The new leader of BBVA's U.S. operations has already set a clear direction: countertrend.
Manuel Sanchez was reluctant in an interview to display the appetite for acquisitions common among bankers these days, including his former boss. Jose Maria Garcia Meyer spent the past six years taking Banco Bilbao Vizcaya Argentaria SA's presence here from a relatively small remittance business in California to a bank with roughly $65 billion of assets and more than 700 branches in seven states.
Instead, Sanchez, whom the Madrid company promoted last week, described BBVA as approaching a turning point, especially after fully integrating Guaranty Bank of Austin, Texas, acquired in a government-assisted transaction last year.
"As the competitive landscape has evolved, we are seeing an historic opportunity in an environment that is really unique," Sanchez said in an interview last week. "It should allow us to accelerate the introduction of our customer-centric business model."
The bank will be more reliant on technological enhancements, expansion of corporate banking and improvements in customer service.
Observers say the timing is right for Sanchez's strategy.
"The bank should be ready to launch a new phase," said Javier Bernat, an analyst at Caja Madrid Bolsa in Madrid. He predicted commercial banking will be a major focus for Sanchez, developing a franchise that was largely built by his predecessor. (Garcia Meyer was recently promoted to an international post.)
"In the very short term, I do not see new acquisitions," Bernat added. "New management will be more focused on evaluating and reactivating commercial business plans."
For his part, Sanchez did not rule out more acquisitions — "We're always open to look at things when they come up" — but looking at BBVA's lineup of U.S. projects makes it clearer why he's willing to bide his time when it comes to deals.
The company is working on a two-year technology initiative designed to provide customers with real-time financial information regardless of whether they are using BBVA's branches, online banking or phone services. Currently the standard at BBVA is posting at the end of the day.
"A lot of banks invest in batch processing," Sanchez said, while declining to say how much BBVA is investing in its new technology platform. "You may get some real-time events, but we're going into a full real-time system."
The upgrade is in part a response to changes in the financial services landscape over the past few years. Sanchez said that BBVA realized that 70% of all financial transactions are going through the banks now, compared with 30% five years ago. "Business is shifting massively" from nonbanks as many specialty lenders, card companies and others have disappeared.
Sanchez also has an interest in expanding BBVA's corporate and investment bank, which has mostly operated out of New York, as a way to cater to companies with business interests in Mexico, Spain and Latin America. He said BBVA is "looking to exploit" its expertise by expanding the markets of its BBVA Compass unit in the South and West, and eventually establishing a presence throughout the United States.
"We've been conservative running that business," he said, adding that the company has quietly been "attracting a lot of talent."
It wouldn't be the first time that BBVA has looked to boost corporate and investment banking. In 2008 it added more complex products such as energy derivatives to those offered at BBVA Compass, replacing a system where the bank referred clients to the investment bank.
The third priority for Sanchez is improving customer service. Earlier this year, BBVA Compass placed 48th out of the 53 biggest banks in that category, according to an annual survey by J.D. Power and Associates. Though executives largely attribute the poor showing to a plethora of computer systems that existed before the Guaranty integration, the results were disappointing to a company that prides itself on being customer-focused.
John Wessman, the director of customer experience at BBVA Compass, said he is working on a six-step program designed to get the bank to the top quartile by the end of 2012. "We're setting yearly targets to achieve that," said Wessman, who had been Guaranty's chief marketing officer.
BBVA Compass in July ramped up customer surveys, gauging the percentage of customers who are likely to recommend the bank's services. Executives are also introducing a separate survey that will measure customer satisfaction with call centers, Internet banking, credit cards, mortgages and investments. A portion of bonuses in the retail bank will be tied to scores, Wessman said.
Early next year, the company will create an advisory board for customer service, which will include 12 employees from branches and call centers who will meet quarterly to discuss improvements. BBVA Compass also created a team of executives who are responsible for addressing issues such as resolving problem incidents. Wessman is also in the early stages of hiring an outside company to offer customer service training.
The bank's most visible effort is its Frontline Friday program, where more than 60 executives spend one day each month working in branches or call centers. They interact with employees and customers then discuss their findings. The program made its debut in September. "We have some executives who want to adopt a branch and visit more often on an informal basis," Wessman said.
Sanchez, who spent much of this year visiting BBVA Compass branches, spent his first Frontline Friday in a Houston branch, working the teller line and greeting customers.
"I took an entire book of notes," he said. "We now have a big laundry list. But the most valuable part of the day was being able to talk to customers. It is a down-to-earth statement that shows people what our bank is all about."