennis Diflorio (a former rock & roll drummer from Philly!), Commerce LIVED its brand as the world’s most convenient (and innovative) bank.

For decades, most banks inside and outside the US kept, well, bankers’ hours. Most Commerce branches, on the other hand, were open seven days a week, 361 days a year, until 8 pm on weekdays. And if you wanted personal service by phone any time of day or night, a living, breathing carbon-based life form answered your call, usually on the first ring!

But in addition to being convenient, Commerce had a reputation for making banking fun. (Yes, you read that right.) At any branch on a given day a bank mascot might be handing you free stuff or an employee might greet you at the door with a newspaper—or a biscuit for your dog. Their free coin-counting machines were so much fun to use that young kids were dragging their moms to the local branch.

This was a rock & roll bank, which took pride in its “WOW!” culture, its pumped up workforce, its festive spirit. As president Dennis Diflorio once told me, “We want our employees to have fun. Life is too short.”

While a lot of corporations are sensitive to the “cult” word, Commerce welcomed the term. “Believe me we have a cult,” Deflorio said. “It’s about having enough people on the lunatic fringe as we call it, who really passionately believe that what we’re doing is very cool.”

Other banks are now attempting to co-opt aspects of the Commerce approach, but it remains to be seen how far they’ll get. (So far, I haven’t seen any promising signs in the US at least.) Rather than baking in the brand from the beginning—as Commerce did almost 40 years ago—too many banks attempt a cut-and-paste makeover years later. But customers can quickly sniff out the difference.

Meanwhile, many of us who prize radical innovation, workforce engagement, and independent thinking regret the demise of a pioneer bank.

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  1. Footnote to the above: Commerce’s entrepreneurial founder, Vernon Hill, launched Metro Bank in the UK two years ago. Anybody in the UK have an opinion on Metro?

  2. When we fled San Diego for Sacramento, our little local bank was in the process of being gobbled up by "We're Too Big to Care" Bank. We switched to River City Bank, a local with less than a dozen branches.

    The manager of our branch became one of the guitarists in my band. His branch, at least, was a rock and roll bank.

    Sadly, they've been gobbled as well. While that was happening, we became nomads and needed a national bank, which still makes me sad. Should we stake our tents in northern Wisconsin for the long haul, I suspect we'll switch back to Teensy Weensy Farm and Riparian Local #13 Bank and Plumbing.

    Partly 'cause our national bank's closest office is an hour away.

  3. I feel your pain, Joel. We’re Too Big To Care Bank swallowed up my old bank a few years ago. So I transferred my money to We’re Too Big To Give a #&@% Bank. They pay an even lower interest on savings, but their customer service is worse, so it evens out.

  4. Commerce was one-of-a-kind ... There's a facebook page of frustrated TD Bank customers who want their Commerce Bank back. It's been going for years and still gets posts.

  5. I wonder if a big part of the problem here is that small operations can be maverick because it really suits them, it makes them stand out and it appeals to a maverick, and therefore niche, audience. But big operations usually look daft doing the same thing: they become the 'we're trying too hard' and 'we'll do anything to look cool (which immediately makes us very uncool)' operation.

  6. Commerce bank will be sorely missed.
    Bank of America stopped giving away free cups of coffee last quarter, and frankly, thats the only reason I ever went in there.
    Maybe for Halloween, they'l remove the bowls of lollipops. ( got to keep an eye on the bottom line.)
    I'm sure theres nobody in charge of choosing the telephone "hold music." a shame, really.

  7. Mark, your comment is all the more interesting because Commerce Bank was no mom & pop operation. Hey, what do you know about Metro Bank? They opened up in your neck of the woods in 2010.

    Paul, a good customer service operation wouldn't need "hold music." Muzak is designed to brutalize customers and force them to hang up. At Guantanamo it's 50% more effective than water-boarding.

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