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Armed with First Republic alums, Citizens Bank unveils new startup-focused private bank
September 15, 2023

Armed with First Republic alums, Citizens Bank unveils new startup-focused private bank

Reading Time: 5 minutes

When Silicon Valley Bank imploded in March, Sam Heshmati wasn’t naive enough to think that First Republic Bank — where he had worked for more than a decade and helped launch their startup practice — wouldn’t be affected.

He recalls watching everything unfold at his former employer with both sadness and surprise.

But Heshmati didn’t have time to linger long on SVB’s downfall. As First Republic’s then-managing director and head of venture banking, he soon had to turn his attention to helping First Republic meet a surge in demand, a surge that began as soon as the regional banking crisis kicked off on March 10.

At the time, Heshmati was at a sales conference for First Republic in San Francisco, along with executive management. ‘I think everybody’s phones started to get dinged almost at the same time and many of us were hearing, ‘I need new accounts at First Republic’ or ‘There’s a bit of a situation and we need a potential place to move our money,” recounts Heshmati. ‘The first step in the emotional roller coaster was that we went all hands on deck.’

He added: ‘Everybody was quickly trying to figure out how do we support this type of new account opening at scale, with this type of volume coming in…without comprising any of our compliance.’

The initial reaction from some people was excitement over ‘so many new accounts.’ But Heshmati knew better.

‘I remember walking through the lobby and seeing one particular person who had a smile on their face, thinking about the business opportunity that existed here. But I don’t think that person had ever spent any time at SVB or really understood the role they played in the ecosystem. And I remember looking at the person and saying, ‘This is not good.”

Indeed, it was a matter of days before First Republic itself became part of the contagion and the bank’s team went from opening new accounts to figuring out how to weather its own storm as the impact of Silicon Valley Bank’s fate began spilling over into other banks in the sector.

It was an emotional roller coaster, Heshmati says. First Republic had been performing well year-over-year. Its stock was doing well. Many on the team were surprised that their bank was suddenly in trouble, too.

‘While SVB’s series of events happened really quickly, on the First Republic side of the house, it took a few weeks,’ he said. ‘It was pretty difficult because there were moments where you looked at it and said, ‘We’re gonna get through this,’ and then there were moments that we didn’t know.’

Ultimately, First Republic too collapsed and JPMorgan ended up buying the receivership it went into. Heshmati was soon offered a role at JPMorgan. But he declined the offer. In trying to determine his next steps, he said he spoke to more than a dozen banks.

Heshmati ended up taking on a role at Citizens Bank, where he is now working to build the financial institution’s new venture banking practice from scratch. For context, Providence, Rhode Island-based Citizens has $22 billion in assets under management (AUM) and $177.7 billion in deposits. Its total assets were $223.1 billion as of June 30.

I did due diligence on the different banks, ranging from strength of balance sheet, size of the bank, commitment to the [startup] sector,’ he said. ‘But Citizens just stood out. They checked every single box.’

The bank, Heshmati said, seemed the most committed to building on what First Republic had started.

‘I wanted somebody else to be really, really excited about it, and never to be put in a situation where I felt like they were accommodating me,’ he said. ‘There were really, really bullish — Citizens demonstrated that excitement right out the gate.’

Heshmati joined Citizens Bank as head of emerging VC and innovation banking in July, helping create a new division there, called Citizens Private Bank, that is essentially adopting First Republic’s operating model.

‘Our goal is pretty simple — to be the ‘go to bank’ for the innovation sector,’ he said. ‘Part of what I’ve learned since the events of March 10 and the downfall of SVB and First Republic is that a lot of people have gone to different platforms but they look and feel a whole lot different than perhaps what SVB and FRB represented for so many years.’

He added: ‘We’re looking to bring that level of familiarity back as part of this next chapter.’

Citizens wants to take things a step further by integrating cash management solutions into the practice.

‘We’re living in a post-crisis environment and banking where founders and investors are going to look at cash management differently than they did before. They’re asking, ‘Where do you keep it? How do you mitigate risk?,” Heshmati said. ‘And so we’ve already put together a suite of solutions that allow companies and firms to come in and address that. We don’t want to ignore the elephant in the room. We want to offer the solutions to help give them what they need to get comfortable.’

Citizens’ new practice is open for business, although Heshmati acknowledges it will take some time to ramp up.

Heshmati is not the only former First Republic employee to join Citizens. Much of his team joined as well. In June, when Citizens announced the acceleration of its private banking growth strategy, it also announced 150 new hires, including teams formerly with First Republic, according to Brendan Coughlin, vice chair and head of consumer banking at Citizens.

As part of the new division, Citizens is also opening a West Coast office. 

‘Scale matters in new footprints, and the ability to hire a large and incredibly talented team at once was very attractive and became an obvious next step,’ Coughlin added.

Expanding into California has ‘always’ been part of Citizens’ strategic plan, said Coughlin. Those plans included its acquisition of JMP Securities in November 2021. But in this case, the speed in which it moved was ‘opportunistic.’ Similarly, Citizens has had a private equity practice for some time, where it worked with much larger funds, noted Coughlin. But with the demise of both SVB and FRB, Citizens saw opportunity in serving the startup and VC community.

‘VC financing plays an essential role in U.S. innovation, and with the collapse of SVB and FRB, which had generally dominated the mid-tier VC space, it left a huge void,’ he said. ‘It’s similar to the geography piece — a venture-focused practice was always something we considered pursuing as part of our strategic roadmap…it was a natural fit for us to not only establish this practice and innovate as a company, but also bank the innovation economy and support the growth of young companies.’

In addition to Citizens’ existing San Francisco office space for JMP,  the bank is planning to ‘selectively’ add points of physical presence with offices for its new private bankers, as well as customer-facing locations to connect the private equity and venture banking relationship with loan programs and wealth management for the GP/LP partner community.

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