BUSINESS
03/29/2012 12:46 EDT | Updated 05/29/2012 05:12 EDT

Start spreading the news: TD Bank has its sights set on the Big Apple

TORONTO - TD Bank has ambitions to be among the top three banks in New York City, one of the world's biggest financial markets.

"TD has big plans in the Big Apple," TD Bank chief executive Ed Clark said from New York on Thursday at an annual meeting held simultaneously there and in Toronto.

"In four years, we want to be New York's third-largest retail bank."

TD is currently the fifth largest retail bank in New York City, with $11.6 billion in deposits.

The Toronto-based bank (TSX:TD) plans to open more than 50 new branches, or stores as they're called south of the border, and create hundreds of jobs in the financial capital of North America.

And while the bank is proud of its home town's reputation on the world stage, Clark said "New York City also happens to be a special point of pride for us."

TD's expansion plans across Manhattan and the boroughs would put TD just behind two banks — JPMorganChase and Bank of New York Mellon Corp., which had a 150-year start on their Canadian competitor.

New York City has a deposit base that is equal to about 75 per cent of that in all of Canada, Clark said, explaining the focus on that one particular city would give it a momentum to grow across the eastern United States.

The city is the largest single banking market in the free world and its GDP would rival any major country, said Bharat Masrani, TD's group head of U.S. personal and commercial banking.

"When we say we want to own New York, we are not saying we will not focus on other markets," he said, adding that the bank opened 37 stores in the U.S. last year in locations including Miami and Boston.

"But New York is a prize that we would like to achieve."

The bank — whose slogan south of the border is "America's Most Convenient Bank" — has grown at a furious rate since entering the U.S. market. It now has more than seven million customers at nearly 1,300 stores from Maine to Florida that employ some 23,000 people.

One Canadian shareholder questioned whether Clark's decision to lead the meeting from New York was a signal it plans to become a U.S.-focused bank that could one day move its headquarters south of the border.

"It doesn't go without notice that you are in New York and not in Toronto," she said.

"I am hoping we are staying a Canadian bank and not turning into a U.S. bank."

But Clark highlighted that the bank's fast growth in the U.S. has benefited Canada by adding jobs and taxes to the economy.

"We don't think of ourselves as a Canadian bank or a U.S. bank, we think of ourselves as a North American bank that's headquartered in Canada," he said adding that the company's board is dedicated to having its headquarters remain in Canada.

Clark said that analysts following the bank see its presence in the U.S. as a competitive advantage against its domestic peers — some whom, most recently RBC (TSX:RY), have reduced their presence in the U.S. market after those operations added liabilities to the balance sheet during the recession.

John Aiken, a banking analyst at Barclays Capital, said one of the reasons his firm is so positive on its outlook for TD is its presence in the U.S., where the economy is picking up just as signs point toward slowing growth in Canada.

"You can potentially see stronger growth with TD overall relative to some of the more landlocked banks that it competes with domestically," he said.

The bank has been ramping up its marketing campaigns south of the border. But it has also been focused on providing a higher level of service than customers typically find in the U.S., such as introducing longer banking hours, he added.

But in its 2008 acquisition of Commerce Bancorp that saw it merge with one of the better customer service cultures in the U.S. banking sector, TD also inherit a $3 billion portfolio of risky U.S. mortgages through acquisitions, Clark said.

But the bank at risk of moving toward a more lenient lending model, the kind of borrowing that led to a housing market crash that sank the U.S. economy into recession, he said.

The Canadian banking model should be a point of pride as it buffered banks against any housing market downturn, and it's highly unlikely the Canadian market will experience a U.S.-style crash, he added.

"What we've shown is we can take this model ... to the toughest market in the world which is New York City and win and I think that's a great thing for Canada."

TD has become the sixth-largest North American bank with total assets of $775 billion and more than 85,000 employees.

Shares in TD fell 73 cents to C$84.36 on the Toronto Stock Exchange.