CEO sitdown: Bruce Van Saun talks about Citizens commitment to Johnston and Rhode Island

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For Bruce Van Saun, Chairman and CEO of Citizens Financial Group, the completion of the Johnston Campus marks a milestone in his extended banking career.

To get the project to the finish line, the bank initially established a steering committee comprised of most of the bank’s executive leadership team and area leaders who would have large groups of employees who would migrate to the campus. Following regular meetings held twice a month to plan out the project, executives met with the architect, Elkus-Manfredi, and the builder, Dimeo Construction Company, to make group decisions based on the bank’s and employees’ needs.

“It starts with leadership. We have Mike Knipper, who is head of our properties and facilities; he’s done a fantastic job,” said Van Saun.

All of the decisions for the campus were made by the executive team. According to Van Saun, the “hands-on focus” of the team resulted in a “very good product.”

“In two years time, almost to the day, we’ve moved into a facility that really was just a wooded lot and some drawings on a piece of paper. We are on time, we are largely on budget, we went slightly over budget because there was more rock on the site that we had to blast out than we thought,” said Van Saun.

While in the planning stages, some thought was given to looking at Massachusetts and Connecticut as a potential home for the campus. Van Saun believes that the bank made the correct decision in building the state-of-the-art facility in Rhode Island.

“We have a phenomenal colleague base here. We have roughly 5,300 out of about 17,500 colleagues, so a very high percentage reside right here in Rhode Island. I think that, as our needs have changed over time, we’ve moved more towards a digital environment. We’ve had to get sharp on how we use data,” said Van Saun. “There’s a great university system here. We’re able to work with the universities to grow our own, to basically attract good people into the bank with the new skill sets that we need to stay relevant for the future.”

Van Saun added that he believes the bank has a very loyal workforce that has been with the bank for a long time and that the campus was built to retain that talent by making a facility that would be a positive workspace.

“We want them to be happy, we want them to be motivated, we want them to have a great work environment so they’ll convey that to the customers. If you have a happy and engaged colleague base, then that will come across in the interactions that they have with their customers,” he said.

Since Van Saun took over the bank’s helm in 2013, he’s guided the institution through some rough waters following the Great Recession. The Royal Bank of Scotland (RBS), which once owned Citizens Financial group, fully exited its ownership stake in the bank’s common stock in November 2015, a year ahead of schedule. He believes the campus completion represents one of the more successful moments in the bank’s history.

“I think it’s a highly visible milepost of what we’re doing with the bank. I think under RBS, which had its challenges that were mostly real estate related, starved Citizens of some growth capital for a number of years,” said Van Saun. “When I came aboard we knew we had a good foundation, but there was a lot of investment we had to make and bring some new people and talent into the organization. I think we set out with a good plan, and we’ve executed that plan very well.”

The CEO said that the company’s initial public offering will “always be number one” in his eyes for accomplishments, but that the Johnston campus opening would be a strong second in terms of memories.

Van Saun stated that he’s part of an advisory council to Governor Raimondo with a number of other CEOs, and part of their mission is to promote the state to other businesses. He, like Mike Knipper, would strongly recommend investing in Rhode Island and Johnston.

“There’s other big companies that are taking a look here because of the favorable business climate, the talent, the proximity to Boston, so there’s a lot going on for the state right now,” he said.

Now that the campus is essentially complete, Van Saun said his company and employees look to become more ingrained in the local community.

“That’s part of our DNA. We want to make the communities that we live, work and play in great places. We set targeted volunteer goals each year, and last year we hit 114,000 volunteer hours across our footprint,” said Van Saun, who added that Citizens focuses on areas of need including providing shelter, financial literacy and promoting economic opportunity to all. “There’s a lot we can do to help and touch people’s lives. We have all these great opportunities to get involved in the community and make a difference. I think you’ll continue to see that in Rhode Island.”

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