There’s No Such Thing as a Closed Door

In the wake of Puerto Rico’s ongoing recession, Tim Bender explains how embracing change makes Banco Popular an institution that stretches beyond the boundaries of banking

The morale of Puerto Rico has been dampened recently by economic malaise—a result of the Caribbean paradise’s public debt crisis and ongoing recession.

This has forced all local businesses to reassess their financial stakes and fight harder.

Banco Popular—the largest and most influential bank on the island—faces the same challenges as every other company, but unlike many of them, it is embracing change to compete against the odds. A key player in this strategy is Tim Bender, senior vice president and head of enterprise real estate for Banco Popular. After receiving the job offer while lounging on a beach in the United States, he realized this major career move would push his work ethic and expose him to greater challenges. Even though he joined Banco Popular less than a year ago, he has already helped consolidate and reorganize its real estate business structure, stretch the potential of its retail locations, and share its success with the local community. He attributes this to his flexibility and patience, both of which were put to the test when he first walked onto company property.

It was then that he immediately noticed a difference in culture and organization when compared to his own personality. Banco’s employees worked more leisurely than his New York background and gusto were accustomed to, so after close review, he was eager to slip some simplicity and adrenaline into the mix.

“My mandate was to look at our portfolio and operations and help manage the company’s real estate assets with a more strategic approach, rather than a transactional or reactive one,” Bender says.

This inspired him to delegate teams to the bank’s retail and corporate real estate divisions and make them experts in their line of business. He also introduced his real estate teams to an integrated workplace management system that allowed them to hold the company’s drawings, maintenance orders, and transactions, as well as its financial and human resources systems, under one roof. 

With this clarity outlined, Bender looked at the actual real estate and how the space influenced the world around it. A perfect example of this is Banco Popular’s most innovated real estate project to date, the Urban Hub. This involved the transformation of a few empty lots between a platform of the Tren Urbano— San Juan ’s public train system—and the bank’s headquarters into a green mecca. It now has retail space for restaurants, trees, water fixtures, numerous pieces of original artwork (including roof tiles painted by Antonio Martorell), and an amphitheater located on what was previously the top floor of its parking garage.

Focus: San Juan

Banco Popular has been bringing positive change to San Juan for the past 37 years. Through its philanthropic branch, Fundación Banco Popular, it mentors and trains employees for volunteer work and invests in nonprofits.

The Fundación, which is adjacent to the bank’s headquarters, specifically supports programs that further the educational and economic development of Puerto Ricans. Among the supported programs is Populoso, which travels to schools across the country to teach children the importance of saving money for their future. A partnership between Banco Popular and the Federal Home Loan Bank led to Pronto Popular, which helps low-income citizens save for and purchase a home.

The Urban Hub’s most impressive elements naturally give back to Puerto Rico’s environment. Among its trees, landscapers installed plant species that digest hydrocarbons and clean soil as they grow, ultimately fueling the surrounding plants so they can live longer and stronger. These are fed by a water purification system located at the concourse of the parking garage, which cleans stormwater runoff. It’s also used to fill the hub’s ponds and other aquatic structures. Best of all, everything is powered by solar panels.

“When you’re in the Caribbean, you can’t rely on nuclear or hydraulic energy,” Bender says. “Solar panels, wind, and renewable energy [aren’t] a luxury; [they’re] a necessity.”

Bender attributes this diligence largely to his past experience with TD Bank, which, similar to Banco Popular, highly prioritizes eco-friendliness. He helped further this mission when he collaborated on the transformation of an empty 300,000-square-foot property into a beautiful—and wonderfully unusual—call center, which was featured in ABQ in 2013.

The Urban Hub project is similar in that it should also help turn Hato Rey—the financial district of San Juan—into a more active area and spark excitement for residents.

“With all of the bad news from the debt crisis and recession, we want to make a statement that we believe in the future of Puerto Rico,” Bender says. “Banco Popular is a heartfelt institution not just from a banking perspective. It’s a phenomenal project to breathe some life back into the community.”

Looking ahead, Bender and Banco Popular are brainstorming ways to diversify their retail outlets. Some of its branches have dead space that can generate revenue and house other businesses.

“We’re excited to convert some full-size locations into hybrids with smart ATMs and universal bankers to minimize our carbon footprint,” he says. “We’re still providing the same services; we’re just doing it with a smaller headcount and square footage.”

Banco Popular can’t close many of its locations because it’s the only bank available in some areas. Therefore, these solutions should save time and effort without placing customers in jeopardy. However, the changes can only be realized with excellent communication and collaboration, so Bender has plans to bring Banco Popular’s headquarters aboard.

“Research shows that a typical office space is utilized only 60 percent of the time, and that a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t support the way people work today,” Bender says. “We’re using data and influencing people to stop thinking about private space.”

Considering that, it is more than obvious that Bender wants to transform Banco Popular into a welcoming entity through and through.

What the Future Holds

Bender manages more than 8 million square feet of Banco Popular territory between the United States and the Caribbean islands, including Puerto Rico, the Virgin Islands, New York, New Jersey, and Florida.

The brand is most dominant in the Caribbean, where it manages 180 properties—170 of which are located in Puerto Rico, while the other 10 are in St. Thomas. Each retail location is about 4,000 square feet, and its corporate headquarters comprises about 600,000 square feet. Banco Popular will also continue this expansion with 5–10 new branches planned for
this year.

The Urban Hub was completed in early 2017. The company held its first meetings in its auditorium in December 2016, and the team is excited to open the doors to stimulate tourism and entertain residents.