Montgomery County Leadership: Chris Bickel, Main Line Market Leader, Centric Bank
Chris Bickel, Main Line Market Leader at Centric Bank, spoke with MONTCO Today about growing up in Berwyn, the competitive spirit he honed through sports, playing in three national lacrosse championships for Syracuse, and his love of the outdoors.
Chris described how he found his way into the banking industry, his recipe for success in a crowded market and the importance of creating personal connections with employees and clients alike. He also shared his optimistic perspective about the economy and the world in general.
Where were you born and where did you grow up?
I was born in 1979, the youngest of three kids outside of Moorestown, New Jersey. When I was 6 years old, my parents got a divorce and I moved to Ocean City, New Jersey with my mom, older brother, and sister. We moved to Berwyn in Chester County when I was seven years old.
How did you handle the transition from Ocean City to Berwyn?
I was in elementary school when we moved to Berwyn so the move meant I had to make a whole new set of friends. The transition from Ocean City to Berwyn wasn’t as difficult as my working through my parents’ divorce was for me. That was extremely difficult for me.
What did your parents do for a living?
My father owned a software company and my mother worked for the family business Philadelphia Fire Retardant in Bryn Mawr.
What memories of growing up in Berwyn stay with you?
I lived on Lenape Drive about three miles from the Centric Bank office in Devon. I played outside and rode my bike all the time. We had one family rule growing up; when my mom whistled, and she could whistle loud, we had to come home.
Did you play any sports growing up?
I started skiing when I was four years old and skiing competitively two years later.
Who got you started skiing?
When I was a kid my parents took us on ski vacations. Those vacations were great. I would ski hard all day and then fall asleep over dinner after a long day on the slopes.
Both my parents were athletic and super competitive. My dad played football & Baseball at Penn and my mother was a great field hockey, basketball, and tennis player.
Both my older siblings played sports; my older sister played field hockey at the University of Maryland and my brother played Lacrosse at Penn State, and I, being the younger brother, wanted to hang out with the older kids which meant I had to be athletic as well.
You enjoy competition, Chris?
I love competition! I swam at the Upper Main Line YMCA and may still hold a record there in the 50-yard freestyle event. Even now, healthy competition drives me day in and day out.
Sometimes, it’s just me competing against myself, trying to get better at something. I simply don’t like to lose.
Did you play other sports as you got older?
Early on I played everything but then switched to football and lacrosse my last two years at Conestoga High School.
How did you get interested in Lacrosse?
I first got introduced to lacrosse when my brother came home one day with lacrosse sticks our neighbors up the street had given him. The same neighbor lent me a stick and the rest is history. I was hooked!
Did you have any jobs in high school?
I worked as a waiter in Ocean City and Stone Harbor every summer and interned at my grandfather’s company welding door frames, moving steel doors, and visiting job sites.
What did you learn from those jobs that stay with you today?
I like to get things done. At my grandfather’s company, I worked in the shop. I was just a kid, but I had my ideas on how to work. The guys in the shop had their own established pace. I on the other hand just wanted to get everything done as quickly as possible. “Get after it” was my motto.
I took that work ethic to my first internship at Commerce Bank. Rather than fighting traffic every morning, I got up extra early, drove to work before the traffic on the Schuylkill got bad, get all my work done and then leave at 3:30 before the afternoon rush hour started.
What kind of music were you listening to in high school?
I listened to all kinds of music.
Where did you go to college?
I did one year of prep school between high school and college at Bridgeton Academy outside of Portland, Maine.
That year not only narrowed my focus on lacrosse but also helped me get my life together. I learned I was responsible for my life, that if I was going to do anything with the talent I had it was up to me to work hard and apply myself, or not. It was the best year of my life to that point.
You found yourself at Bridgeton Academy?
Correct! Part of it was there was nothing but pine trees to distract me!
How did you decide where to go to college?
In high school, I was being more heavily recruited to play football in college. I loved football – Friday night under the lights at Conestoga, it didn’t get any better than that. I wanted to go to Penn, my dad went to Penn, but honestly, I didn’t have the SAT scores.
I was thrilled to be recruited to play lacrosse at Syracuse thanks to that prep year at Bridgeton Academy. Bridgton Academy’s slogan “the year that makes the difference,” rang true for me tenfold.
What was that Bridgton Academy did that made a difference for you?
You’re in a small town with a total population of maybe 800 people, so the only things to do were to study, work out and there was Hawk Mountain, which I used to climb with some teammates. Everything was wrapped around the outdoors and being active, and that’s who I am. That recipe worked very well for me. You were forced to be independent, which I liked.
So why Syracuse?
