Features

Coleman Gregory – Helaba 

Keeping Helaba on track through thick and thin 

He’s nothing if not resilient and expects his longtime employer to be the same. Coleman Gregory and the German-headquartered commercial bank Landesbank Hessen-Thuringen—Helaba, for short—have weathered storms, in his case both professional and personal. But judging from the discussion of his role at Helaba with Vanguard at his New York City office, he has always bounced back. 

Coleman Gregory | Senior Vice President and General Counsel | Helaba 

Coleman Gregory | Senior Vice President and General Counsel | Helaba

It’s been a tough couple of years, Gregory acknowledges, with high interest rates bringing new real estate investment almost to a standstill. Still, it’s nothing he and the bank haven’t been through before. 

“My experience and tenure mean I’ve been through downturns in my career,” he says. “It remains to be seen whether this one turns out to be as bad as the one in 2008.” 

Gregory commenced his Helaba tenure in May 2010, and his early responsibilities included starting a legal department from scratch, hiring two lawyers, immediately dealing with a real estate transaction where a “biblical” flood had utterly destroyed the huge shopping mall collateral, and producing the company’s response to the Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act that, among other provisions, required banks to describe to regulators, in a formal resolution plan, how they’d wind down operations should they fail. 

Of course, Helaba didn’t join Lehman Brothers, Bear Stearns et al. in banking’s dustbin. It’s had a productive decade-plus with Gregory helping it expand or diversify into new areas, including land transport finance and the power/energy sector, including alternative sources such as wind and solar while maintaining its traditional markets.  According to Gregory, carefully calculated industry diversification is essential for safeguarding Helaba’s balance sheet. 

“In the legal team, we’re providing stability during our time of transformation and growth while also working to be a catalyst to help provide strategic partnership to both the company and our constituents,” he says. 

On track 

The land transport finance business began from scratch in the New York branch around four years ago. Gregory and his team helped to set up the venture and collaborated with business leaders and outside counsel for guidance. While transactions tend to have many similar characteristics across industries, he explains there are specific requirements for perfecting security interests in different collateral classes. 

“It’s around the edges where things differ,” he explains. “You have to become aware of how different collateral fits into the way of thinking because when you protect security interests in a piece of rail equipment or a plant, it can be quite different than protecting security in an office or apartment building or large-scale energy projects.”  

And there have been other projects that Gregory has overseen. His previous employer, the New York Branch of Deutsche Postbank (fka BHF-Bank, New York Branch) was acquired by ING. The Fed would only approve the acquisition if ING “de-banked” the branch. That entailed assigning all its U.S. assets to a newly created non-bank entity. That was a mega-project, he explains, because the bank had to achieve a zero balance sheet, asset by asset. More recently, at Helaba, he oversaw the identification, documentation, and negotiation to move Helaba’s New York assets from USD LIBOR to SOFR. 

LIBOR is the acronym for the London Interbank Offered Rate for U.S. Dollars, which was used to approximate the average interest rate banks pay on unsecured loans from each other. The London label notwithstanding, the index was used worldwide with the rate calculated from estimates submitted by the leading panel banks for each currency in Britain’s capital.  

Because panel banks manipulated the process up to 2012, LIBOR’s been replaced by risk-free interest rates known by another acronym, SOFR, as in Secured Overnight Financing Rate. Overseeing the process was the ARRC, or Alternative Reference Rates Committee, a collection of private-market participants assembled by the U.S. Federal Reserve Board and New York Fed. 

Mother knew best 

Comfortable as Gregory is wading through this alphabet soup, it wasn’t what he necessarily envisioned himself doing as a much younger man. He graduated from the University of California at Berkeley in 1982 with a history degree and, like many liberal arts majors, wondered what he’d do with it. So he called his mother, seeking advice, and she suggested that a business or law degree would likely open more doors.  

Having met the love of his life at Berkeley and wanting to hold onto her, Gregory also got good advice from his future father-in-law: Marry her before moving to Cambridge, Massachusetts, to attend Harvard Law School. That he did, and it gave him solidity while he faced the anxiety of a new challenge. 

Coleman Gregory | Senior Vice President and General Counsel | Helaba 

“My first year in law school, I said there’d be zero chance that I’d work for a big corporate firm,” he says with a chuckle. “It was a foregone conclusion by my second year, especially in light of my growing student debt.” 

And it was the right move, as Gregory began a nearly six-year run in 1986 with New York-based and globally active Shearman & Sterling (he logged more than half of that time in its Paris office). However, by 1992, he thought an in-house role would better suit his lifestyle, and he found it for the next 18 years at PB Capital (fka BHF Capital). But when Deutsche Bank was preparing to buy BHF, Gregory reckoned there wouldn’t be much room for him. 

But as one door closed, another opened at Helaba and, come May, Gregory will celebrate his 14th anniversary there. He’s found the ups and downs of the banking business to be exciting, and he appreciates the moral and professional support extended during a particularly painful 12 months between the summers of 2022 and 2023. 

An irreplaceable loss 

The wife he had met in Berkeley was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer and spent the last seven months of her life hospitalized before dying on June 1, 2023. Gregory describes the ordeal as hellish, trying to support her physically and emotionally while working remotely from the hospital. 

“I feel that in the last year, I’ve aged 100 years,” he says. “I feel my age in a way I never did before.” 

Still, he persevered with help from his friends, his Helaba colleagues and his three grown children—a 28-year-old in Maine and twin 20-year-olds, now in their senior years at LMU and the University of Chicago.  

While one may never really get over losing a beloved spouse, Gregory carries on dividing his time between in-office work in New York City and remote work from his home on Long Island’s North Fork. He’s a fair guitarist and vocalist (with a little harmonica thrown in for good measure) and often spends downtime walking the beach looking for sea glass. 

No matter how prepared one might be, the banking business always seems rife with variables beyond anyone’s direct control. But the long-ago history major doesn’t regret his career path. 

“The future may bring newness to the work, which I would embrace and consider challenging. As a generalist, I’m open to anything and learn quickly.”   

View this feature in the Vanguard Winter III 2024 Edition here.

Published on: February 16, 2024

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