Are you a man or woman of refined taste based in the UK? Have you been looking for a new bank and require the following:
* A grand opening that involve waitresses toting giant trays of ice cream, batons, "dancers sporting vermilion fright wigs parading on stilts," white balloons embossed with the legend JOIN THE REVOLUTION!
* A pooch-friendly environment
* A disco-themed lobby
* A founder who lives in an "Italianate mansion in New Jersey"
* The Meredith Whitney stamp of approval
Vernon Hill knows. And he's got just the place for you.
In the hidebound world of British retail banking, the launch of a new bank last July -- the first in 138 years -- was certain to make a splash. Even so, the grand opening of Metro Bank was something completely different: On the sidewalk at Metro's glitzy flagship branch, across from the Holborn tube station, dancers sporting vermilion fright wigs paraded on stilts. Dixieland bands tooted, shoeshine crews buffed, and waitresses toted giant trays of ice cream, 5,000 cups in all. Jugglers' batons filled the air, along with white balloons embossed with the legend JOIN THE REVOLUTION! Inside, the giant floor-to-ceiling windows and long, open granite counters lined with smiling tellers, sans Plexiglas, recalled the lobby of a fancy Las Vegas hotel. Signs rallied customers to LOVE YOUR BANK AT LAST and pledged NO MORE STUPID BANK RULES. Bicycles stood parked on the polished marble floors, alongside corgis and poodles (DOGS RULE! posters proclaimed) downing bowls of dog biscuits as their masters opened accounts. "I've never seen a bank like this," says a street musician in attendance. "How can you not love a place that's open on weekends and looks like a disco?"
The impresario behind the party was Vernon Hill, a flamboyant, tradition-stomping American billionaire. Hill, 65, founded Commerce Bank in the U.S. and outfoxed the giants in the business by putting lavish customer service first --- the model he's now transplanting to Britain. Before he was forced out of his own company by regulators, Hill built himself an Italianate mansion in New Jersey that's almost as large as the White House.
Hill did little to dispel his image as the P.T. Barnum of banking at the VIP party following his grand opening in London. Blond comb-over plastered in place, he wore a double-breasted silk suit with a gold collar pin and cradled his Yorkshire terrier -- Sir Duffield, or Duffy for short -- in his arms, feeding him canapés from trays that passed by.
And yet consider the guest list. Jamie Reuben and Harrison LeFrak, representing leading real estate families in London and New York, were there -- both are investors in Metro. Meredith Whitney, the prominent banking analyst and a longtime Hill fan, was in attendance, as was Gene Lockhart, former CEO of MasterCard International (MA), now a Metro director. Billionaire investor Wilbur Ross, who's backing a fledgling banking venture by Virgin chairman Richard Branson, made an appearance. What these people understand is that Hill -- nicknamed "Vernon the Barbarian" by rivals in the U.S. -- may just have the best brain in retail banking.
Hill has another big idea, this one a business that he's helping to transplant from Britain to the U.S.: pet insurance. He's a major investor in Petplan USA, which holds the U.S. franchise from Petplan of Britain, the world's biggest provider of policies for companion animals. "People used to put down their pets when they got sick," says Hill. "Now they're members of the family. People will want to save them with kidney transplants and hip replacements. This business will be huge." Hill's own dog, Duffy, recently had 11 teeth pulled, and Petplan paid the $2,400 bill. The terrier has since returned to his regular diet of kobe beef and dulce de leche ice cream. Recently Hill persuaded both Tom Fazio and Meredith Whitney's husband, the former professional wrestler John Layfield -- whose ring names have included "Vampiro Americano" and "Death Mask" -- to take out insurance for their pets. It's always showtime for Vernon Hill.