We had an intrasquad scrimmage in November and the field was lined with all these D1 scouts. I had a great game and coaches were calling in to set up my official visits. One of the first ones was Syracuse. I visited Syracuse with three other guys from Bridgton.
I remember walking in, meeting the Cuse coaches, and going through the trophy hall. They said, “If you want to win a national championship, you’ve got to come to Syracuse.”
I immediately canceled all my other meetings with coaches. I thought, “If they want me, I’m in.”
What was your college experience like?
That whole segment of my life was unbelievable. During freshman year, we won the national championship beating Princeton. Incredible experiences both on and off the field. The summer after my Freshman year I flew overseas on a trip to the UK to do a remembrance for the Pan Am flight that was bombed but our current lacrosse team and some recent alumni. We got to go over there, and pay our respects, but we also played the Manchester national team and the Scottish national team. It was such a cool experience.
In sophomore year, we made it again to the national championship game, but we lost to Princeton, unfortunately.
Junior year, we played Princeton again in the championship and beat them. This was incredibly special to me as I was a starter at the time. Senior year, unfortunately, we lost in the semifinals.
The biggest stressor going into my Senior year was that we had to make the final four because, at that time, Syracuse University lacrosse had the longest consecutive final four appearances in any collegiate sports history.
What’s your favorite memory from those championship years at Syracuse?
Just the family. There was such a close-knit bond between not only us as players but our parents because everyone would tailgate afterward. I’m still close friends with many of those guys today. I recently hired my college roommate and teammate, Brett Walther. Brett got into banking right after college, similar to me, and as we’ve been expanding, I’ve always kept in touch with him. I hired him a little over a year ago and he is now part of our high-performing team in Devon.
Looking back over your career, who were the people who saw promise in you and gave you opportunities?
My parents, brother and sister.
I got into banking through my brother John, who had a connection at Commerce Bank. When I sat down with Vernon Hill, Chairman & CEO of Commerce,(New Jersey), he asked me, “What do you want to do?” I said, “I love people and I’m good with numbers.” He said, “You’re going to be a banker.”
I went through Commerce Bank’s Management Development Program, which was the very best around at that time. I then spent three to four years as an analyst and couldn’t wait to get out in front and start selling.
And how was that transition into sales?
It’s funny – I was working for a regional vice president at Commerce in the analyst position, but all I wanted to do was sell. I had a lot of contacts that I was confident I would be able to open doors for business from growing up in the area. I was talking to the other team leader, Tom Shoemaker, and he said, “Come join my team – I’ll promote you tomorrow to a commercial lender position.” Ever since then, I’ve always far exceeded my goals.
What brought you to Centric?
I met my wife, Nina, in the management development program at Commerce. She’s originally from Central Pennsylvania. Her father was diagnosed with Lewy body dementia, and we decided we needed to move here to spend time with her dad. We got to spend time with her family. It worked for me because I like the outdoors and you don’t have crazy traffic. Nina’s father ended up meeting our son and passed while she was pregnant with our daughter Isla.
After moving here, I worked for Mid Penn Bank, then Metro Bank, which was acquired by First National. Several people I had worked with at Mid Penn including Don Bonafede and Terry Monteverde had gone over to Centric, so I sat down with Patti Husic, our CEO at Centric, and outlined my strengths, talked about my customer relationships and the success that I have realized in the commercial lending roles that I had over the year. She liked my story and felt it was a great fit with our Centric Team. I joined in 2016.
About 75% of my business was coming from suburban Philadelphia, Center City, south Jersey, and Delaware. I was a top producer for the 3 years after I joined Centric. That’s when Patti approached me and said, “You’re doing all this great business in the greater Philadelphia region and making a strong impact in that region. It’s a great opportunity, a great market. Would you be willing to lead a team?” I said, “Absolutely.” That’s my home turf.
We opened up the LPO in 2019 and built a branch on Route 30 right across the street from the Devon Horse Show Grounds. Our team at Devon is a high-performance team with top production! With the opportunities in the market resulting from the M&A and disruption, I approached our CEO with a presentation about an expansion plan for our office. The plan was approved and we are not expanding from five producing lenders to 10.
That’s remarkable. Especially in an overbanked market like Philadelphia!
I would agree there are many Banks and still a lot of disruption from M&A in the Philadelphia market. Our Centric Way of Banking is unique, focused on relationship building, and we have direct access to the decision-makers. We do not have layers between us and executive management. We have been embraced by the community, the businesses, and the people in the Philadelphia region. Selling is something I absolutely love. I enjoy learning about people’s businesses, how they run, what they are trying to accomplish, and what steps they are taking to improve and expand. I love the competitiveness. Understanding one’s business and motivating factors enable me to create a proposal that is literally customized every time.
