Title: President, Leader Bank, N.A.
Education: Bachelor’s degree in liberal arts, Punjab University, India, 1973; master’s degree in public administration, Punjab University, 1976; OPM certification, Harvard Business School, 2010
Earlier this year, Arlington-based Leader Bank ranked among the healthiest in the country, with a so-called “Texas ratio” of .00169 — an indicator of few problem loans and minimal risk of failure, according to the financial information firm Sageworks.
That could only have been imagined when Sushil Tuli launched the local lender in 2002, a time when numerous community banks were being swallowed up by larger institutions. Already running a successful mortgage company, Tuli attributes the bank’s growth to skills he learned while enrolled at Harvard Business School’s executive education program, from which he tapped a few professors to join the bank’s board. He also had the expertise of his wife (who, at 54, succumbed to cancer two years ago) to run the mortgage company — “better than me,” he notes. Following him in the business is Jay Tuli, the oldest of three grown sons.
With $846 million in assets at the close of 2014, Tuli describes Leader, which is based in Cambridge, as a small family business akin to the neighborhood convenience store or pharmacy, albeit one with some prime locations. In June, the bank put down new stakes with a branch in Boston’s Innovation District. There, Tuli sat down with Business Journal correspondent Robin Washington.
A lot of the people who work in the Innovation District can do their work anywhere in the world. Is there an advantage to being geographically located here? There definitely is. Five, six years ago, it used to be a parking lot. You would come here and park your car and walk downtown. It has evolved. Thriving businesses are here. It’s becoming a neighborhood. There are apartment buildings, there are condominiums.
There are trees. There are trees, and some of the best restaurants in the city. So we felt that there was a need for a bank and we wanted to open a branch in Boston and we figured that this is the right place. And the proof is in five or six weeks, we had a $10 million branch already. So that’s true, you can do business virtually anywhere, but people still like to go to a bank, meet with a personal banker. The day we opened, (customers) stopped by. They said, “Oh, we can drop off mortgage payments here. We can deposit checks here.” So there was a need for a bank to be here, and it’s good that we are that bank.
So you have a geographic niche. What other niches do you have that you think that larger banks are missing out on? Being a small bank, we have the ability to develop products very easily and quickly. We don’t have the big bank thing where it has to go through so many layers. One is our Zeugma Rewards Account (the name is a figure of speech in which a word applies to two other meanings; e.g.: “He went fishing/he caught two fish and a cold.”) You have your direct deposit with us and it will pay a 2 percent interest rate. Also, we will reimburse you up to $15 for ATM transactions from another bank.
We started a program called Z rent. Small landlords can collect rents using our technology so they don’t have to get checks every month. We have for business customers a debit card that pays half a percent back every month to them. We have no-fee checking accounts, which is a big thing.
Is that a loss leader? It does cost you something to maintain the accounts.We’ll do a free checking account for you, but then you know us. You’re buying a house, you’re going to come and get your mortgage from us. You’re going to get your car loan from us, and we’re going to make money there. So this is the investment we make by offering free checking accounts. It’s not such a big loss leader because people have money. People maintain big balances here. The total balances are more than what it costs.
Did you have mentors in your career? When I came here, I worked in a bank and one of the persons I reported to really mentored me quite a bit. Not only on how to be a good businessman, but also the American way of living. His name is Peter Conrad. Also, the dean of Harvard Business School, Nitin Nohria. He’s a good friend. He was on my board and a co-founder with me.
So this is just a class assignment? Yeah, really.
If you couldn’t be a banker, what would you be? When I was growing up in India, I wanted to get a master’s in public administration, and I did that.
At what age did you know you wanted a master’s of public administration?Most kids don’t know what that is. As I was growing up, my dream was to be a politician in India. I thought if I can get my education, I can be one of the clean politicians. But after I did my master’s, I decided I was going to go to the U.S.A., which is the land of opportunity. I came here and I got my first job in a bank. I said, OK, I like banking, and I want to open my own bank some day.
How would you describe your bank to people back in India? It’s a culturally different thing. In India, the banks were nationalized in the ’60s. So when I told them that I’m opening a bank, it was hard to understand: “How do you open a bank? What does your bank do? Can you take deposits? Can you make loans?” But now in India they allow private banks. And once they understood, they took pride in that; a family member has opened a bank.
Could you open a branch in Punjab? No. The culture in India and the U.S.A. is completely different. Indians who are successful in the U.S.A., we are successful only because it’s the U.S.A. It’s easier to get the licenses, get the positions, and to prove that you can do good. In India, it’s such a big population, there’s just so much competition, and the political system is not that great.
What do you do for fun? You have to take some time off. I have a home in Miami. So in winter months if I’m not busy here, I go there. I like to ride a bike, I go to the gym, I have friends, go out to dinner, travel.
Is your cycling serious? No just for fun. But going to the gym is serious. I exercise every day. I take it very seriously.
And diet too? People are always looking for the magic food or the magic exercise program. You have to do both. There’s none. It’s determination.
Is there a person from history you would like to meet? And where in Boston would you take him or her? I enjoyed getting to know the Kennedy family here. If President Kennedy was still alive, I would want to meet with him. He was so influential for people like me to come to this country, opening up the opportunities of America. We were growing up listening to him, reading about him.
Do you remember where you were when he was assassinated? I was in college. I remember we were just completely glued to the TV.
And where would I take him? I’d bring him to my Innovation branch here. And show him you created the opportunities for us, and we are thankful.