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The Corner Office: Thomas X. Geisel, President & CEO, Sun National Bank

by Alexandra Harcharek
Thomas Geisel joined Vineland-based Sun National Bank as president and chief executive in early 2008, just when the recession and the financial industry began to freefall. But that didn’t faze him. Named one of Forbes’ “Most Trustworthy Companies” for five consecutive years, Sun National Bank has 65 locations throughout New Jersey, with more on the way. Coming out of the recession, Geisel is preparing to oversee an expansion that will broaden Sun’s reach across North and Central Jersey.

Tell us about your plans for expansion.
We look at New Jersey as a whole. Our ultimate goal is to be the strongest commercial bank in the state of New Jersey, to be a truly statewide bank. We already have strong density and market share in South Jersey; we want to take that model and move it north. There’s two ways to do that: with retail growth, by adding more branches, or through commercial growth. We’ve chosen to lead with commercial growth in North Jersey and then follow with retail growth. We are truly a statewide bank, we just don’t have as many physical locations as we’d like.

What was your guiding philosophy for navigating the recession?
When things are easy, it’s easy to lead. Anyone can be a leader during good times. When times are tough, you see what people are made of and who they really are. The economic recession gave me the opportunity to see what Sun Bank is made of and be a strong leader. I believe we’re a stronger company coming out of this than when we came in.

Did you change your approach to lending following the market collapse?
Our underwriting standards did not change, but there is no doubt that during the recession access to capital was much tighter. We certainly never stopped lending. The banking industry tends to be pretty dynamic, like a pendulum effect. Many times, when banks are lending money left and right and times are great, the pendulum gets stuck all the way to the left. Then when things get tight, the pendulum swings all the way to the right, the other extreme. What we try to do is to keep the pendulum swinging as close to center as possible—a balance that’s hard to achieve based on the external environment.

As you look to grow, what do you look for in determining whether an acquisition will be a good fit?
There are three aspects we look at for a potential partnership. First and foremost: the culture. We see if the organization runs similar to ours, if their people think the same, and have the same types of core values. The next aspect of a potential partnership is to see what products or services they offer, if there’s something that would be beneficial or duplicative to what we have. We also see if this is an opportunity where we already have established market share, or one that would allow us to break into a new market. At the end of the day, it’s really about the people.

What was the biggest challenge in this job and how did you overcome it?
Coming into the company just as the financial services industry was freefalling. I made sure during that time our people focused on the customer, while strengthening the company. We did a lot of customer outreach, wrote letters, and did town halls in our markets. This was also a time to ramp up our internal training, to give our employees a lot of the tools and resources that they need.

What’s the biggest challenge still facing you?
The biggest challenge facing us—facing any financial institution—is the regulatory environment. Rules are being written that will change our business, and we don’t know what they’ll say. Now, strategy has to be in much shorter terms, because you have to plan for flux in the regulatory environment. One thing that’s really important: controlling what you can control, influencing what you can’t. We try to live by that philosophy.

How do you build strong client relationships?
We have the best of both worlds as an organization. Because of our size, we have products and services that some of the larger institutions have, but our distribution is a community banking model. We get to sit and talk with our clients all the time, to interact with them in the community. Something we do differently is relationship review sessions with our customers, to discuss what’s going on in the industry and how we can help them.

Any business advice you live by?
Mindset is everything. If you work hard enough and you’re not deterred or distracted by short term setbacks, you can actually control your own destiny.

What business book would you recommend?
I believe you can learn a lot more from philosophy and history—things that can teach you life, more than business principals. I frequently read Meditations of Marcus Aurelius, by the philosopher and Roman emperor; a series of passages dealing with spiritual and ethical insights.

What's in your briefcase?
I travel very light. Give me my iPhone, wallet, business cards, pen and paper and some catch-up reading and I’m good.

Any little-known hobbies?
I used to ride sport motorcycles. I had two Ducatis, a Honda and a Kawasaki.

What are you most proud of in your career?
Watching people who work with me grow and advance in their careers. Watching clients achieve their goals. What I will be most proud of has yet to come: creating the strongest commercial bank in the state of New Jersey with Sun National Bank.

Published (and copyrighted) in South Jersey Biz, Volume 1, Issue 7 (July, 2011).
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