Sunday, July 31, 2005

An Open Letter to Lawrence K. Fish

I don't normally use my blog for personal matters. I prefer the higher (?) road of political discourse. But it is with some reluctance that I proffer the following, excerpts from a letter I sent to Lawrence K. Fish, President of Citizens Group, a division of Bank of Scotland (in case any of my readers are interested).

When I was ~ 5 years old, I opened my very first account with Citizens Bank.
It was an old program – I don’t even know if the schools do it anymore – where teachers inculcated the value of savings through the established discipline of weekly depositing into local bank accounts. There were 2 banks to choose from at the time: The now defunct Old Stone Bank, which had green envelopes, the color of money, and Citizens, which had pink ones – why on earth they were pink in color I will never understand.

Nonetheless, mine was a pink envelope, and although the bullies poked fun, I tenaciously stuck with Citizens, and have ever since. That’s close to 50 years of loyalty.

Over the years I’ve taken advantage of car loans, lines of credit, credit cards, savings accounts, money market accounts, POA accounts, ATM cards, on-line banking, direct deposit, and many, many other services from Citizens. I’ve opened accounts for all my kids at Citizens, and today they all still have at least one account at Citizens Bank.

A couple of years ago I decided that, rather than attempt to buy into the ever sky-rocketing housing market, I would make a more conservative choice by merely making home improvements to my home of over 20+ years in an established but still desirable neighborhood. So I refinanced my home mortgage with Citizens Bank – my first home mortgage with Citizens. We closed it at the Rolfe Square branch. When I closed on the new mortgage, we included a modest Home Equity Line of Credit (HELOC). The intension was to have sufficient cash flow for the home improvements once work commenced.

The plan: I would refinance, gather a lump sum, and place the money in a Citizens Money Market account for eventual use in making home improvements. I would establish a HELOC for the additional cash that I would eventually need, but increase the value of the line of credit when the time came closer to the actual work, depending on the market, to get more bang for the buck. And if the market continued to rally, as it did, I could return to the branch to increase my equity line of credit to something more substantial.

Nearly two years went by, and I began the major work, and started burning down the cash I had placed in the Citizens Money Market account. Since I closed, housing values in RI grew ~ 27%. On my street, I would estimate values grew even more than that. It is a desirable neighborhood, even though it is in the older part of the city. I proceeded to add 900 square feet to my home. I was ready to increase the value of my HELOC.

I went to the Rolfe Square branch. I spoke to the person with whom I have done my local banking since 1981. She remembered the plan, and began to assist me in increasing the HELOC.

We began the process. Some weeks went by as we awaited an appraisal. The appraiser wanted to see more work done. I explained that in order to get more work done, I would become dangerously close to running out of cash while waiting for Citizens to decide if I had sufficient equity to merit the line of credit I would need and was asking for. A kind of catch 22 situation.

The branch finally called me, and reluctantly informed me that I had been turned down for the line of credit - completely. No backup plan. No counter. No other ideas. Nada. Kaput.


So I appealed. I said: look at my history with the bank. My credit rating. My income. My loyalty to the bank and to the community. I’ve been with the same company for over 25 years. I’ve lived in the same home for nearly 25 years. I’ve been with the same bank for nearly 50 years. How could this be? My local banker was very understanding. I understood that her hands were essentially tied. Some other authorities in the bank had made the decision.

Coincidentally during this time I received an unsolicited letter from my car insurance company, USAA, offering us a home equity line of credit in the exact amount I was looking for! Out of the blue.

Also, just for the fun of it, I went on to see what I could get there.

Within a few minutes, and solidified in no more than 24 hours, did I receive offers from about 6 banks for the full amount I was looking for.

But, I thought, Citizens certainly would be willing match or even come close to these offers once they knew I was so swiftly offered them. After all, I’ve been with this bank for nearly 50 years. So I tried again to appeal the decision. The result was the same. So I appealed to the higher authority of the Citizens Bank “Priority Services” group – who are no doubt being relegated to deal with this very letter right now – and after several days, a kind gentleman had no better news. Again, he wasn’t the decision maker – he was just the unlucky soul who had to give me the bad news. I would have preferred to speak to the decision maker to ask him of the logic of the situation.

Because, this simply doesn’t make any sense to me, whatsoever. How could it be that my own, home town bank, a bank who knows me, a bank to which I’ve remained loyal for almost 50 years, a bank who has a plethora of accounts of mine and my family, who knows my personal history, who is intimate with my credit history? How could they not have even match what I was receiving in a matter of minutes and/or unsolicited in the mail from relatively strange banks with whom I’ve had no more than indirect association over the years?

Perhaps, Mr. Fish, you could explain this to me? This is why I’m writing to you.

Over the years, as I would read about the successes of Citizens Bank, I would feel a little pride in my bosom, for being a tiny, incremental component of the whole. I would say to myself: I made a good choice sticking with this successful bank for the past 50 years. They’re a good neighbor. They deserve to be successful. Alas, those feelings have rapidly waned.

Rather, the feelings I have is of being jilted. And not just jilted, but more the feeling of incredulity from the abrupt and unexpected rejection of an old friend. And my reaction to that is as it would be for anyone who is suddenly rejected, inexplicably, by an old and intimate friend. Surprise, sadness but with a resoluteness to move on.

And so, it is with great reluctance that I will be, over time, gradually withdrawing all my accounts from Citizens. I know this doesn’t mean much in the way of a financial penalty to the humongous Citizens Group, but nonetheless, it is this man’s protest for being so poorly treated.

I will likewise suggest the same to my kids, and to my friends and acquaintances, and to the people of my workplace. I even plan to share excerpts of this experience on my personal web log (blog). I really want the world to know about this. It will have negligible impact on Citizens, but I feel it is the just thing to do.

PS: I did finally go with one of the other offers.

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