Sections Supplements

A Hometown Touch

Country Bank for Savings Thinks Big in A Region of Small Towns
As a community-focused business, Country Bank for Savings gives tens of thousands of dollars annually to local institutions.

But Paul Scully, the Ware-based bank’s president and CEO, sees a gift of a paper shredder as equally reflective of the bank’s mission. The used shredder was donated to a local senior center, where it sees heavy use from individuals concerned about privacy and identity theft.

“It doesn’t always take thousands of dollars to improve the quality of life for people,” said Scully, who recently succeeded longtime president and CEO John MacNeish. It’s a lesson for all community banks: while they may seem tiny in a time of massive bank mergers, Scully prefers to focus on what sets them apart – the personal touch.
“Bank products and services don’t differ that much, so every bank relies on its reputation,” he said. “We’re in a service business, and that’s what we sell. It’s all about how someone feels when they walk though our doors, and then after they leave. We greet our customers like we know them – because we do.”

The challenge is to retain that personal service during a time of growth; Country Bank has recently added branches in Ludlow and Charlton, bringing its total to 13 in 10 different towns. But don’t expect to see offices in Springfield or Worcester anytime soon.

“We will remain in these types of markets,” Scully said, referring to smaller communities such as Ware, Belchertown, and Palmer, many of which are fast-growing. “The population might vary, but they’re all nice, rural towns, and that’s where I see us staying.”

“It doesn’t always take thousands of dollars to improve the quality of life for people.”

Community Connections

The Country Bank name is only 24 years old, but the institution has been around since 1850, when it was known as Ware Savings Bank. It took on its current name after a 1981 merger with Palmer Savings Bank; another merger with Leicester Savings Bank nine years ago further increased the bank’s holdings and its reach.

From the time of the name change, Scully said, it has been important to communicate a sense of community ties. That’s why the name of each branch reflects its hometown: Country Bank of Ludlow, Country Bank of Palmer, etc. “I think that resonates with people,” he said.

“Our home is your home,” said Pattianne Mitchell, vice president of marketing, echoing one of the bank’s slogans. “The name reflects the pride we take in that community.”

She added that Country’s reputation as a high-quality service bank is a plus when entering new markets.

“People come in and say, ‘we’ve heard good things about you,’” Mitchell told BusinessWest. “That follows us. It’s something you don’t hear in the mega-banks. But people know that we’re one of the most community-focused banks in the area. We live here too, and when we help the town, we’re helping each other.”
That community focus includes financial support to schools, libraries, hospitals, and other institutions.

“We want to help organizations that really support the community as a whole. These are things that everyone benefits from – and areas that are usually underfunded,” Mitchell added. “We try to give money to organizations that help the most people for the best reasons.”

Country also conducts a school banking program in area elementary schools, building early financial literacy by teaching students about savings and investment – and providing them with passbooks to open their own in-school accounts. The program is important, Scully said, in an age when youths are less exposed to banks simply because their parents do much more banking at ATMs or on the Internet.
“This fills a void,” he said. “We’re teaching them about banking, and the kids love it.”

Healthy Growth

These programs and personal touches aside, Scully knows a bank won’t attract new business unless it has the resources to back up its service. And Country Bank has continued to grow not only its personal banking products but its commercial services.

“We want to help organizations that really support the community as a whole. These are things that everyone benefits from – and areas that are usually underfunded. We try to give money to organizations that help the most people for the best reasons.”

“The pace of commercial lending has really picked up in the last 18 to 24 months, mainly because we’ve seen a significant upswing in new-home building in our communities,” he said. “A lot of people who work in Boston are realizing they can spend just a little more time on the Mass Pike and have a totally different quality of life.”

Scully said many of the developers who work with the bank are independent builders who might put up just three to four houses a year, and they are comfortable with Country’s resources and history. “They know we’re in it for the long haul – we’re not going to be hanging a new name on the door.”

In recent years, Country has also launched commercial cash-management services that help businesses streamline by keeping a variety of financial programs under one umbrella, he added.

Meanwhile, if homes are being built, they’re also being purchased, and Country, like most banks, continues to reap the benefits of a booming mortgage market. However, for the first time in awhile, most of that recent business has come from new purchases, not refinancing.

“We just had one of our biggest purchase months in years,” Scully said. “Most everyone who was going to refinance already has.”

As for personal money management, Country Bank’s Internet option has grown significantly in the past several years. “I don’t think people have the skepticism they had when Internet banking was first introduced,” Mitchell said.
Scully recalls that, in the 1980s, some in the banking industry saw the advent of ATMs – and the prospect of Internet banking – eventually rendering branch banking obsolete.

“What we found out was that everyone loves these services – you might use your debit card constantly and check your balance online at 3 in the morning – but people still want to drive by a branch and know it’s there when they need it. We’ve given people a few more portals to do business, but they haven’t replaced branches.”

Service First

That’s why personalized service will continue to be a hallmark of Country Bank, Scully said. It’s a priority that extends to phone calls, which are answered by employees, not a computer.

“Some banks feel they can give better service with an automated system, but people don’t like that,” Mitchell said. “As a customer, you want personal contact.”

They also want a quick response to their problems. Scully recalled a recent customer complaint that made it to his desk. “I agreed with the customer, and we corrected it. He’s happier now, and he feels better about us.”
After 30 years working for mutual banks with a community focus, Scully feels good about where he is, too.

“I couldn’t imagine doing anything else. There are aspects to this you couldn’t replace at another bank,” he said. “It’s all in how you treat people. Everything in life comes back to how you treat people.”

Whether you’re giving them a loan or a paper shredder.