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Laura Gamble wants to grow PNC by keeping in touch with its customers

It’s a strange time to be a bank. As low interest rates pinch profits, many community banks struggle to survive, but meanwhile, major conglomerates are mimicking certain qualities of the little guys.

Laura Gamble: ‘Where I think PNC is at the right place is we’re big enough to have all the products and services that our customers want, but we’re not, you know, a global behemoth.’

Just ask industry veteran Laura Gamble, who was recently appointed Maryland regional president of PNC Financial Services Group Inc.

Gamble, in her previous position with Bank of America Corp., had been behind the curtain at one of the largest banking institutions in the world. Then, she left the industry entirely and viewed it from afar. Now, in her new role, she has big plans for sustaining the recent growth of PNC — the bank that swallowed Baltimore-based Mercantile Bankshares Corp. in 2007.

“The last five years have been a really tough environment for all banks, big and small,” she said. “Where I think PNC is at the right place is we’re big enough to have all the products and services that our customers want, but we’re not, you know, a global behemoth.

“Even though we’ve only been PNC for five years here, our roots go back 150 years,” she added.

Mercantile had its share of financial woes, but it was also simply a victim of a generally hostile environment for community banks.

That environment hasn’t improved, Gamble said. If anything, it’s become more difficult to be a community bank with strict federal regulations and very low interest rates.

PNC is the third largest bank in the region, behind Bank of America and M&T Bank, and it continues to add new customers at a higher rate than the population is growing, Gamble said.

The key to PNC’s recent growth, Gamble said, is being able to provide what customers like about community banks — the local, individualized service — with the stability and latest technological developments that only a larger bank can provide.

“Our philosophy is about developing capabilities and products centrally, but delivering them locally,” Gamble said. “So what we’ve been able to bring to our customers is a lot of new products and services that Mercantile didn’t have.”

The acquisition of Mercantile was a blow to the viability of community banks, but Gamble said PNC — which is by no means a small bank — shares Mercantile’s core strategies and philosophies.

“[Other banks] are just flying people in to see some of their customers, whereas we can just walk across the street,” she said. “And to a lot of people, that is important. They want to know who the decision-makers are. They want to be able to see them face-to-face. …And from that perspective, we really share a commonality with a community bank, but we have the power and the financial might to support them in a large way.”

Adopting some of Mercantile’s values made the transition more seamless and allowed the bank to retain many of its personnel and customers, she said. But there is a different culture, a “different view of things,” Gamble said, because employees have access to more resources — more products, more money, more people.

To sustain PNC’s growth in Baltimore, the goal is to maximize the number of new clients without adding many more brick-and-mortar locations.

Focus on universities

To that end, PNC is heavily pushing its online banking services and aiming to establish more partnerships with local universities and other institutions, Gamble said.

PNC is already the official bank of three local universities — Towson University; the University of Maryland, Baltimore County; and Morgan State University — which Gamble said allows the bank to hook student customers early. Those customers are also a prime audience for products like PNC’s “Virtual Wallet,” an online tool that helps customers track their money and develop strategies for managing it.

Branches will be built as needed — five have been built since PNC arrived in the region, and two more are slated to open by the end of this year — but Gamble said it’s a difficult investment while interest rates are still so low.

Gamble is all too familiar with how acquisitions shake up companies — and the people who work for them. It was that bank-eat-bank environment that prompted her to step away from the industry, she said.

She left her former role as Bank of America’s Maryland regional president in 2009 — right after it announced the acquisitions of Merrill Lynch and Countrywide Financial.

“Frankly, I wasn’t happy with where things were going, and I was presented with some pretty uninteresting choices, from my perspective,” Gamble said. “And I’d been there 24 years, and I was ready to try something else.”

So, with more than two decades of banking experience and a solid repertoire of financial knowledge, she launched a consulting business, Skipjack Partners LLC, with former co-worker Cindy Flanders, who had left Bank of America a few years earlier.

After three years with Skipjack, the phone rang.

On the other line was Lou Cestello — a long-time friend who at the time wore Gamble’s current hat at PNC — asking her to return to banking.

