Retiring CEO of Fulton Financial closing book on 43-year career; ‘You have to be patient; you have to work hard’

As a Fulton Bank management trainee fresh out of college, one of Phil Wenger’s first assignments was sitting on a lawn chair next to an ATM in Manheim, waiting to explain the benefits of the newly installed cash machines.

“I think in a two-week period, only five people stopped,” Wenger said.

Both Wenger and Fulton Bank have come a long way since that tepid response to the machines the bank called “Midnight Tellers.”

From that 1979 assignment the now 65-year-old Wenger rose through the ranks of what has become the largest commercial bank in Lancaster County, serving as chairman and CEO starting in 2013 of Fulton Financial, the parent company of Fulton Bank. His 43-year tenure at the bank coincides with its explosive growth as its total assets grew from $450 million when Wenger started in 1979 to $26 billion as he prepares to retire Dec. 30.

A consummate company man, Wenger imbibed the corporate culture of Fulton Financial, which combines the quiet consistency of a locally anchored bank with aggressive dealmaking that has turned it into a regional player. Today, only 20 of its 212 branches are in Lancaster County. Helped by loosening of banking regulations in the early 1980s, Fulton Bank went on a buying spree, acquiring 44 banking institutions since 1982, when its holding company was incorporated.

“Financially, as a CEO, the best thing you can ever do is sell your bank because you become rich, right? But you don’t become CEO at Fulton Bank if that’s your attitude,” Wenger said.

A Lancaster County native with a quiet demeanor and measured way of speaking that’s a legacy of an early stutter, Wenger has provided leadership as the bank has cemented its ties to downtown Lancaster with new construction even as it has expanded into neighboring states.

“He’s a visionary. A quiet visionary,” said Tom Baldrige, the former president of the Lancaster Chamber. “He’s got a passion for the company and the community, and he wants nothing but the best for Fulton Bank and Lancaster’s future. And those things combined have been evident in every step of his career.”

Cheryl Holland-Jones, a Fulton management trainee with Wenger in 1979, recalled him as a “very nice young man” who showed early aptitude for leadership. While Holland-Jones left the bank’s trainee program for a career in the nonprofit sector, she stayed in touch with Wenger, who served as a board member of Crispus Attucks Community Center, a Lancaster city educational and cultural center celebrating African American heritage where she was longtime executive director.

“He’s a kind and generous man and I feel honored to call him a friend,” said Holland-Jones.

“He’s very thoughtful,” said Duncan Campbell, president and CEO of the Pennsylvania Banking Association. “He doesn’t talk just to talk. When he does speak, his words resonate. He’s a very humble leader in that. He looks to engage whatever the project may be.”

Gaining confidence

A graduate of Penn State University where he earned a degree in finance, Wenger said he had an affinity for numbers but lacked confidence when he was beginning a job search. That lack of confidence, Wenger says, was at the root of a stutter he says he had from when he was a kid and was still apparent at age 21 when he started at Fulton Bank.

“It was a nuisance,” Wenger said of his stutter. “I always got good grades. That wasn’t an issue.”

Wenger, who was a standout basketball player at Conestoga Valley High School, where he graduated in 1975, said he felt confident while playing, noting that “I didn’t stutter on the basketball court.”

A graduate of Penn State University where he earned a degree in finance, Wenger said he had an affinity for numbers but lacked confidence when he was beginning a job search. That lack of confidence, Wenger says, was at the root of a stutter he says he had from when he was a kid and was still apparent at age 21 when he started at Fulton Bank.

“It was a nuisance,” Wenger said of his stutter. “I always got good grades. That wasn’t an issue.”

Wenger, who was a standout basketball player at Conestoga Valley High School, where he graduated in 1975, said he felt confident while playing, noting that “I didn’t stutter on the basketball court.”

A 1974 season preview in the Ephrata Review described Wenger as “the quiet member of the team. … He has a good shot when he takes it (which is seldom) but he seems content in picking up the assists.”

After graduating from college, Wenger said he had a lot of job interviews in the banking field.

“I chose Fulton Bank because it was the only place that offered me a job,” Wenger said. “In 1979, the world was not in good shape economically.”

Rufus Fulton Jr., who was a senior vice president when Wenger was hired in 1979 and would later become its CEO, recalls recommending Wenger for a job at the bank, saying he saw leadership potential in him.

“Very early on he demonstrated to me that he had the kind of leadership and kind of management skills that made me confident that he could someday lead the bank,” said Fulton, who served as CEO from 1993 until 2005.

Wenger, who became a credit analyst after completing the management trainee program, said he forced himself to teach business courses, hoping that being in front of people would help him gain confidence and overcome his stutter.

“People are expected to be able to speak in front of the public, so it was definitely something I needed to work on,” he said.

While Wenger said he is “always conscious” of his former stutter, it is no longer apparent when he speaks. “I think it had an impact. I speak when it’s appropriate. And I do it directly as possible. I’m sure that’s because of some of the challenges I had earlier.”

Local banking history

Fulton Bank was organized in 1882 by local merchants and farmers as Fulton National Bank in Lancaster with capital of $200,000. It was named for Robert Fulton, an engineer and inventor born in Little Britain Township who is widely credited with developing the first commercially successful steamboat.

Fulton, who died in 1815, did not have any particular connection to banking or Fulton Bank except for being one of the most famous residents of Lancaster County.

