Agenda takes shape for new PNC chief


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When Bill Demchak joined PNC Financial Services Group a decade ago, it wasn't the best of times for the venerable Pittsburgh institution.

The bank was in hot water with federal regulators over off-the-books accounting maneuvers that had the effect of inflating PNC's profits. Mr. Demchak had been hired from JPMorgan Chase in New York as chief financial officer to help improve PNC's internal controls.

What Mr. Demchak remembers most upon his arrival was the company's "desire to turn things right."

"There was no denial. It was all about 'How do we fix this,' " he said in a telephone interview Thursday. "I had never seen anything like it."

PNC made it through those troubling times, growing from the 22nd-largest to ninth-biggest bank in the nation with 2,900 retail branches in 19 states and Washington, D.C., and operations spanning 40 states.

As Mr. Demchak gets ready to take the reins from longtime CEO James Rohr in April, it will be his job to keep the $300 billion institution growing, a tough assignment given the record low interest rates and tepid economy squeezing the industry.

Financial institutions also must deal with "repairing a damaged brand" scarred by the financial crisis, plus complying with the additional regulations the crisis spawned, he said.

Mr. Demchak, 50, who has served as PNC's president for the last year and as senior vice chairman since 2009, said he will concentrate on building business in existing markets, particularly in the Southeast where PNC last year completed the $3.5 billion acquisition of the Royal Bank of Canada's U.S. banking operations. The deal added about 400 branches, extending PNC's reach in the Carolinas, Florida, Alabama, Georgia and Virginia.

"We have historically grown pretty aggressively through acquisitions," Mr. Demchak said. "I think now the focus will be growing organically and getting the most out of the acquisitions we have done."

On the downside, PNC bought a relatively small, underperforming player in RBC. "The upside is there is a lot of room to grow," Mr. Demchak said.

For now, additional acquisitions are off the table, he said. "We have more than enough to do with what we have today."

During a conference call in January, PNC executives emphasized that the bank would be intently focused on cutting costs this year. Mr. Demchak said Thursday that those cuts would result in some layoffs "at the extreme margin," but for the most part, staff reductions would be achieved through attrition.

PNC, along with many other big banks, also has been dogged recently by so-called denial-of-service attacks in which hackers flood websites with communications requests, slowing the sites and blocking customers from accessing their accounts.

Mr. Demchak said the banking industry and government have been cooperating on finding ways to better detect and defend against the attacks.

"The slowdowns people see have been gradually declining," he said.

Still, he said, such threats are "probably a way of life for all companies going forward in the digital age."

It was a different kind of threat that helped lead Mr. Demchak -- a native of Rochester, N.Y., who moved to Fox Chapel in grade school -- back to the Pittsburgh region and to PNC in 2002.

He was working for the recently merged JPMorgan Chase in New York as head of structured finance, after joining the former JP Morgan straight out of business school in 1986. Animosity created by the merger of the two banking powerhouses had made it "a tough place to work," Mr. Demchak said.

When the World Trade Center attacks happened in September 2001, it cemented his desire to work elsewhere and to find a safer environment for raising his two young boys.

When PNC came calling, "It clicked. It worked," he said.

Mr. Demchak said he wants Pittsburghers to know that "I love this city. I love this institution," and that PNC will remain committed to supporting and helping to grow the community.

He said he has been inspired by his predecessor, Mr. Rohr, 64, one of the most active and influential CEOs in the region for the last 13 years, whom he called "a huge ball of positive energy."

"I've seen the power of that, and in some of the transformation of Downtown," Mr. Demchak said. "I'd like to continue that legacy."

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Patricia Sabatini: psabatini@post-gazette.com or 412-263-3066.


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