Gamble wouldn’t specify what position he offered, but she turned it down. The unregulated world of consulting suited her just fine, Gamble said, and Skipjack was still getting up and running. She was in no hurry to return to banking, she said.

But six months later, Cestello called with a different offer. This time, Gamble didn’t hang up the phone so quickly.

PNC had just completed its acquisition of RBC Centura — operational conversions finished in March — and Cestello had been appointed to lead the southeastern portion of the bank’s footprint. He needed to find his replacement.

After learning more about PNC, its focus on providing a localized banking experience for customers and its growing market share in the region, she decided the company was a good fit, she said.

So she accepted, and re-entered the banking world armed with a broader perspective and a clearer picture of her professional values, she said.

Just as Gamble’s banking experience informed her work at Skipjack, her stint as a small business owner showed her the view from the other side of the desk, so to speak. She gained a heightened sensitivity to the challenges facing small business owners, she said, such as the complexities of navigating their finances.

Greater empathy

“You really have a much greater empathy for your business owners knowing what they’ve gone through,” she said.

Though her title was the same, life at Bank of America was a whole different ballgame, because her former employer took a different approach to leadership, she said.

Gamble is one of 33 regional presidents at PNC, and she said they’re all given a great deal of autonomy to operate in a way that fits their individual markets. At Bank of America, she had other responsibilities in addition to being regional president, and the connection to the local market wasn’t quite the same.

“At the time that I was there, [the regional president position] was really an add-on, whereas at PNC Bank, we really believe that it’s a key differentiator — the fact that we have regional presidents, that we have regional decision-making and a real focus on our customers,” Gamble said.

Bank of America recently ran a national advertising campaign targeting small business owners. The ads portrayed the bank as particularly attuned to the needs of the early stage entrepreneur.

Gamble said that although PNC offers a range of services that small business owners often take advantage of, the bank doesn’t shoot for specific categories of customers. For the clients, she said, that kind of targeted marketing isn’t necessarily helpful.

“Our customers don’t really care how we slot them,” she said. “They just know what they need and what they want.”

“I always find it interesting when we categorize businesses,” she continued, “because to the business owners, their business is never small. I mean it really is their life … and to them, they’re not small.”

PNC’s philanthropy

Gamble said she’d be “remiss” if she didn’t emphasize the depth of PNC’s philanthropic contributions. Most corporations have a philanthropic arm, but Gamble insisted PNC’s involvement goes beyond fulfilling an obligation.

She said it differentiates PNC from its competitors in Baltimore and highlights another similarity to community banks.

Over the past five years, PNC has contributed $18 million in grants and thousands of employee volunteer hours to a host of organizations. A primary initiative is the company’s Grow Up Great program, which aims to improve early childhood education.

But the bank has given grants to a wide variety of groups, such as the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra and the Baltimore office of Operation HOPE, a Los Angeles-based group that teaches youth about financial literacy.

“You point it out, I’m pretty sure we’ve made a grant to it at some point in the last five years,” she joked.

PNC has also contributed to revitalization efforts around the city, such as the Open Walls Baltimore project in the Station North Arts & Entertainment District.

“I think that’s another big piece of evidence of why being here and delivering everything locally can really make a difference,” she said. “Because I think if you’re just flying in a couple times a month, you would never make that connection of how to really develop and revitalize communities.”

Laura Gamble

Family: Lives in Baltimore with her husband and two children.

Education: Graduated from University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, in 1985 with a degree in business administration

Work History: Greater Maryland regional president of PNC Bank, April 2012 – present; co-founder, Skipjack Partners, 2009-2012; co-founder, Manage Fearlessly, 2009-2012; market executive, U.S. Trust, 2007-2009; Maryland regional president of Bank of America, 2001-2009; treasury management executive, Bank of America, 2000-2005.

Boards and commissions: Baltimore Community Foundation, trustee; Lovely Lane United Methodist Church, board member; Central Maryland Transportation Alliance, vice chair and treasurer; Sheppard Pratt Health System, trustee; Economic Alliance of Greater Baltimore, former chair.