Banks across the country may be struggling in a weakening economy, but this hasn't stopped Elena Sisti, a 25-year veteran of Citibank, from striking out on her own: Earlier this month, she launched Savoy Bank in Manhattan, opening an office at 1675 Broadway at 52nd Street.
With 90% of its investors based in New York, including the filmmakers Joel and Ethan Coen, the bank is billing itself as "a homegrown community bank that is up to New York standards."
Savoy Bank is unusual in opening its first location in Manhattan, Ms. Sisti, who is part Greek and part Hispanic, said. "Community banks that are ethnically based are primarily in Queens — Flushing and Astoria," she said, adding that she aims to change this.
Savoy has about $50 million in assets and 800 clients, including accountants, attorneys, and companies in the wholesale and exporting businesses. The venture offers personalized services that financial giants do not, Ms. Sisti said. In its wood-paneled office on the ground floor of an office tower in the theater district, bilingual employees staff the teller booths, able to greet customers in languages including Spanish and Russian.
Ms. Sisti never went to business school, instead launching her career at Citibank immediately following her graduation from Barnard College. It was her father, a Greek entrepreneur, who first encouraged her to enter banking, she said. "When I got the job offer, he said, 'Elena, this is something you should do. It's 9 to 3. It's a good career for a woman.'" Ms. Sisti joined Citibank, where she eventually became the first female manager in the Queens region, eventually working her way up to area manager for 10 Citibank locations on the Upper East Side.
Originally, she considered gearing Savoy toward Hispanics, but later shifted her focus to small businesses and entrepreneurs. "It is very much part and parcel of what we are," she said, adding that the broader demographic reflects the diversity of New York City.
Being one of the few woman bank owners also helps, she said. "A lot of the business owners that we do meet — heads of law firms or heads of public relations agencies — a lot of them are women, so they're happy to be dealing with someone else who's a woman," Ms. Sisti said. It's a welcome shift away from "country club banks," she said.
Bank of America occupied the Midtown office before Savoy moved in, but that is as close at the two institutions come, she said.
"They think it's an oxymoron: 'What do you mean Midtown Manhattan small businesses?'" Ms. Sisti said of the public reception of her new bank. In addition to the "big corporate headquarters" concentrated in Midtown, there are 90,000 small businesses that need financial services, she said.
Because of this need to serve small businesses, Ms. Sisti said she and her team decided to move forward with the bank's launch despite the economic slowdown.
Bank openings have slowed in recent months due to the faltering economy and increased scrutiny from regulators. As of April 30, regulators received 42 applications for deposit insurance — a document that is needed to open a new bank — compared with 83 in the same period last year, according a May issue of American Banker.
Start-ups in Manhattan face the additional difficulty of pricey rents, the president of NuBank, Daniel Hudson, said. Mr. Hudson, who consults with start-up financial institutions, initially advised Ms. Sisti on a venture that would later become Savoy.
While Ms. Sisti may be among only a handful of women who have helmed a bank, she is not the first. In 1975, local feminists, including Betty Friedan, founded what would become the First New York Bank for Business. Closed in 1992, the bank provided credit to women. From its inception, the bank encountered a number of obstacles, losing more than $1 million in its first three years.