Early on March 9, as SVB Financial Group’s stock began its death spiral, Chief Executive Officer Greg Becker picked up the phone.
Becker started contacting friends, hoping that some of the goodwill he’d spent decades accruing as head of the startup community’s go-to bank could be repaid. Among the venture investors he spoke with was Alex Rampell, a general partner at Andreessen Horowitz. Becker wanted Rampell’s firm to help shore up SVB, the company’s commercial bank, as depositors fled, according to a person with knowledge of the conversation.
Over the next 24 hours or so, A16Z and many other firms realized the bank’s precarious position, with some advising founders to pull money out. By the following afternoon, SVB was in the hands of the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp.
SVB’s failure put an end to Becker’s 30-year career at the bank. Just over a week after he urged clients on a hastily arranged conference call to “stay calm” as money flowed out of its accounts, the bank’s parent company filed for bankruptcy. Regulators are looking into share sales that Becker and other executives made just weeks before its collapse, and President Joe Biden has urged Congress to enact tougher punishments for bank bosses if mismanagement contributed to institutions failing.
Via his lawyers, Becker didn’t respond to requests for comment on this story, which is based on conversations with numerous venture capitalists and founders. A representative for SVB also didn’t respond, while A16Z declined to comment.
In Silicon Valley, the frantic saga has left entrepreneurs and venture capitalists questioning their relationships with the man they’d been doing business with for years.
One venture investor who biked with Becker, banked with SVB and encouraged many of his startups to do the same, said he thought he knew him well after more than a decade of interactions. Now, he says, the timing of Becker’s stock sales, done on Feb. 27 under a prearranged, regulated plan that allowed him to sell shares, are giving him pause.
Path to CEO
Becker, 55, grew up on a 300-acre farm in northeast Indiana. After graduating with a bachelor’s degree from Indiana University’s Kelley School of Business, he joined Comerica Inc. in Detroit.
It was in the middle of one brutal Michigan winter that Becker’s manager asked him to do a short stint in the firm’s Pleasanton, California offices to provide financing for emerging growth technology companies. He never went back.
Becker ultimately joined Silicon Valley Bank in 1993, when the lender was still reeling in the aftermath of California’s commercial real estate crisis. Within six years, he was promoted to oversee the firm’s burgeoning venture capital practice and helped create its first direct equity fund.
In 2008, after stops as head of commercial banking and chief operating officer, Becker was named president of the bank. Three years later he took over as CEO.
By that point, Silicon Valley Bank had grown into a behemoth in the tech industry, with more than two dozen offices around the world.
Ryan Breslow, who later founded payments companies Bolt Financial Inc. and Eco Payments Inc., remembers meeting Becker in 2014. Breslow had just dropped out of Stanford University to build a Bitcoin wallet startup.
While crypto was beginning to gain traction among engineers, venture investors were largely skeptical and traditional financial institutions were in many cases hostile. The emerging technology was not only risky from a regulatory standpoint but, if successful, would diminish the role of banks.
So when Breslow secured a meeting with SVB he was thrilled. When he walked into the room and saw Becker himself sitting there with a few executives he was “definitely surprised.”
“He asked hard questions, but was also open,” said Breslow, who isn’t known for handing out praise to Silicon Valley’s elite. “He seemed progressive, but also like a serious bank CEO.”
Over the following years, money flooded into SVB as startups found it ever easier to raise funds and turned to the bank for everything from multimillion dollar deposits to venture debt and personal mortgages. Shares of its parent company soared from around $50 per share in 2011 to more than $755 apiece at their peak in 2021.
Throughout, Becker was a familiar face on Silicon Valley’s circuit of private dinners, charity functions and parties: the lubricants for deal making in the clubby industry.
SVB regularly sponsored events bringing together clients — and potential clients — with VCs, lawyers, accountants and auditors, including outdoor concerts at the Mountain Winery and football games at the San Francisco 49ers Levi’s Stadium, visible from SVB’s headquarters. Becker reliably showed up, establishing a reputation as a major player in the startup ecosystem who was friendly and engaging.
Where Becker’s network went wide, the connections built by his lieutenants — the SVB bankers who handled client relationships — went deep. Dozens of venture investors and founders described SVB’s dealmakers in glowing terms, sometimes calling them friends. The same people said they liked Becker, but knew very little about him.
Mamoon Hamid, a partner at venture firm Kleiner Perkins, said he always found Becker to be “calm and collected.”
Among Silicon Valley cliques, the machine that Becker had helped build was almost universally liked. His bankers understood how startups worked and no lengthy explanations were needed about why a nascent company didn’t yet have revenue, unlike at some of the bigger banks.
Startups would sometimes break terms on their credit lines, according to multiple venture investors, but SVB understood that playing the long game would mean weathering a startup’s highs and lows, and could have a much bigger payoff than seizing assets or forcing a company to shut.
Away from the office, Becker spent time cycling with a group called the Over the Hill Bike Club, which set off from Woodside, California toward the peninsula’s hilly coast, sometimes riding more than 100 miles a day. Along with his second wife, Stanford Law School lecturer Marilyn Bautista, he was a significant donor to the Sacred Heart Schools, a private prep school in Atherton, California.
Becker also made personal contributions to lobbying group TechNet, which pushes for policies to benefit Silicon Valley and the wider tech industry, and had a decades-long blue streak of donations to Democrat political candidates. Meg Whitman, who ran for California governor in 2010 and lost, was one of the few Republicans he backed.
On March 7, Becker spoke at a Morgan Stanley conference at San Francisco’s Palace Hotel. It was a brief break for the CEO, who’d spent days meeting Goldman Sachs Group Inc. bankers to discuss SVB’s plan to sell a large bond portfolio. But no one could tell: he regaled listeners with tales of dinners with Bain Capital and meetings with pre-IPO companies, and didn’t field a single question about his own firm’s financial position.
The next day, the announcement of the $1.8 billion loss it would take on the bond portfolio — alongside an ill-fated $2.25 billion capital raise — set in motion the stock plunge and bank run that engulfed SVB and ultimately led US authorities to guarantee the bank’s deposits.
The broader banking crisis, which now spans multiple regional US lenders and Swiss giant Credit Suisse Group AG, has since drawn some of the attention away from SVB and Becker. But behind closed doors the efforts to salvage what’s left of his empire continue: On Monday, the FDIC extended the auction for Silicon Valley Bank, giving potential bidders more time to decide if its legacy is one they want to continue. – BLOOMBERG