People’s United Bank Keeps a Local Focus
For much of its 21 years under that banner, the Bank of Western Massachusetts focused on three divisions: commercial banking, retail and business banking, and wealth management. The name change to People’s United Bank in 2008, Tim Crimmins said, didn’t change that emphasis.
“What has changed is the expansion of services within those divisions,” added Crimmins, president of the Massachusetts division at People’s United, the New England financial power that acquired the Bank of Western Mass. — or, more accurately, its parent, Chittenden Bank — four years ago. “As we have grown, we have expanded our lending capacity. We also have been able to provide additional products and services to customers, such as treasury services for business customers.
“On the retail side, we offer a whole host of retail services,” he added. “Under Chittenden, we did mortgages, home-equity loans, personal loans, and car loans, but today, with People’s United, we do a much better job on residential mortgage lending, and we have originators throughout the state who offer a full array of both conventional mortgages as well as FHA, VA, and construction loans.
So the basic business hasn’t changed, Crimmins said — it’s just expanded significantly.
“What’s different under People’s United is that it’s all one bank. All the individual banks that made up Chittenden, with their individual charters and individual boards of directors, have all been consolidated into a single entity,” he explained, noting that each state in the bank’s footprint — Massachusetts, Connecticut, New Hampshire, Vermont, Maine, and New York — is a division, with its own divisional president (except for Connecticut, which comprises two divisions).
“The bank’s reach extends from the Greater New York metro area all the way to Bangor, Maine,” he said. “We have more than 400 offices and 600 ATMs. We’re the largest bank headquartered in New England, with $28 billion in assets.”
That means more resources, services, and loan capacity for customers, Crimmins said — as well as a challenge to maintain the local emphasis and strong customer service that first helped the Bank of Western Mass. build its reputation. That’s a challege he and his team have taken to heart.
Crimmins, who has worked in banking for the past 42 years, launched the Bank of Western Mass. (BWM) in Springfield 25 years ago with a partner, Frank Fitzgerald, sensing a need for a commercial-lending institution with a local focus. They initially catered to small and medium-sized businesses, which they felt was an underserved niche.
Others agreed, as evidenced by 36 initial incorporators and a stock offering that generated 250 shareholders, helping the bank launch in April 1987 with $9.3 million in assets. Eight months later, the bank had posted a $155,000 loss, but that was the last red-ink year it would experience (except for 1991, amid a crushing recession, when the key goal for all banks was simply survival).
The bank’s success drew the interest of Chittenden, which acquired BWM in 1995 and kept the original name on the door. By the time Chittenden was itself acquired by People’s United in 2008, it was a $6 billion institution that provided far greater resources than Crimmins’ team could offer in the early years, both in the size of loans and range of services.
“When we started in 1987, we made sure we had a good, solid base of employees from this market that supported the mission of the bank,” he said. “We operated for eight years independently, through one of the worst banking crises, in the early ’90s. Then we merged with the Chittenden Corp. and expanded further in providing both commercial and retail services to our market. That not only expanded the services we provide for our customers, but it opened up career opportunities for a lot of people.
Now, as part of an even larger bank, that sentiment still rings true, he told BusinessWest.
“This is a bank that invests heavily in the future of its employees,” he said of ongoing training and development opportunities, “and that’s good not only for the employees, but for customers, too.”
In the arenas of retail banking, commercial banking, and cash-management services — the latter being a major part of the bank in terms of revenues, Crimmins said — “there have been a lot of improvements in terms of automation and conversions to state-of-the-art systems.”
In particular, the company has invested significant resources upgrading technology that benefits customers, he noted. “Online banking is a good example of that, especially with newer customers coming in, the younger generation.”
A strong suite of online services goes hand in hand with what Crimmins characterized as one of the bank’s strengths — its geographic footprint.
“We have a broad reach, which is a big advantage for people who are traveling throughout New England,” he said. “We have college-age customers away at school, and they can find a People’s United Bank just anywhere throughout New England.”
That physical reach — and a regional approach to business banking — benefits corporate customers as well, particularly those with multiple locations. Crimmins said, adding that the bank’s healthy capital position is another plus. “Our strong deposit base provides low-cost funding and enhances our ability to compte for both commercial and consumer loans.”
On the loan side, People’s United has attempted to maintain the local quality it emphasized in its BWM days.
“We have teams throughout Western, Central, and Eastern Mass.,” Crimmins said. “These teams are strategically located in our various markets throughout Massachusetts. Dan Flynn, as an example — the chief lending officer for Western Mass. and Central Mass. — has been here for 23 years now. His counterpart in Boston, Hal Geissler, has also been with the organization for a long time.
“Each of these regions is dedicated to local lending, but on a much larger scale than before,” Crimmins continued. “One of the other things we’ve done is to divide up the size of loans between what we call small-business lending and commercial/industrial and commercial real estate. Our thresholds for small-business lending are companies with sales under $5 million and credit needs under $1.5 million. We have teams throughout each region in Massachusetts focusing on just those customers.”
On the commercial-lending front, however, a still-sluggish economy continues to dampen demand. Despite that, the bank’s loans have been able to grow at an annualized rate of 18% over the past three years.
“Part of that has been through the acquisition of banks,” Crimmins said. “For example, here in Massachusetts, we acquired Butler Bank, with four offices in the Merrimack Valley. A few months later, we acquired River Bank, with seven offices in Essex and Middlesex counties. And last year, we acquired Danvers Bank, with 29 offices. In addition, we built five offices in downtown Boston, with another branch scheduled to open in Wellesley. So we extend from the North Shore through the Boston financial district all the way through what was the former Bank of Western Massachusetts market.”
That reach, combined with a stronger capital position and the bank’s conservative lending policies — which extend back before the People’s United acquisition — will help carry it through during good and bad economic times, he noted. “We can bring the strength and liquidity of a major player like People’s United, while, at the same time, we can deliver service as a community-focused bank. There’s a tremendous advantage in that.”
The bank’s size brings other benefits, including broader resources for community giving. The People’s United Charitable Foundation, formed in 2007, has grown in size to $44 million, and the earnings on that amount are distributed to charitable organizations, Crimmins noted.
In 2011, the foundation made $2.3 million in grants to more than 278 nonprofit organizations throughout the bank’s footprint, and the bank itself donated another $3.2 million.
The three main areas for grant consideration are community-development activities (43% of all funds), youth-development programs that help underprivileged children (40%), and affordable-housing programs (17%). Crimmins, an officer of the foundation, believes his local knowledge of the community provides guidance in determining local needs. In addition, the foundation relies on local input from the various bank presidents.
Crimmins conceded that his role is much different today than it was when he could focus on the Pioneer Valley, with offices in both Springfield and Worcester and constant travel obligations across the state. But he insists that the bank’s employees are firmly focused on individual needs, and that customer service is People’s United’s biggest advantage.
“A concept we call ‘driving the customer experience’ works well for both the commercial customers and the retail customers; this concept puts the bank in our customers’ shoes and looks at banking from the customer’s perspective, asking, how would we expect to be treated?” he explained. “It empowers our people to make decisions that improve their relationship with customers, and provides a level of service that we ourselves would expect from a bank.”
Even a bank that has grown far beyond Western Massachusetts.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at email@example.com