The new Truist bank brand, the name taken by the recently merged BB&T Corp. and SunTrust Banks Inc., went up Friday on a downtown Baltimore office tower and will spread in coming months to branches across the Baltimore region.
The merger, a $66 billion deal completed in December 2019, created what is now the nation’s seventh-largest bank, joining megabanks the likes of JPMorgan Chase, Bank of America and Wells Fargo. Truist became the Baltimore area’s fourth largest bank, based on deposits, with more than 1,600 employees across the state.
Officials of the merged bank and others say it’s significant that Charlotte, North Carolina-based Truist Financial Corp. has decided to keep its Maryland regional headquarters in downtown Baltimore. Truist plans to remain at 120 E. Baltimore St. where SunTrust occupied 28,000 square feet, not including a first floor bank branch, and where its sign went up Friday.
“We’re doubling down, and when the sign goes up it will be tangible that Truist is committed to downtown Baltimore,” said Gregory A. Farno, Truist’s Maryland regional president, who previously filled that role for Atlanta-based SunTrust.
Farno, who has worked in Baltimore banking for more than four decades, starting with the former Maryland National Bank, said he’s bullish on the city’s future.
“I consider myself a Baltimorean,” he said. “It’s my home. It’s my family’s home.”
The conversion to Truist, delayed by about half a year due to the coronavirus pandemic and expected to be completed by February, will become more visible as the SunTrust and BB&T names disappear around the region. Farno said the creation of larger bank will enable necessary investments in technology, but that the bank expects to follow a community bank model with some decisions still made locally.
Former Baltimore employees of BB&T, who had worked on the 22nd and 28th floors of 111 S. Calvert St. have moved into the new Truist offices already, though many are working remotely. The branding change to Truist also will occur at offices in Columbia, Hagerstown, Hunt Valley, Laurel and Rockville.
Bank branches, meanwhile, will convert to Truist between January and March. Truist has been consolidating and closing some overlapping branches.
The new Truist sign will be the first big change to Baltimore’s skyline since the beginning of the pandemic, said Shelonda Stokes, president of the Downtown Partnership of Baltimore.
“You can feel the energy coming back with this commitment, the increasing numbers of office workers returning, and the incoming State Center move,” Stokes said.
Gov. Larry Hogan announced a plan in April to relocate a dozen state agencies and about 3,300 Maryland state workers from the aging state office complex known as State Center just northwest of downtown to leased office space in downtown Baltimore. The governor called the move “a shot in the arm” for downtown Baltimore’s economy, where vacancies have been on the rise.
Office occupancy and employment downtown plummeted in 2020 as the coronavirus spread and businesses operated remotely or closed. Office vacancies jumped to 23.3%, up from 17.75% in 2019, the Downtown Partnership said in its State of Downtown Baltimore Report in April.
And total employment downtown fell to 117,970 in 2020 from 124,785 in 2019, reflecting the temporary loss of service-sector jobs in hotels, restaurants and construction.
The bank evaluated real estate in markets where the two merged firms operate, deciding in Maryland to consolidate at the Baltimore SunTrust office and vacated BB&T’s space, where little time remained on the lease.
“When we come back to work, post-Covid, I think what we’ve learned through this all is the ability to work remotely is a bigger part of our lives than it was pre-COVID,” Farno said. “We flat out don’t need as much space.”
Truist’s decision to stay downtown, even as the company sheds some pre-merger downtown space, runs counter to the flight of businesses recently from downtown’s traditional commercial district, with some relocating from older office buildings to newer Harbor East and Harbor Point developments east of the Inner Harbor. The latest of those came in the wake of office shutdowns during the pandemic.
T. Rowe Price Group, the Baltimore-based global investment firm founded in the city in 1937, announced plans in December to move its headquarters from its Inner Harbor high-rise on E. Pratt Street to a pair of new “green” office buildings in Harbor Point by 2024.
Bank of America said in March it plans to move its Baltimore offices from downtown to the Legg Mason Tower in Harbor East.
In May, the owner of the Wills Wharf office building in Harbor Point announced that Transamerica had agreed to lease the building’s 8th floor. The arm of Dutch insurer Aegon occupies the top nine floors of the Transamerica Tower at 100 Light St.
And officials with Pandora said in July that the Danish jeweler is exploring moving from a high-profile headquarters tower bearing its name at 250 W. Pratt St. Company officials are considering a relocation of its North American base as part of re-imagining the company’s U.S. office space and culture, and to “consider new ways of working.”
But leasing activity has begun to pick up now that businesses have had time to assess space needs with more employees working remotely, said Terri Harrington, managing principal of Harrington Commercial Real Estate Services. She said many companies that had leases up for renewal chose to sign short-term extensions while they worked with office designers and studied space needs.
“We are seeing companies, especially those who have been in the same location for 10 plus years, significantly reducing their square footage and creating more efficiencies in their space build-out,” Harrington said. “While they are taking less square footage, and in many cases moving to new buildings given the need to completely reconfigure, they are still making a commitment to stay downtown.”
Harrington believes downtown also will benefit from state agencies filling some vacancies created by moves out of the central business district, and said some of that planning is underway.
“We are generally seeing most companies who have had a history of being in the city, staying in the city,” she said. “We are fortunate so many businesses are bullish on the city, in light of any challenges.”
Farno said the bank never wavered from staying downtown, mostly because both BB&T and SunTrust had roots in the area since the late 1990s. He said he feels optimistic about Truist’s future in the city and state.
“I think our best days are absolutely ahead of us,” he said.