Huntington Bank CEO hails region's vigor

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Huntington Bank CEO Stephen Steinour has traveled to Pittsburgh many times during his decades-long career in banking and says he's never been more struck by the city's vibrancy than he is today.

"It used to be, 10 years ago, people would say, 'Wouldn't it be nice if we copied Cleveland,' " he said Thursday from the Columbus, Ohio-based bank's Pittsburgh offices in the Grant Building, Downtown.

"Now, in Cleveland, all they can talk about is the great things happening in Pittsburgh."

For Huntington, which burst on the scene in southwestern Pennsylvania in 2007 with the purchase of Bowling Green, Ohio-based Sky Bank, the last few years here have been a period of -- if not vibrant -- at least satisfying performance.

Since taking over Sky, Huntington's share of deposits in the seven-county Pittsburgh region has hovered in the 2.6 percent to 3 percent range, positioning it as a perennial No. 6 behind PNC Bank, Citizens and others.

But Mr. Steinour insists those figures belie substantial underlying growth in the number of customers that Huntington has attracted in recent years.

More important, he said, the bank has been able to leverage those new customers by cross-selling other products, such as mortgages and other loans.

For proprietary reasons, Huntington doesn't break out customer numbers by market, Mr. Steinour said. But overall, the $57 billion-asset bank has added some 350,000 new checking account customers, bringing the total across its markets to 1.25 million.

The bank also has been able to make a name for itself in the small business arena, finishing for the last several years as one of the nation's top five lenders of Small Business Administration-backed loans, and No. 1 in the Pittsburgh region.

"We're growing organically very significantly," said Mr. Steinour, 55, who in 2008 resigned as CEO at Citizens Financial Group in Providence, R.I., assuming the helm at Huntington in 2009 at the height of the nation's financial crisis.

When the Gettysburg native took over at Huntington, the institution was down for the count, reeling under a crush of toxic housing and commercial real estate loans.

That year, the bank lost $3.3 billion, on top of a $160 million loss in 2008.

Aided by cost cuts, massive loan write-offs and an infusion of capital from public stock offerings, Huntington returned to profitability in 2010. Last year, the bank earned $609 million.

Mr. Steinour credits the growth in customer accounts in large part to the bank's "Fair Play" marketing strategy that includes free checking and a "24-Hour Grace" program launched in 2010 that gives customers who overdraw their accounts 24 hours to get back into the black before they're hit with any overdraft fees.

The idea for 24-hour grace was born out of regional meetings Mr. Steinour held in 2009 to come up with "something bold" to differentiate the bank and at the same time help customers struggling during the Great Recession.

He estimates the program costs the bank at least $35 million annually in lost overdraft fees but pays major dividends in the form of goodwill. "Our surveys show people love it," even though the vast majority of customers don't use it because they never overdraw their accounts, he said.

Customers "just think it's fair," he said.

While Mr. Steinour says it's tough competing in the Pittsburgh market with the likes of PNC, which controls some 50 percent of deposits in the region, he says the situation has its upside.

"It's great for Pittsburgh to have a large regional bank headquartered here," he said.

As for Huntington, the strong competition "makes everyone better."

Patricia Sabatini: or 412-263-3066.

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