The Immigrant Success Story Behind Whitemarsh’s Firstrust Bank
More than a century after his grandfather immigrated to America from Hungary, Firstrust Bank’s chairman and CEO Richard Green is working hard to preserve the family’s legacy and values.
Firstrust Bank’s chairman and CEO Richard Green. Photo by Tessa Marie Images.
The procession snaked slowly north on Broad Street, between sidewalks lined with frozen but euphoric faithful—past Snyder, across Passyunk. The throngs roared. The sun shone. Jason Kelce was still hours from his magnificent oration.
For Richard Green, the most emotional part of the Eagles’ Super Bowl championship parade happened when he turned to his son, Jeffrey, and pointed north toward Point Breeze Avenue.
“I said, ‘When your great-grandfather came to this city in 1905, he had seven dollars in his pocket. I wonder what he’d think if he knew his grandson and great-grandson were riding in this parade,’” recalls Green, who lives in Gladwyne. “It was a poignant moment.”
Indeed, it’s unlikely Samuel A. Green could’ve ever imagined anything like that when he stepped off a boat at Ellis Island, N.Y., had his name changed from Zoldag (“green branch” in Hungarian), settled on Point Breeze Avenue and embarked on a career as a salesman. But here was his grandson—chairman and CEO of Firstrust Bank and minority owner of the Eagles—riding on a bus up Broad Street, basking in the delirium of the moment and reflecting on a success story so authentic it’s almost cliché.
The story begins with his grandfather providing home loans to postal workers and launching First Federal Savings and Loan in South Philadelphia. Green’s father built that into a sturdy local banking concern. Now, Firstrust is a regional powerhouse, with 18 branches and $3.5 billion in assets. Samuel Green began it. Daniel Green grew it. Richard Green has continued the progress. Firstrust is a rarity in the banking world—a thriving, privately owned midsized institution with a neighborhood touch and a gleaming bottom line.
Green’s approach is just like that of his grandfather and father. He makes solid business decisions without sacrificing service in the pursuit of profit. Firstrust wants to be successful, but not if that means shaky deals or strategies that threaten relationships with customers. Because it’s not public, Firstrust doesn’t have to worry about making decisions based on immediate profits.
In the parking lot of Firstrust’s Whitemarsh headquarters, the best parking spaces are for the customers who use the branch on the first floor. Many current team members have fathers or mothers who were—or are still—with the bank. “In many ways, our culture was defined for me by my grandfather and dad,” Green says. “They believed very much in serving the customer. Our core documents deal with how to treat people, externally and internally. We are open to change and innovation, but we remain essentially a family company.”
Now 40 years into his tenure at Firstrust, Green, it appears, was destined for banking—but that’s not completely true. After graduating from the Haverford School in 1969, where he was a standout in football and lacrosse, Green earned degrees in political science and economics from Tufts University. Then it was on to Dallas, where he was looking to satisfy his entrepreneurial yearning. But he “missed his roots,” returning to the Philadelphia area for a job interview—with his father.
Daniel Green outlined the idea he had for his son: Richard would serve as general counsel for the bank and eventually squire it through a conversion from a mutually owned entity to a privately held institution. It sounded like a good idea. In fact, Green’s master’s thesis at Southern Methodist University, where he earned an MBA/JD, was on the same type of conversion. Everything seemed perfect except for the salary. “I told my father, ‘I have all these degrees, and peer data shows people in these kinds of jobs make $40,000-45,000 a year,’” Green says.
His father was adamant that the job paid $18,000 a year, so Richard had some thinking to do. “I saw my father the next day and said, ‘I guess you want me to join you in a get-rich-slow scheme,’” says Green. “He said, ‘Yes.’”
In 1978, Green took the job, spending the next several years working to make the bank a private concern—by no means an easy process. Even though the banking industry had been deregulated in the early 1980s and a law had been passed that allowed management to buy an institution, it still took several strategic tacks, plenty of creativity and three years of litigation for Green and his father to prevail. In 1987, with the blessing of their depositors, the family took ownership of the bank. What was then First Federal Savings and Loan became Firstrust. “Richard still quotes his grandfather and father when talking about serving our customers,” says Tim Abell, who’s been with Firstrust for 15 years and its president since 2007. “It’s amazing how appropriate their sayings are to today’s time.”
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While the Greens were working to convert the bank, Richard was exploring the world of pro sports team ownership. In the mid-1980s, Eagles owner Leonard Tose was drowning in debt and under pressure to sell. Green was part of a group that offered $60 million for the team—a sizeable number at the time. But Norman Braman and his team bid $65 million. “If we’d made the deal, I would’ve owned a piece of the team and run the team,” Green says.
Nine years later, when Braman sold the team to Jeffrey Lurie for a then-record $185 million, Green became a minority partner—in part because the league thought it wise to have a local presence in the ownership group, since Lurie was from New England.
Green’s presence was also a product of the due diligence he’d done during his original bid process. “I always felt it was a good investment—not just from a dollars-and-cents perspective, but also for the opportunity to leverage the power of the brand and do good for the community,” he says.
Meanwhile, under Green’s direction, Firstrust has branched into real estate and “other operating companies.” He has interests in “a few hotels” in Turks and Caicos. But it’s Firstrust with which Green is most closely identified. The bank settles well into the “3-400 banks outside the top 30 that are meaningful,” he says. Firstrust doesn’t aspire to be one of the 30 or so banks that “control 85 percent of the industry.”
And the wave of consolidation continues. Not long ago, there were 9,000 banks nationally—now there are 5,500. “Our value proposition is that we’re private, and our decision making is decidedly local,” says Green. “We can invest for the long term and build multigenerational relationships with a commitment to the region.”
As for the Green family, daughter Brittany is at Drexel Law School, and Julia attends Tulane University. Son Jeffrey has joined Firstrust as a business analyst and will rotate through several positions. With him in the fold, the multigenerational concept continues, building on what started on Point Breeze Avenue. It’s where the Firstrust compass always points.