Roberto Herencia occasionally rides to work on one of the four Harley-Davidson motorcycles he keeps in his "man cave," a Glenview storage facility equipped with a red couch, a TV and a 6-foot lucha libre mask, an icon of Mexican wrestling.
When headed to his BXM Holdings Inc. office on West Madison Street in downtown Chicago, where he's chief executive, the banker, clad in appropriate safety gear, might hop on one of the smaller hogs, like the V-Rod or Road King.
"If I'm feeling a little playful, I use the Fat Boy because it's the loudest," Herencia, 52, muses of his yellow bike. "And it's comfortable for long trips," he adds, mentioning journeys to the Finger Lakes in New York and Route 66 to California.
It's a long way in space and time from Puerto Rico, where Herencia was born and raised until leaving for college at Georgetown University.
Today, Herencia's world centers around three private equity-backed banking enterprises, including a group that said in April it planned to invest $150 million in Chicago's troubled Metropolitan Bank Group Inc. He also advises a fourth entity, Chicago-based private equity firm Madison Dearborn Partners LLC, on potential banking deals.
Backers in Herencia's BXM Holdings include Juan Beckmann, whose family owns the Jose Cuervo tequila company as well as a stake in the Chicago building in which BXM is located, and Antonio del Valle, who Bloomberg News in March named a "hidden billionaire" worth $3.2 billion for his family's stake in chemical-maker Mexichem.
After being nominated by President Barack Obama and confirmed by the Senate, Herencia last year began serving on the 14-member board of Overseas Private Investment Corp., which helps provide financing for U.S. businesses that want to expand globally.
He sees parallels between motorcycle retailing and banking.
Herencia lives near a Harley dealership, but instead buys and services his bikes -- his fourth is an Ultra Classic -- at Illinois Harley-Davidson, 23 miles away in Countryside.
"Their service is fantastic," Herencia said of the dealership's owner, Bob Maxant. "If he sees you in the shop or store, he comes out and talks and asks what's going on. It always reminds me that this is what we need to do in banking as well."
Metropolitan's problem isn't so much service as bad loans made during the real estate bust. But the proposed deal to rescue the $2.8 billion asset owner of such lenders as North Community Bank, Metrobank and Archer Bank has many constituencies to satisfy.
"It's going a bit slower than we'd like, but it's a complicated transaction given the stress levels of the bank," Herencia said.
Metropolitan is privately owned by the Fasseas family, founders of the PAWS Chicago animal charity.
Their bank is among a relatively small group of lenders that received bailout money from the U.S. Treasury Department. As part of its Troubled Asset Relief Program, or TARP, the Treasury bought about $80 million in securities in Metropolitan. The bank has since deferred five dividend payments to the U.S. government. If Metropolitan were to fail, U.S. taxpayers could lose their entire investment in it.
Herencia said he's "very optimistic" the deal will be consummated. "It will be a shame if it doesn't," he said. "We have the money, the management and tremendous confidence in our ability to turn it around."
Herencia has identified the team that would run the bank, and he would be a director of the reconstituted board. The Fasseas family declined to be interviewed.
Herencia is the oldest of four children, ages 52 to 48. His siblings all live in Puerto Rico. His father, who died at 56 from stomach cancer, was an accountant for a brewery, and his mother, a certified public accountant, worked from home for small-business clients. She recently turned 75 and is still working.
Jayne Thompson, former first lady of Illinois, said she was having lunch recently with Herencia at Naha in River North when he mentioned that, on a recent trip to Puerto Rico, he, his sister and his mother were all working at their respective jobs at her home on a beautiful Sunday afternoon.
"I thought it was interesting that he credited his mother for his family's work ethic and for his success," she said.
Says Herencia: "There's a sense of responsibility to always be the best you can be for the people you work for."
Herencia's high school principal, the Rev. Charles Beirne, also had a major impact on his life. He helped Herencia get a scholarship to Georgetown. While there, Herencia read an article in which Barry Sullivan, former head of First Chicago, discussed the value of a Jesuit education. Herencia decided he wanted to work for Sullivan. Beirne knew Sullivan, and made the introduction.
Herencia got a job at First Chicago after college. He still has the employment offer stating that he'd start out making $17,500 a year as a credit trainee. In the 1980s, Herencia spent four years working for First Chicago operations in Mexico and Brazil.
In 1991, he went to work for Banco Popular in Chicago. Seven years later, Banco Popular christened its new U.S. headquarters in Chicago, where it had 13 branches and a market share of one half of 1 percent.
The Puerto Rican bank picked Chicago as its U.S. base because of its central location, its size and the fact that Herencia, by then the bank's U.S. market chief, "didn't want to move," Richard Carrion, part of the bank's founding family, told the Tribune at the time.
Despite this initially close relationship, Herencia eventually grew tired of Puerto Rican management dictating what he thought were paternalistic policies unsuitable for its growing U.S. operations.
Popular, for example, made more than a dozen U.S. acquisitions but tended to keep staff, while many U.S. companies cut costs and jobs after deals. When Herencia looked at Popular's U.S. payroll, he saw several "underemployed" former bank presidents and chief financial officers.
"In Puerto Rico, where Popular dominates, that works because, through attrition, you can get to your goals," Herencia said. "While it seems to be a friendly policy, it's not a good practice in this market, where we didn't have the ability to reduce expenses elsewhere" and needed to make money.
In a move that ultimately forced changes at Popular, Herencia quit in 2001 to accept a "wonderful" opportunity from Bobby Mehta, head of what was then Household's U.S. credit card unit. A week later, Herencia returned to Popular.
His leaving, it turned out, prompted Popular to give him "all the things I'd been arguing for, like more autonomy," said Herencia, who went out as chief operating officer and came back as a president.
