Santander executive Pierre Habis sees growth prospects for the bank's U.S. arm with a focus on auto and business loans.
Pierre P. Habis already has two acquisitions under his belt and a mission to become a regional banking powerhouse less than two years into his job as senior executive vice president at Santander.
Habis moved over to Santander (SAN.MC) in 2020 after leading the consumer banking unit at MUFG Union Bank. Now he heads up Santander's U.S. consumer and business units out of the bank's Boston office.
One adjustment during Habis's tenure thus far is the recognition that Santander may be a global retail bank, but in reality in the U.S. it's a small, Northeast regional bank.
"We're not going to be the bank that's everything to everyone," Habis told MarketWatch. "There's a niche play that can be more distinctive and finding what I call the invisible middle is the win/win for us."
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The COVID-19 pandemic has made consumers much more focused on online banking, he said.
"Everything that's happening around us now was happening pre-pandemic -- it's just accelerated," Habis said. "The adoption of the different ways of doing your banking--the acceptance of that has really, really changed."
The bank is also looking past a run-in with regulators that concluded in late 2020 with a $4.75 million civil penalty from the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau. The bureau issued a consent order and ruled that the bank provided loan data to consumer reporting agencies in its nonprime auto loans and leases in a way that could have hurt consumers' credit scores and access to credit.
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Habis said that Santander has been able to put these challenges in the rearview mirror and make two successful external acquisitions: the bank has closed its acquisition of Miami-based Indosuez Wealth Management from seller Crédit Agricole, in a move to add $4.3 billion in client assets and liabilities. It's also buying New York-based fixed income broker dealer Amherst Pierpont Securities for $600 million to add to its Santander Corporate & Investment Banking (Santander CIB) business. In a third transaction involving its internal business units, Santander Holdings USA Inc. (SHUSA) is buying the portion of Santander Consumer USA Holdings Inc. (SC) that it does not already own for $41.50 per share in a deal expected to close by the end of the year.
"We're in a much different position than we were two, three or four years ago," Habis said. "We are always trying to do the right things from a regulatory and customer perspective."
Auto loans remain a bright spot for Santander amid strong demand for new and used cars.
"There are natural synergies and resources between Santander Bank and Santander Consumer's auto business that we've been able to leverage for Santander Bank consumers," Habis said.
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Habis said he remains focused on working with small businesses after the bank took part in the PPP loan program during the pandemic.
"I still haven't seen the health of small business come back," Habis said. "You've seen consumer spending come back and businesses shift digitally, but small business is still recuperating."
As 2021 comes to a close, Habis said he's focused on investing in Santander's online presence and growth in its existing markets on the East Coast.
"I'm not as keen on acquiring banks as I am building out our digital offering and complementing that with some level of physical presence, ultimately leading to a more modern bank, which is a hybrid, digitally-led business," he said.
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