Frederick Heldring, former chairman and CEO of Philadelphia National Bank (PNB) and a leader of affirmative lending, community development, and international trade initiatives, died October 12, 2013, at the age of 89 at his home.
Heldring, the son of a bank president, was born in 1924 in Amsterdam. During World War II, at age 19, he began working for a Dutch underground organization in Amsterdam that was dedicated to helping hide Jews among Dutch families.1 Soon after, he became chief of a spy operation that smuggled reports of German troop movements to the Allied Forces.2
After the war ended, he served in the Dutch marines and studied economics. In 1950, he emigrated to the United States and enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School. While at Wharton, he worked part time evenings for PNB sorting checks. After graduating in 1951, he started a long career in the bank’s overseas operations.
In 1959, Heldring was one of the first U.S. bankers who visited the former Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR) to seek opportunities to finance imports and exports, and later he traveled extensively in Eastern Europe, Asia, and Latin America on similar trade financing missions. In 1974, he was appointed president of PNB and served as its chairman from 1986 until his retirement in 1989. He also served as vice chairman of CoreStates Financial Corporation.
As PNB’s chairman, he instituted Upward Communication meetings, which gave employees an opportunity to sit down with members of senior management and discuss their concerns and questions. He said that he “wanted to have the ability for one hour a week to listen to employees in any part of the bank and see the bank through their eyes.”
In the early 1970s, Heldring advocated bank lending in underserved neighborhoods in the Philadelphia area. In 1975, two years prior to the passage of the Community Reinvestment Act, Heldring and two other bank presidents3 founded the Philadelphia Mortgage Plan (PMP), which became the Delaware Valley Mortgage Plan, in response to the concerns of area city officials, community organizations, and the media about urban disinvestment and “redlining.”4 According to a published report, from 1975 to 1998 the plan made $700 million in home mortgages available to more than 26,000 families throughout the Delaware Valley region.5 In 1998, six financial institutions were participating in the plan, which received national attention.
In the PMP, participating banks agreed to base home mortgage lending decisions on the structural soundness of the house and the creditworthiness of the applicant, not on conditions in the surrounding neighborhood. Before loan requests were declined, applications were reviewed, with identifying information omitted, by all PMP lending officers at regular weekly meetings.
Robert Palmer, PNB’s president in 1987 and president and CEO from 1988 to 1992, said, “Heldring believed that the banks should be encouraged to take risks and lend to home-buyers in low-income Philadelphia neighborhoods who had jobs and exhibited character. Heldring was very sensitive to the needs of poor communities from his experience in Amsterdam and his international travel. He had a deep commitment to help Philadelphia’s poorer neighborhoods and saw a similarity of problems, and possibly solutions, when confronting poverty locally and in the Third World.”
Heldring was also a founder of the Philadelphia Rehabilitation Plan, which made loans for the rehabilitation of low-income housing. He helped develop PNB’s Public Responsibility Department, which encompassed the bank’s community development loan programs and bank foundation.
Upon his retirement from PNB, Heldring became chairman of the Philadelphia Development Partnership, later succeeded by Entrepreneur Works, which helps develop microenterprises in the Philadelphia area and Chester, PA, by providing loans, technical assistance, education, and networking opportunities.
Leslie Benoliel, executive director of Entrepreneur Works, said, “Fred was a remarkable human being whose efforts to help those less fortunate — those who were being persecuted, those living in poverty — spanned several decades and continents. He was a tireless champion of community development and social justice in Philadelphia.”