The Player: Commerce's Cunningham reaches out to consumers

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John J. Cunningham has had to deal with fast growth, industry consolidation and even terrorism during his career, but in the end, counting the coins in customers' penny jars has paid off.

In his 16 years as chief marketing officer at Commerce Bancorp, Mr. Cunningham has seen the Cherry Hill, N.J., bank grow from a speck on the map to a player with national aspirations. The marketing function has grown from one man-"I was the marketing department," he said-to a staff that recruits its executives from the likes of Starbucks Coffee Co.

"It's been a heck of a ride," said Mr. Cunningham, 43.

Commerce Bank, which bills itself as "America's Most Convenient Bank," models itself on retail stores, not banks. Branches open seven days a week, until 8 p.m. most days, and offer a variety of services, which include coin counting. Its most recent advertising campaign featured "Seinfeld" actress Julia Louis-Dreyfus as a frustrated customer leading a customer rebellion at a rival bank.

The convenience positioning is finding converts and has helped set Commerce Bank apart, experts believe. "They really have struck a responsive chord with their advertising," said Alan Siegel, chairman-CEO of branding agency Siegel & Gale, New York. The message echoes, especially among customers who feel neglected as their local banks fall to consolidation, he said.

a mission

For Mr. Cunningham, reaching out to customers is akin to a personal mission. "I love this place and the opportunity to build a brand as strong as Commerce Bank is really exciting," Mr. Cunningham said.

He started out as a Philadelphia banker, first at First Pennsylvania Bank, then as a regional marketing manager at PSFS, another Philadelphia bank, when he was hired in 1988 by Vernon W. Hill, Commerce Bank's founder, chairman-president.

Leaving a large, established bank to a join a bank with 11 branches in New Jersey was a risk, he now admits. But "it was an opportunity you just could not pass up," he said.

"His job and he evolved as this company evolved," Mr. Hill said. The marketing department now numbers over 60 people, and in the last year, Mr. Cunningham recruited Chas Herman, former VP-marketing at Starbucks, as senior VP-retail marketing.

Commerce has expanded its efforts into TV and sponsorships and maintains an extensive corporate-giving program to benefit the communities in which it does business. Three years ago, it hit on a clever idea to advertise on TV: It began sponsoring a brief visual with the time and temperature during the local Philadelphia TV news. The idea came from the time and temperature signs banks used to display, Mr. Cunningham said. The concept was later put in use when the bank entered the New York market.

The move into New York was both a big step and a big challenge. Commerce was ready to move into the home of Citibank and Chase Manhattan, with two branches scheduled to open in New York on Sept. 14, 2001. Mr. Hill was on a plane flying over the Statue of Liberty the morning of Sept. 11, when the towers of the World Trade Center collapsed. Below him, the city was in chaos and no one was thinking of their banking needs.

The grand opening could not go on as planned. Advertising in the New York market-which featured the Twin Towers on print ads-had to be reworked and the street carnivals planned for the opening were scrapped. Eventually, the branches opened without fanfare a week later.

"We had big plans to make a splash going in. Obviously, that didn't work out as planned ... but it hasn't affected us," Mr. Cunningham said. "The end of the year 2001 was quieter than we had anticipated, but we came back in 2002 with guns blazing."

And the expansion will continue to roll as Commerce expands throughout New York and into Connecticut this year and south to Virginia in 2005. Eventually the bank's reach is expected to stretch from Boston to the Washington area.

Resume

Name: John J. Cunningham Jr.

Age: 43

Now: Chief marketing officer, Commerce Bancorp

Who: A former Philadelphia banker, Mr. Cunningham has brought a retail and service mentality to a sector not known for its customer friendly policies. A popular innovation he installed in Commerce bank lobbies? A coin-counting machine for customers to cash in those jars of pennies sitting around at home.

Challenge: Manage the Commerce Bank brand as the bank grows to expand its customer base from Boston to Washington and goes up against the largest banking institutions in the country.

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