What are you focused on, Chris? What are your priorities, for your branch and for the Philadelphia region, for Centric?
To continue to provide the highest level of service to our client base, a quick yes or a no, and to deliver upon our commitment to them. To continue to drive results, right? To get as many earning assets out on the street and grow our market share in the Philadelphia region. Our mission line is simple but POWERFUL “We Revolve Around You”. This resonates with our customers!
We’re a medium-sized bank now, we have exceeded over $1 billion in total assets. I think this specific area of suburban Philly, which is full of entrepreneurs, medical professionals, developers, and small business owners loves our kind of bank.
We’re human beings. My phone’s always on. Communication is 110 percent the most important thing, whether that’s internally, with your coworkers, or externally, with prospects & clients.
You mentioned that you’re bringing on five new lenders. Any new markets you’ll be going after?
We like the healthcare private practice market. We’re able to provide some flexibility in this sector where others perhaps do not have the expertise or choose not to invest their resources. We offer up to 100 percent financing, which sets us apart. Professional practice financing in the medical, dental, and specialty practice space is a niche of ours at Centric. We shine with those high-touch relationships and our concierge service. We also do a lot of commercial real estate, new construction, and refinances. We focus on SBA financing, C&I, equipment, and lines of credit as well.
Are you finding the talent that you need?
Absolutely! We’re a community bank where we need that lender to be multitalented and knowledgeable in many areas. We’ve been able to identify top talent through a pretty significant network, bring them on board, and set them up with all of the tools for success.
What do you like to do in your free time, Chris?
Even after college, lacrosse has been a huge part of my life. My brother started Team Ten, a local club team in Berwyn, and he’s got nine teams. Last summer I started the franchise of Team Ten Harrisburg.
Our son, who’s 10, plays in that. He also plays basketball, which I don’t coach, but I do enjoy watching his games. Our daughter, who’s 9, is involved in dance and gymnastics.
I love to fly fish – I just got back from a trip with my father. It’s a great way to relieve stress. I also still like to swim.
It’s nice that you’re able to maintain that relationship with your dad, too.
Yeah, it’s very important. He’s 76 years old, and thank God, he’s continued to be healthy. We had a blast on the trip. He caught a ton of fish.
We go on 2 fly fishing trips every year. It’s a great way to stay connected and have some good old fashion fun outdoors. I have learned a lot from my parents (and continue to learn from them) and thank them for all they have done to help guide me throughout the 42 years of my life.
What was the best book you read recently?
“Be Obsessed or Be Average” by Grant Cardone. It had a lot of good leadership lessons, production lessons, and life lessons. I try to view everything in terms of teamwork. When you’re originating a new loan, there are so many people who have to touch it throughout the process that it all goes back to relationships. What are your inter-company relationships and communication? That’s so important in order to have that deal flow seamlessly from start to finish.
In this crazy world, Chris, What gives you hope?
I think it’s the relationships I have. I deal with a lot of very successful people, and I can tell you, that those people don’t wake up and say, “The world’s coming to an end” or “The sky is falling.” They wake up and they’re optimistic. They have goals and responsibilities every single day.
It’s a way of life. Get up and get to work every day and grind it out. If there’s an issue, let’s find a way to drive straight through the middle of that issue. We’re not going to go around things – you can’t skirt an issue. Let’s face it head-on! If we’re talking about a loan and a risk, is there a way to mitigate that risk? If so, let’s structure the loan appropriately and move forward.
As far as the general economy, obviously we’re looking at significant rate hikes right now. That’s going to affect the economy and borrowing. Borrowing is then going to affect market values. At this point, I’m just waiting for that wave that’s in the background to come forward, but as far as I’m seeing, the business has been strong with quality relationships.
The economy is stronger than people give it credit for.
We’re busier than we’ve ever been. I’m looking at doubling my team, and the pipeline and production numbers are robust.
Finally, Chris, what’s the best piece of advice anybody ever gave you?
My mom always said I’m like a mayor. I always say hi to people, I talk to people, I’m very engaging, and I think that’s the most important thing you can do – find the ability to grow and network. It’s amazing how that comes back to you tenfold.
Where do you get that from?
My parents. My Mom, she’s enthusiastic, she’s not afraid to talk to anyone. My father is more conservative but it’s helped create a healthy balanced approach for me.
I think that’s such an important trait to have – to be able to talk to anyone from a CEO to a janitor. It’s about understanding who they are.
We just hired three new credit analysts, and I’ve been meeting with them to take them out to lunch. It’s so much more than banking. What are they like? What are their triggers? What are they into? As soon as you actually know the person, they’re going to work thirty thousand times harder for you because there’s a level of mutual respect and you truly know who they are.
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