Chase branching out, hiring in Atlanta

Those help wanted signs aren’t mirages. Chase is hiring.

The retail and commercial banking arm of JPMorgan Chase & Co. plans to open 10 new bank branches across the northern metro Atlanta area by the end of the year, with eight now under construction.

Chase plans to open an additional 35 new branches through 2012. That’s about 350 new jobs in banking centers over the next two years.

It’s part of the Wall Street conglomerate’s plan to bulk up in Atlanta, a market it entered in 2008 when it acquired the wreckage of Washington Mutual, the failed Seattle-based thrift also known as WaMu.

JPMorgan Chase is an international banking powerhouse, but in Atlanta it's known more for credit cards and mortgages than for retail banking.

“We always aspire to be one of the top banks in market share in the markets we serve,” said Richard Sawyer, Chase senior vice president and market manager for Georgia and Central Florida. “If we don’t feel like we can get there, we don’t belong here. But we have to build distribution to get there.”

That means more banking centers and ATMs, as well as personnel for branches and divisions such as wealth management and corporate banking, Chase spokeswoman Nancy Norris said.

“We’re hiring in virtually all lines of business,” Norris said.

Despite entering Atlanta on the back of WaMu’s failure, Chase doesn’t plan to acquire failed institutions in Georgia, officials said. Forty-one Georgia banks have failed since 2008.

“We believe we can grow organically at less cost and difficulty than buying failed banks,” Norris said.

The average newly built branch costs about $2.5 million to develop, she said.

The hiring spree is an about face from most of Georgia’s banking industry, which has lost more than 13,000 full-time jobs over the past two years, according to Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. data. Most of that has actually come from corporate downsizing—not failed banks.

Wells Fargo has hired more than 200 in the past year.

Chase has 900 employees and 57 branches in the metro area. According to the latest FDIC data, Chase had $717 million in deposits, or about 0.6 percent of the market.

SunTrust Banks is the reigning market leader with $26.8 billion in deposits, followed by Wells Fargo-Wachovia, Bank of America, regional players Regions Bank and BB&T and dozens of community banks.

“If Chase wants to disrupt the competitive balance of the market, it certainly could do so,” said Chris Marinac, bank analyst with FIG Partners in Atlanta. The question, Marinac said, is at what cost?

“Probably the best real world example of how hard it is to come in and compete in this market is WaMu itself,” said Walt Moeling, banking attorney with Bryan Cave in Atlanta.

WaMu entered Atlanta like a conquering hero, trumpeted in the media and by their own marketing machine as the Savings & Loan that would change the face of banking in the Big Peach. After opening about 100 branches, it cut back dramatically in 2006 and 2007.

“They were never able to achieve the traction they wanted,” Moeling said.

Even in a down economy and after more than three dozen bank closures in two years, Moeling said Atlanta remains “one of the most competitive banking markets in the country.”

“We’ve never seen anybody come into the market without significant acquisition,” he said.

Sawyer said Chase would compete with customer service, convenience and products others can’t match, like its iPhone banking application.

But luring a customer is tough.

“It’s a business of inertia,” Moeling said. “It’s very tough (for a consumer) to move a checking account.”