Q&A with Lori Soren, regional market president for U.S. Bank

With just 74 branches, U.S. Bank lacks the street-corner presence that its larger competitors — Wells Fargo & Co. and Bank of America Corp. — have in Nevada. But that’s all right with Lori Soren, whose strategy for the bank with $2.22 billion in local deposits includes mobile banking offerings, smarter ATMs and supermarket branches.

Soren, U.S. Bank’s regional market president of Nevada, Arizona and Utah, said the bank has profited from its partnerships with Smith’s and Mariana’s.

“How we really grew in the grocery-store business was Nevada State Bank exited that business,” Soren said. “That was about five years ago. So we took over the leases, not the deposits, at the Smith’s markets where Nevada State Bank was. That was really our leap into our branch network in Southern Nevada.”

Soren said the bank looks at “them as traditional branches, they are just in a grocery store.” U.S. Bank also operates branches in the student union at UNLV, and in the lobbies at UMC and the Las Vegas Athletic Club on Maryland Parkway.

“As the economy changes, we’ll look at what pockets of town we’re not in … then put a traditional branch in,” Soren said. “There is nothing on the drawing board for a couple of years.”

She said U.S. Bank is competitive with the mobile options it offers, as well as installing 15 of a total of 79 image-enabled ATMs in Southern Nevada. Image-enabled ATMs can accept 30 to 50 checks at once without an envelope, display the images on screen, and print images on the receipt.

“You’ve got to bring choices to clients,” said Soren, who discussed a number of issues in an interview with the Business Press.

Question: Besides Las Vegas, your territory includes Salt Lake City and Phoenix. What makes Salt Lake City different from Las Vegas?

Answer: They have more industry. They have everything from the ski industry to professional sports. They’ve had a lot of real estate development going on up there and they have a lot of manufacturing. They have Internet companies; Overstock.com is there among others. It’s a very diverse economy that has done well over the last five years.

Question: How can Las Vegas reposition itself to compete with Salt Lake City and Phoenix?

Answer: I think we need to continue to work with our university system. We are huge supporters of UNLV and its president, Neal Smatresk. I think the Lee School of Business is important. Look at the University of Utah or the W.P. Carey School of Business at Arizona State and the crucial role they play in the community. As we continue to attract top tier students to UNLV then we’ll create wonderful jobs that aren’t necessarily gaming related. I think UNLV is critical to our ongoing success.

Question: U.S. Bank finances commercial casinos, does it finance Native American casinos?

Answer: We do a lot of Native American gaming. These Native American deals are not usually located in a major metropolitan area, except for maybe in northern San Diego County, so thy have to identify themselves. Who are they going to market too? It’s much more of a regional draw; People feel comfortable driving two hours to go to these small properties. There are some beautiful casinos. You are not attracting a strictly local audience, you are bringing someone in and having them spend the full day gambling, maybe taking in a show or restaurant and staying overnight. It’s a different experience.

Question: Are Native American casino deal different from commercial casinos?

Answer: It is a different way of lending. First of all, you are dealing with sovereign governments. You really don’t have the collateral, and you can’t take a lean on the real estate. So it is looked at very, very differently. It’s a different underwriting approach to a commercial casino operator.

Question: Even though it’s different, are Native American casinos are still an attractive investment for U.S. Bank?

Answer: Yes. Typically, our Native American gaming has not levered up. You don’t see the leverage points to cash flow ... you don’t see those. Commercial operators, often times public ly traded, have more risk tolerance for higher leverage. They are underwritten similarly, but you just have a different risk profile with a Native American casino. They’ve all got risk, but it’s a different risk and what’s your level of comfort.

Question: U.S. Bank provides tax-credit funding in certain areas, is Las Vegas and Clark County one of those area?

Answer: We have not really had the availability of tax credits in this area and we now have people working very closely with the state. We think there are going to be some dollars allocated to us for the Las Vegas market. It has not been an area of focus, but it needs to be looked at as we continue to revitalize some of our older parts of town.

Question: Where is the Las Vegas economy in terms of its recovery?

Answer: I think we are moving positively. I think we have seen a huge decline in wealth in this valley both personally and commercially. We have seen the bottom has been hit and people are still cautiously optimistic. But the majority of homes being purchase right now are investors with cash. People have to start relocating to Las Vegas and not an investor coming in to scoop up real estate, but people moving here creating jobs. I am very optimistic. We have come a long way from where we were four years ago. I remember walking through the Fashion Show mall in 2009 and it was dead. I mean on a Saturday afternoon you would walk in there and it was sad. There was nobody there and now its vibrant again. There is a life in this city.

Contact reporter Chris Sieroty at csieroty@reviewjournal.com or 702-477-3893. Follow @sierotyfeatures on Twitter.