The country’s most advanced bank is run by the industry’s smartest CEO.
Co-founder Richard Fairbank is a relentless strategist who has guided Capital One Financial Corp. on an amazing, 25-year journey that began as a novel approach to designing and marketing credit cards.
Today, Capital One—the 8th largest U.S. commercial bank with $373.2 billion in assets—has transformed itself into a highly advanced fintech company with national aspirations.
The driving force behind this protean evolution has been the 68-year-old Fairbank, an intensely private man who rarely gives interviews to the press. One investor who has known him for years—Tom Brown, CEO of the hedge fund Second Curve Capital—says that Fairbank “has become reclusive, even with me.”
Brown has invested in Capital One on and off over the years, including now. He has tremendous respect for Fairbank’s acumen and considers him to be “by far, the best strategic thinker in financial services.”
I interviewed Fairbank once, in 2006, for Bank Director magazine. It was clear even then that he approaches strategy like Sun Tzu approaches war. “A strategy must begin by identifying where the market is going,” Fairbank said. “What’s the endgame and how is the company going to win?”
Fairbank said most companies are too timid in their strategic planning, and think that “it’s a bold move to change 10 percent from where they are.” Instead, he said companies should focus on how their markets are changing, how fast they’re changing, and when that transformation will be complete.
The goal is to anticipate disruptive change, rather than chase it.
“It creates a much greater sense of urgency and allows the company to make bold moves from a position of strength,” he said.
This aggressive approach to strategy can be seen throughout the company’s history, beginning in 1988 when Fairbank and a former colleague, Nigel Morris, convinced Richmond, Virginia-based Signet Financial Corp. to start a credit card division using a new, data-driven methodology. The unit grew so big so fast that it dwarfed Signet itself and was spun off in 1994 as Capital One.
The company’s evolution since then has been driven by a series of strategic acquisitions, beginning in 2005 when it bought Hibernia Corp., a regional bank headquartered in New Orleans. Back then, Capital One relied on Wall Street for its funding, and Fairbank worried that a major economic event could abruptly turn off the spigot. He sought the safety of insured deposits, which led not only to the Hibernia deal but additional regional bank acquisitions in 2006 and 2008.
Brown says those strategic moves probably insured the company’s survival when the capital markets froze up during the financial crisis. “If they hadn’t bought those banks, there are some people like myself who don’t think Capital One would be around today,” he says.
As Capital One’s credit card business continued to grow, Fairbank wanted to apply its successful data-driven strategy to other consumer loan products that were beginning to consolidate nationally. Over the last 20 years, it has become one of the largest auto lenders in the country. It has also developed a significant commercial lending business with specialties like multifamily real estate and health care.
Capital One is in the midst of another transformation, to a national digital consumer bank. The company acquired the digital banking platform ING Direct in 2011 for $9 billion and rebranded it Capital One 360. Office locations have fallen from 1,000 in 2010 to around 500, according to Sandler O’Neill, as the company refocuses its consumer banking strategy on digital.
When Fairbank assembled his regional banking franchise in the early 2000s, the U.S. deposit market was highly fragmented. In recent years, the deposit market has begun to consolidate and Capital One is well positioned to take advantage of that with its digital platform.
Today, technology is the big driver behind Capital One’s transformation. The company has moved much of its data and software development to the cloud and rebuilt its core technology platform. Indeed, it could be described as a technology company that offers financial services, including insured deposit products.
“We’ve seen enormous change in our culture and our society, but the change that took place at Capital One’s first 25 years will pale in comparison to the quarter-century that’s about to unfold,” Fairbank wrote in his 2018 shareholders letter. “And we are well positioned to thrive as technology changes everything.”
At Capital One, driving change is Fairbank’s primary job.