Fulton Bank initially operated from a small office in the first block of North Queen Street where it eventually built its headquarters. Early on, Fulton Bank took a leading role in facilitating the clearing of checks and initiated the lucrative business in the 1920s of making investment and real estate loans. On the eve of the Great Depression in 1929, the bank moved to its current headquarters on Penn Square.

The conservatively managed Fulton Bank survived the Great Depression and then grew by acquiring assets of the failed Lancaster Trust Co., which had been twice its size. Other local banks were acquired in the 1940s and then expansion continued into contiguous counties in the 1960s. Since banking laws restricted acquisitions to contiguous counties, Fulton Bank briefly changed the address of its headquarters in the early 1980s to Dauphin County to facilitate westward expansion. The temporary change on paper did not affect the administrative offices, which remained in downtown Lancaster.

When Wenger arrived at Fulton Bank in 1979, it had recently completed a renovation of its downtown headquarters, cementing its commitment to being a presence in the center of the city. Wenger’s early assignment to help customers learn about ATMs was part of the bank’s push into the retail segment that included extending business hours and offering a pay-by-phone service in which customers could pay merchant bills.

Wenger said most of the changes during his subsequent career have had to do with technology.

“When I started at the bank, our central information file – where we kept all our customers and their accounts – was actually index cards,” he said.

And while the pace of technology has changed, new ways of doing things don’t actually supplant the old ways, like how ATMs didn’t mean the end of tellers.

“It does change. Yeah, it just doesn’t change as fast as people think it’s going to and then never goes away. Because there are people that want to still walk into the bank every day,” he said. “It’s still a relationship business.”

Wenger’s rise

As the bank grew, advancement opportunities meant a chance to lead a much larger bank. Nevertheless, Wenger said sticking with Fulton Bank and slowly rising through the ranks didn’t always seem like the best career choice, until it did.

“I was probably offered jobs by 10 different banks,” he said. “They all wanted to pay more money … and I said no. And none of those banks are in existence today. They’ve all been bought by other banks.”

Wenger credits Fulton’s strong leadership and corporate culture that nurtures leaders.

“You have to be patient. You have to work hard, you know, have common sense. You have to treat people the way you want to be treated,” he said.

Wenger rose through the corporate structure at Fulton Bank during the first two decades of his career, becoming vice president of corporate banking in 1996 and then senior vice president for Fulton Financial in 2006. He became chairman and CEO in 2013, succeeding R. Scott Smith Jr. when he retired.

Wenger is retiring in December because of a longstanding tradition of leaders stepping away when they turn 65. He will be succeeded by Curt Myers.

“Phil has been a great mentor and friend to me for more than 32 years,” Myers said. “He has challenged me and supported my development. I am grateful for how he has helped me prepare for increasing levels of leadership. Fulton Bank had benefited from his tremendous effort for the employees, customers and communities we serve.”

Making the tough decisions

During Wenger’s tenure as CEO and chairman, the bank’s total assets increased from $16.9 billion to $26.1 billion and he guided the bank through four acquisitions, with the most recent being a merger with Philadelphia-based Prudential Bank, which has $1 billion in assets and eight locations in Philadelphia as well as Montgomery and Delaware counties.

Wenger, who will remain on the board of both Fulton Financial and Fulton Bank, describes the CEO role as a nonstop commitment to setting a vision, making key decisions and handling problems, which still includes occasionally making calls to upset customers.

“Most people think that the higher you get in the organization, the easier it gets, and that is just so wrong,” he said. “You work more hours. There’s far more pressure, there’s more risks, there’s tougher decisions.”

One unusual demand on Wenger as CEO was the morning in September 2020 when a group of clergy led by the Rev. Edward Bailey of Bethel A.M.E. Church in Lancaster city showed up in the lobby of Fulton’s downtown branch and demanded to meet with Wenger to discuss violence and racial injustice.

Wenger, who was in Maryland for businesses at the time, spoke on the phone with Bailey and arranged a meeting in his office the following week.

“Their concerns were basically about how people of color in the community were being treated and I was prepared to tell them everything that we were doing as a bank,” Wenger said. “And Rev. Bailey has become what I would consider to be a good friend.”

Wenger lives in Martic Township with his wife, Kim. They have three adult children. In retirement, Wenger says he plans to remain active on several boards and also devote more time to hiking, including an ongoing section hike of the Appalachian Trail he has been doing with Baldrige. The pair are currently about halfway down the Skyline Drive, near Harrisonburg, Virginia. “I’m the lead walker. I always lead,” he said.

During Wenger’s tenure, Fulton Bank added to its presence in downtown Lancaster with a $21 million expansion that added new office space at 23 E. King St.

“Since 1979, Phil has worked at one bank and in one location – downtown Lancaster,” said Lancaster city mayor Danene Sorace. “When other large employers were leaving downtowns, Fulton stayed and the impact of this cannot be understated. I deeply appreciate Phil’s support of the city and I wish him all the best.”

Wenger also leaves as the bank has become further entrenched in the Lancaster community through its support and sponsorship of myriad of local events and initiatives.

“Fulton Bank has been and continues to be an anchor in the City of Lancaster, while also being one of the county’s major employers,” said Lisa Riggs, president of the Economic Development Company of Lancaster County, where Wenger is a board member. “Phil’s leadership, particularly during these past few challenging years, emphasized the importance of community relationships and a reliance on the personal touch.”

This article was originally published in Lancaster Online on Dec. 4, 2022.