October 22, 2019

Private Bank of California: It’s not just about the money

The signs of Richard Smith’s success precede him: His 25th-floor office on Santa Monica Boulevard overlooks Los Angeles Country Club’s golf greens to the north and the spread of the city’s business districts to the south. The dizzying height of his headquarters at The Private Bank of California is emphasized by floor-to-ceiling windows and the luxurious quiet that accompanies real money, the kind that pays for service so good it doesn’t rattle, only hums.

Smith says this is the secret to his career, and especially his success at Private Bank, which he co-founded in 2004 with partners that include Richard Pachulski, a well-known bankruptcy attorney, and Stuart Rubin, a real estate big shot. 

“It’s not retail,” he said of the work he does for high-net-worth individuals, business owners and others involved in business management, entertainment and real estate. No, The Private Bank of California is another level entirely: “It’s concierge.” 

Smith, 60, has had years to hone his philosophy and cultivate connections, which helped make The Private Bank of California attractive enough to be purchased last year by First PacTrust Bancorp Inc., which changed its name to Banc of California Inc. in July. Earlier this week, the entire company, including subsidiary banks, relaunched as Banc of California.

After receiving a degree in marketing and finance from the University of Denver, he spent two years at Manufacturers Hanover, a bank holding company then based in New York, before moving to California with his Los Angeles-born wife, Dana, in 1977.

It’s instructive to listen to Smith rattle off the list of institutions he’s worked at over the years, to hear the names of businesses created and swallowed by other businesses as a matter of course in the moneylending world. It is precisely the variability of the banking industry that excites Smith, who grew up in New York assuming that, like his grandfathers on both sides — and his father and his uncles — he would end up in the city’s garment industry. 

“But it wasn’t really that attractive to me, so as a [college] junior, I ended up meeting somebody in the banking business who convinced me that banking would be a good career,” he said. 

Smith was game, but he didn’t have high hopes. 

“I really thought I would be in it for a couple of years, and then I’d go work for one of my grandfathers,” he said. “Well, what are we now, 38 years later?”

Despite doing well in his college courses, he was initially pigeonholed back into the garment ghetto. 

“I did really well in my credit class learning how to be an analyst in the banking business, and I had the pick of the litter where I’d go,” he said. “And of all places, they found out I was Jewish and put me in the garment district!” 

Smith has never shied away from his Jewish identity. His wife works in Encino at Valley Beth Shalom in the Conservative congregation’s infant and toddler program, and the couple sent their children to Northridge’s Abraham Joshua Heschel Day School, where Smith used to sit on the board. Smith also serves on the Zimmer Children’s Museum board.

Smith credits his Jewish upbringing, which was Conservative but not particularly observant, for instilling in him some of the values that have made him such a successful businessman and boss. Although Smith is at work more often than not — asked for a number of hours, he responded only “a lot” — he said he believes strongly in giving his employees time to enjoy their private lives and get involved in their communities. 

“I want them to have another life. I want them to be close to their families,” he said. “I try to get them involved in boards, charities. I want them to be involved philanthropically in something. … Giving back is something that I’ve been taught from the time I could understand, and I try to encourage my employees to do it because I think that it makes them better employees, because they’re happier.” 

Smith will take this ethos a step further in his new position as Banc of California’s president of private banking. He’s excited that Banc of California has hired former L.A. Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa to manage relationships between the bank and the community. Villaraigosa’s role, as strategic adviser to Banc of California’s chief executive officer, is to help create a community banking strategy that focuses on expanding home ownership as well as lending to entrepreneurs and creating service opportunities in the community. 

As for Smith, the proud grandfather to four grandchildren, he hopes to keep working as long as he feels valuable.

“If I were doing it just to be wealthy, I probably never would have done it,” he said of banking. “The money was not the issue, for sure. I always liked learning about different things. … To this day, it’s still my passion.”