For Israel's Bank Leumi, U.S. Makeover Means St. Patrick's Day Party

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People gather around Times Square to celebrate the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York on March 17, 2016.
People gather around Times Square to celebrate the St. Patrick's Day parade in New York on March 17, 2016. Credit: Reuters

REUTERS – Bank Leumi has had its U.S. headquarters on Fifth Avenue overlooking the St. Patrick's Day Parade for more than 40 years, but this was the first year the American unit of Israel's second-largest lender had a party to celebrate.

Hosting festivities for a Catholic saint is just one part of this Israeli lender's efforts at an American makeover to attract fresh U.S. clientele. And on March 17 in Manhattan, that means a nod to the Irish.

"The first Chief Rabbi of Israel after independence was Irish," said Chaim Fromowitz, head of private banking at Bank Leumi U.S.A, referring to Yitzhak Halevi Herzog.

The idea for Wednesday's celebration came from Shawn McGowen, 37, a former Wells Fargo & Co and Citigroup banker who joined Bank Leumi in September as head of commercial banking.

McGowen said he was unsure how the bank's leadership would react to his unorthodox proposal. President and CEO Avner Mendelson responded enthusiastically. "He didn't hesitate," said McGowen. "He said it was a great idea."

Since Mendelson took over as CEO of Bank Leumi U.S.A. two and a half years ago he has worked to make it more American, part of the parent company's U.S.-centered growth strategy. Leumi has more than $100 billion in assets in Israel and more than $6 billion in the U.S.

Mendelson, 41, has hired several young executives, many of them not Jewish, who have stronger ties to the United States than to Israel.

"I thought 'What will this be like? Will I go walk into a meeting and half the people will be speaking Hebrew?'" said Peter Dawson, a recently hired Irish-American executive who has worked at U.S. units of Banco Santander SA and HSBC Holdings. "But it hasn't been like that at all."

Minimizing the use of Hebrew in the office has been part of the makeover under Mendelson, said commercial banking relationship manager Fran Davis, who has spent 28 years at Leumi.

The bank is considering moving to a floor without soundproofed windows for next year's St. Paddy's Day party so revelers can better hear the marching band music.

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