SVB’s Greg Becker was Silicon Valley’s money man for 30 years, until suddenly he wasn’t

By Lizette Chapman and Jennifer Surane | Bloomberg

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.

Foremr Silicon Valley Bank CEO Greg Becker. (Anda Chu/Bay Area News Group/File) 

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.

RELATED: How a poker game launched Silicon Valley Bank’s four-decade ride on the tech wave — and a bad gamble 42 years later ended it all

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.”

Long Game

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.

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