Making green from green

Sarah Gardner Jan 12, 2007

KAI RYSSDAL: San Francisco likes to think of itself as being on the cutting edge. The city’s set the pace from the days of the Gold Rush all the way to the boom. Now, it’s making a living being green. New Resource Bank has opened its doors in downtown San Francisco. It’s calling itself the country’s first commercial bank aimed at “green business.”

Sarah Gardner reports from the Marketplace Sustainability Desk, backers include many of the same people who made money off the tech boom a decade ago.

SARAH GARDNER: You know something really is different about this bank when the vice chairman of the board takes you on a tour and encourages you to visit the bathroom.

PETER LIU: I often don’t take the tour all the way in there.

New Resource Bank vice chairman and founder Peter Liu gets as excited about the bank’s water-saving toilets and recycled counter tops as he does about its small business loans. The former Chase Manhattan and Credit Suisse exec has a passion for clean technology. He says New Resource will specialize in alternative energy, organic food and green-building loans. Venture capitalists, he says, have funded the start-ups . . .

LIU: A bevy of smart money — investors like Kleiner Perkins, legendary VC’s like Vinod Khosla — are all putting money into green to make more green, if you will.

Now, Liu says, these clean-tech companies need commercial banks to help them expand. And New Resource believes it can cater to their needs better than a generic bank down the street. He says that’s because their staff understands the costs of doing green business and so can better meet their needs for loans.

BOB EPSTEIN: What we’re modeling is the success of Silicon Valley Bank.

Bob Epstein, co-founder of the software company Sybase, is one of the bank’s directors and investors. Silicon Valley Bank is a niche bank, specializing in loans to high-tech companies. Epstein says New Resource will do the same for clean-tech.

EPSTEIN: Our goal is to train every single employee on what are the best practices in green businesses.

New Resource Bank’s investors and directors read like a Who’s Who of Silicon Valley. They include Lotus Development founder Mitch Kapor and famed investment banker Bill Hambrecht.

Equities analyst Jaime Peters at Morningstar says these people will help bring in commercial business. Getting retail customers who just want a place to deposit their nest eggs may be a bit harder:

PETERSON: As far as the everyday person going into a bank, the green niche is really more like the free toaster. It’s something to bring the people in. There’s not really something too special about it.

Founder Peter Liu hopes consumers who sympathize with environmental causes will open checking accounts. They’re also hoping to bring in retail customers with special loan offers, like the one they’ve got going with SunPower. The San Jose company sells solar panels, an exotic home improvement to most bankers. At New Resource, SunPower customers can get special 25-year loans to pay for the pricey solar systems. SunPower exec Julie Blunden:

JULIE BLUNDEN: So what you end up with is a whole bunch of customers that can afford solar that otherwise wouldn’t have done it.

Peter Liu says green business will have its ups and downs, just like high-tech. But he’s confident it’s no fad.

LIU: If you look at energy efficiency, it’s all about reducing waste and saving people money. Saving people money I think’s always going to be in fashion.

In San Francisco, I’m Sarah Gardner for Marketplace.

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