Investors left unsure which was blander at Bank of New York Mellon's first investor conference in three years on Tuesday: the tuna salad lunch wraps or the financial targets.

Chief Executive Gerald Hassell, flanked by his senior leaders at 101 Barclay St. in Manhattan, laid out before concerned investors a grand plan that they said will produce 17% to 19% returns on common equity for the period 2015 to 2017.

"They talked a good story with costs, cuts, optimism for the future, but the punch line was ho-hum" CLSA bank analyst Mike Mayo said in a phone interview.

Mayo was unconvinced of the bank's near-term outlook that appears to deliver little more than the 18% return on common equity that the bank is delivering investors today, he said. The hallway chatter was in near-unison disbelief at the targets, said Mayo.

Jeff Harte, an analyst Sandler O'Neill, also expressed disappointment. "I wanted to hear more about profit-margin targets, what they're doing to make the expense environment better," he said. "We are sitting at the spot where the long-term opportunity looks good, but we knew that three years ago.

The conference, the bank's first such gathering in three years, was demanded by bank's largest and most important investors, who sought impressive targets by which to measure its improvements.

Activist investors have taken a liking to custodian banks, which are seen as being big spenders with performance problems. Nelson Peltz, whose hedge fund Trian Partners holds a 2.5% stake in the Bank of New York Mellon, was said as recently as Tuesday morning to be calling for BNY Mellon to spin off its asset-management business. Peltz claims to have helped the stocks of Legg Mason and State Street double as a result of his activism. He has had discussions with bank executives since June, those reports said. Spokespeople at BNY Mellon declined to comment on the claim, a Fox Business News report said.

Earlier this month BNY reported third-quarter profits that increased 11% from a year earlier, to $1.1 billion, and boosted assets under management by 7%, to $1.7 trillion, over the same period. Total adjusted noninterest expenses remained flat, however, as lower staff expenses were offset by other costs.

The drabness of the box-lunch menu at Tuesday's affair — tuna salad, veggie, chicken Caesar, and water — was the latest sign of the bank's radical frugality. And any hint of the opposite probably would have been a mistake, too.

"We are going back to our roots," Hassell said during the conference. "At our last investor day we told you what we wanted to deliver. We simply could not [do it]."

Cost cutting was possibly the most important topic of the day.

Mellon sold in May its massive 750,000-square-foot address at One Wall Street. The $585 million sale went to Harry Macklowe's Macklow Properties. Additional space-saving can be expected to be carved out in Pittsburgh and London, Hassell said Tuesday.

"Every dollar matters," he said.

Cuts in its staffing may help save the bank $100 million in annual run rate savings by 2015, a 130-page presentation showed and executives were quick to point out.

Vining Sparks analyst Marty Mosby pressed the executives harder during a question-and-answer session. "What have you learned in the past three years?" he asked.

BNY Mellon's Curtis Arledge, CEO of the investment management group, joined Hassell in emphasizing the bank's tailored and refined services, and made a point of emphasizing their use of technology that will save costs for clients.

During morning remarks Hassell told guests that he holds the pervasive, "same belief that all trades are going to go to electronic form, and investing in more platforms [will result in] more volume."

"Investment offerings are going to come to you from technology," Arledge added later during his portion of the day-long presentations.

Hassell's push to rebrand the bank has involved some creative moves . The bank announced in September last year a partnership with the San Francisco 49ers that helped fund the professional football team's new $1.2 billion stadium.

"The new stadium is the Empire State Building in Silicon Valley," Arledge said. "This is where we want to be," he said.

Matt Scully is a reporter for American Banker 

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