Herencia called the experience "gut-wrenching," because he respected Mehta.
"But I had a long-term relationship with Popular and prospects of being able to work with all the right things in place," Herencia said. He said he continues to stay in touch with Mehta, who was CEO of TransUnion Corp. before stepping down in July.
Signs of stress
By 2004, big banks were starting to compete fiercely for the Hispanic market. A few years later, the banking industry was beginning to show signs of stress.
Popular was among those hitting a wall. By 2008, the Puerto Rican parent became open to selling its U.S. operations. At that time, Popular had about 20 Chicago-area branches and still a deposit market share of just half a percentage point.
Meanwhile, as the financial crisis unfolded in fall 2008, a suburban Chicago lender, Midwest Bank, suffered what would become an $82 million loss on its preferred shares in Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac.
Groups had started to form to raise money and look for opportunities to recapitalize banks that were hurting. Herencia left Banco Popular in 2008 to join an investor group. Eventually, they took a look at Midwest Bank.
The group didn't invest, but Midwest was looking for a new CEO. Herencia was hired in May 2009 for the top Midwest job amid hopes that he could turn around the company.
On his 75th day on the job, Herencia held his first quarterly earnings call with Wall Street analysts. By that time, he told them, he had done eight employee town hall meetings, a couple of employee focus groups and begun an online forum where workers could share ideas.
"This may sound corny, but this is not the job of one man or woman," Herencia told analysts.
About 100 Midwest workers were quickly laid off. Herencia took a 10 percent pay cut.
He attempted to raise capital and seek FDIC assistance for Midwest. But in May 2010, the bank failed and was seized by regulators.
Herencia still won credit for his efforts with Midwest Bank. He had made it more attractive to buyers through cost cutting and other initiatives. Midwest Bank was a rarity among failed banks in that its assets were sold for a premium by the FDIC to the new owner, Akron, Ohio-based FirstMerit Bank.
"We put our heart and soul into saving a bank we knew was in dire condition," he said.
Madison Dearborn Director Edward Magnus said he first met Herencia in 2008. At Midwest, "he knowingly walked into a difficult situation and was able to hold that organization together," Magnus said. "He stabilized it, which meant great results for the FDIC."
In recent years, Herencia has been a valuable adviser, Magnus said.
Madison Dearborn has evaluated more than 50 bank deals since the economic downturn. Some are immediately deemed unsuitable; Magnus figures he has asked Herencia to help assess about 20 potential deals and, in some cases, accompany Magnus to meet with bank executives. As an industry veteran, Herencia can quickly size up the challenges and opportunities at a bank and whatever new strategy it might be plotting, such as a thrift hoping to do more business lending.
"It helps to have Roberto in the room," Magnus said.
After Midwest Bank, Herencia also became a board member of private-equity-backed SKBHC Holdings -- a bank holding firm set up by Scott Kisting, former co-head of the global banking group for Merrill Lynch. Backers of SKBHC include Goldman Sachs. "Roberto was well-known to the people at Goldman Sachs" through his efforts to raise capital for Midwest Bank, Kisting said. He too was impressed by Herencia's work at Midwest.
"Roberto is a very cerebral guy," Kisting said. "Even disagreements are made on facts and not emotion."
SKBHC has grown into a $2.7 billion institution as it has rolled about half a dozen banks together.
Herencia also spends about a week each month in Puerto Rico as nonexecutive chairman of private-equity-backed First BanCorp of Puerto Rico. Its investors include Thomas H. Lee Partners, a Boston-based private equity firm.
Before signing on, Herencia gave the role at publicly traded First BanCorp much thought, said Kisting, who is not involved in First BanCorp.
"He point-blank asked me if I thought he was the right person," Kisting said. "He doesn't have an ego and is not going to take something that's not right for him."
Herencia's board position on the federal Overseas Private Investment Corp., a U.S. government agency that claims to operate at no net cost to American taxpayers, began with even more scrutiny. Herencia underwent a security clearance and FBI checks. In some cases, they go so far as to have meals with references and knock on neighbors' doors to ask about the applicant.
Herencia recalls discussing banking with Obama when the president was still a U.S. senator. Herencia remembers a fundraiser at Fulton's on the River when Obama was running for president in 2008. "We spent time talking about banking," Herencia said. Then, he and a colleague went to the front of the restaurant to sit down. Obama saw Herencia and stopped for a few minutes before exiting.
"A couple of minutes later, we get this great dessert courtesy of the senator," Herencia said of the cremes brulees that arrived for him and his colleague. "I'll never forget that."
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Local job: CEO of BXM Holdings Inc., an investment fund planning to sink $150 million in Chicago-based Metropolitan Bank Group.
Family: Married to a native Chicagoan, Laura, in what's his second marriage. They met when he was senior credit officer for Banco Popular in Chicago and she was an assistant lender. They have two children, Jennifer, 29, and Nicholas, 25, and a Maltese-poodle, 17.
Banking habits: BXM banks with Chase. Herencia has personal accounts at Bank of America, Banco Popular and FirstMerit. He sends person-to-person payments via phone and makes deposits by taking a photo of his check with his smartphone.
Education: Bachelor's in finance from Georgetown, graduating magna cum laude. Master's in business administration from Northwestern University; was also accepted at the University of Chicago. "I was so numbers-oriented at the time and thought the Kellogg school at Northwestern would give me more of the nonfinancial side of the equation, the management side."
Favorite bourbon: Jefferson's Reserve.
Stays in shape: Runs alternate days and works out with a trainer. A shortstop in high school, he has thrown out first pitches at three Major League Baseball games and has gotten it over the plate every time.
New civic duty: Member of Cook County Board President Toni Preckwinkle's 21-member economic advisory panel.
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