Not your typical bank chairman: Metro Bank founder Vernon Hill
Bank chairmen are a mostly dusty old bunch.
They tend to be dry ex-Whitehall Sir Humphreys, anonymous men in grey suits who’ve risen without trace.
Then there’s Vernon Hill.
Big Vern, 72, is banking’s showman, a brash, butch hock of American ham.
With his dandyish dress sense, punchy ‘Noo Joisey’ accent and mighty comb-over, should you detect a whiff of the Donald Trumps about him that’s no great surprise – he’s an old golfing pal of the Prez.
But don’t let that flamboyant exterior fool you.
Hill might look like he’s just walked off a car dealer’s forecourt, but inside that dome-shaped head lurks one of the best banking brains in the business.
He launched Metro Bank in the UK in 2010 when the embers of the credit crisis were still glowing. Since then, he’s turned High Street banking here on its head.
Metro’s glass-fronted branches, bearing the bank’s now familiar red-and-white logo, are among the most customer-friendly you’ll find.
They’re open from eight in the morning until eight at night. Customers can walk in and open an account within 15 minutes and even bring their dog with them.
Doggy-mad Vern is rarely seen without his beloved pooch Sir Duffield, a pampered Yorkshire terrier who feasts on rare Kobe beef and dulce de leche ice cream.
Customer-focus was a formula Hill hit upon back on America’s East Coast when he launched Commerce Bank in 1973.
Born the eldest of six to a successful Virginia estate agent, he started out in property, scouting and developing sites for McDonald’s.
The famous hamburger chain’s business model provided the impetus for Commerce. The restaurants were fun, cheap and always open. Why couldn’t banks be the same?
So at a time when all other American lenders were charging for checking accounts, Hill made Commerce free. While others took three days to clear a cheque, Commerce would do it in a day.
The bank threw outrageous parties for its customers. At one bash at New York’s Radio City Hall, Hill arrived on stage in a red sequined dinner jacket, accompanied by leggy dance troupe The Rockettes.
Commerce soon became the fastest growing franchise in America. In turn, Vern became a wealthy man.
Hill launched Metro Bank in the UK in 2010 when the embers of the credit crisis were still glowing. Since then, he’s turned High Street banking here on its head
He and wife Shirley, with whom he has four grown-up children, built Villa Collina, a sprawling, 46,000 sq ft mansion in South Jersey which remains the state’s largest property.
During its construction, Shirley would sit in a helicopter and bark instructions at builders through a megaphone.
Other businesses followed. Hill expanded into property, pet insurance and opened 40 Burger King outlets.
A keen golfer, as we’ve noted – Vern boasts an impressive six handicap – he grew tired of tee-time delays and built the Galloway National Golf Club, now one of America’s finest courses.
To this day, no one is allowed to play three holes behind him or three holes ahead of him.
When it came to banking, Hill’s tactics were aggressive. He’d drive around in a gas-guzzling Lincoln, scouring locations where he could lure customers from well-performing rivals.
He gained a reputation for trash talk. Americans with HSBC accounts, he said, were giving money to Red China. His competitors, as his friend Trump likes to say, were all losers.
In return, they referred to him as ‘Vernon the Barbarian’. How they couldn’t wait to see him brought down a peg or two.
They got their wish in 2007, when federal investigators ordered the bank to stop paying fees to companies controlled by the Hill family, which included Shirley’s design company.
Hill resigned and Commerce was sold just before the crunch, netting its founder just shy of £300million.
He mulled setting up another venture on the West Coast but decided upon the UK after learning of our lenders’ appalling customer service.
The Hills faced some fast bowling this week at the Metro’s AGM. Some shareholders made an unsuccessful attempt to deselect Vernon as chairman.
Their main gripe was that Shirley has been collecting £3million a year to design the bank’s branches.
The arrangement is a bit gamey, for sure. But as long as Big Vern’s at Metro’s helm, life’s never dull.