New leader wants to take BMO Harris into Minnesota's top tier

Chicago-based BMO Harris Bank, a relative newcomer to Minnesota, is aiming for the state’s No. 3 spot as a full-service bank.

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Todd Senger, BMO Harris Bank’s new president for Minnesota: “We want to be in the same circles as U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo.”

Photo: Bruce Bisping , Star Tribune

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The bank’s recent billboards said it all. The name is bee-mo, not B.M.O.

As in Bee-mo Harris Bank, the Chicago outsider trying to break into a tight and tradition-bound Twin Cities market.

BMO Harris Bank entered the state two years ago when it shoveled up troubled M&I Bank in its $4.1 billion acquisition of Milwaukee-based Marshall & Ilsley Corp. With the integration complete, BMO Harris now says its main challenge is establishing itself as “the third banking option for people,” according to Todd Senger.

The bank on Monday will announce that Senger, 35, is its new president for Minnesota. Senger takes the spot vacated by Jeanne Crain, who last year was named Twin Cities CEO of St. Paul-based Bremer Bank.

And he’s gunning for growth.

“The brand awareness is beginning to take shape,” Senger said in an interview. “We want to be in the same circles as U.S. Bank and Wells Fargo in terms of the wealth of customers they serve today.”

It’s a lofty goal for a bank still working on local name recognition. And it takes clear aim at Wayzata-based TCF Financial Corp., whose TCF Bank has long claimed the No. 3 spot in Minnesota banking behind Wells Fargo & Co. and U.S. Bancorp.

In response, TCF Vice Chairman Tom Jasper said his firm always worries about competition. TCF has increased its checking account base in Minnesota for the past four consecutive quarters, he noted.

M&I was sinking when BMO Harris came to the rescue, suffering big losses on real estate loans. But M&I was well-known in the Twin Cities, primarily as a commercial lender, one that caters more to companies than individuals. BMO Harris figures it’s already the third-largest commercial lender in Minnesota after Wells Fargo and U.S. Bank.

But in total deposits, it’s No. 4 behind the top two and TCF. BMO Harris would have to nearly double its $2.7 billion in deposits to overtake TCF as a full-service force. Senger insists it can.

The bank’s full-service strategy is two-pronged: “penetrate and attack” more medium and large corporate clients, opening more opportunities to sell the bank’s other business lines to those players, and directly call on potential new clients for its other lines, gathering referrals from existing customers and other professionals it works with.

“We are on a focused and aggressive growth strategy across all business lines in Minnesota to grow our market share,” Senger said.

Senger comes from M&I, and has been the bank’s commercial banking managing director in Minneapolis and Kansas City. The bank’s core business in the Twin Cities remains commercial lending, focusing on companies with annual sales of $20 million and more. Senger said the bank has particular strengths in food and consumer companies, auto dealers, agribusiness and nonprofits.

Both BMO Harris, with total assets of nearly $100 billion, and its parent, BMO Financial Group in Toronto, are owned by the publicly traded Bank of Montreal, one of Canada’s largest banks. BMO Financial has been making a big bet on the U.S. Midwest, most recently opening a commercial lending office in Omaha.

Locally, the bank’s commercial team has brought in 14 net new customers so far this year, Senger said, in a stiff race to snag firms willing to take on some risk as the economy slowly strengthens.

“People are starting to dig into their pockets again. They’re now beginning to actually move forward on some of those strategies,” Senger said.

Meanwhile, the bank is staffing up to grow more robust business in retail, wealth management, small business and commercial real estate. It currently employs a little more than 400 people, about what M&I employed before the acquisition. There’s been talk of more small acquisitions, but Senger would say only that the bank will target “something that augments those business lines.”

It began a big marketing push last fall to introduce BMO to the Twin Cities and establish it as a full-service bank, with radio spots and billboards, culminating with the “Dream Home” television spot during the Super Bowl. Still running, the ad features a young couple gazing wistfully at a big old stately home and the message that BMO Harris can make it happen.

Then there’s Hubert the Lion, the bank’s mascot, who’s been popping up at special events.

The biggest short-term challenge, Senger said, is “continuing to make sure that the market understands who BMO is.”

The cluster of banks competing in the lower end of the top 10 are on alert.

David Faust, director of sales and marketing for St. Paul-based Anchor Bank, said he expects to run into BMO more often.

“We know they’re going to be a force,” Faust said. “We don’t know where that’s going to show up.”

 

Jennifer Bjorhus • 612-673-4683

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