Across the Generations
Greenfield Savings Bank Emphasizes Community TiesRebecca Caplice laughed when asked whether Greenfield Savings Bank had seen growth of its online and mobile services among younger customers.
“You’d be surprised at the acceptance across the board,” said Caplice, the bank’s president. “My father is 87 years old, and he’s on Facebook and Twitter every day. It’s really not just young people asking for these things; we are all attached to those mobile devices. I can hardly remember what it was like when someone in a group of people had a question, and no one knew the answer. Now we just look it up.”
In other words, Caplice said, banks had better offer robust options in electronic banking if they want to attract new customers — of all generations, not just Millennials. It’s one of many ways the banking world has evolved, and continues to do so.
“We have all kinds of ways to access your banking services. And we’re seeing growth in those electronic channels,” she told BusinessWest — but that growth has not come at the expense of branch traffic. “You read the industry press and see all these articles — ‘the branch bank is dead.’ But in our experience, our branch traffic hasn’t declined, even as other types of traffic have increased. We’re seeing people use several channels interchangeably, depending on what they’re doing.
“Sometimes a single transaction might use more than one channel; they might start someplace and end up somewhere else. That has been a real change,” she added. “Take mortgage applications, for example. More than half of our mortgage applications use an online channel to do part of the process electronically; then they’ll come in. I guess that speaks to people wanting to do things on their time, not the bank’s time.”
If there’s any difference between older and younger customers when it comes to technology, it’s not comfort with the tools, but with security fears.
“That’s where the separation occurs,” Caplice said. “It’s not the technology that’s frightening, but the younger people have less of a concern about security and privacy. I guess being brought up in a world where technology is all around you gives you a certain comfort level with that. I think those of us who have been on the planet a little longer don’t have that ease of comfort.”
Caplice has seen plenty of change in the banking industry since arriving at GSB in 1991, and even since taking the reins as president in 2007. But her 23-year arc at the bank has also given her some deep roots in Franklin County, where the bank enjoys a 50% market share in savings deposits and is also the county’s number-one lender.
But GSB — which, along with Greenfield Cooperative Bank, is one of only two institutions located in Greenfield 20 years ago that are still around today — has expanded gradually over the years. It merged in 1967 with the Crocker Institution for Savings in Turners Falls, making that office its first branch outside of Greenfield, and added another branch in South Deerfield in 1972.
Additions during Caplice’s time at the bank include branches in Shelburne Falls and Conway; the opening of the Amherst Financial Center in 2002, marking the bank’s first physical presence in Hampshire County; and the recent opening of its first Hampshire County branch, in Northampton.“When we made that next step into Hampshire County, it was almost like we were following a growing customer base there — Franklin County customers work there and said, ‘boy, I wish I had a branch in Northampton.’ So we saw an opportunity there, even though we’re still the dominant player here. You can’t take your eyes off that; you have to look outside your boundaries.”
As the region gains more distance from the Great Recession — although the economy can hardly be described as booming — commercial loan volume is up at GSB as well. “We’ve seen a lot of growth in commercial loans in the last four or five years. Ask any banker, and they’ll tell you the same thing.”
Rising demand for commercial loans runs the gamut, she said, including a manufacturing base in Franklin County that has suffered in recent years but is slowly gaining steam. “This region has a history and legacy of skilled blue-collar workers, and as those workers have transitioned into more precision machining, those industries have been doing very well.”
Meanwhile, the bank has differentiated itself in the market with unique products, like its trust business, which GSB started to cultivate during the 1990s when other banks with strong trust divisions, particularly Bank of New England and Shawmut Bank, left the Franklin County landscape. It now offers the region’s only in-house trust and investment department — a business most small banks don’t normally delve into.
“These are really high-touch banking services; we can manage people’s money, pay their bills, take care of their property, or take care of their estate. Sometimes a trust is set up for a child with special needs. It’s all kinds of high-touch financial management,” Caplice said. “And there is no bank in the Valley that has a locally controlled trust department. We’re at about $200 million under management, which gets us to a size that is respectable in the industry.”
It’s an interesting time for investment services in general, she added, especially with the massive wealth transfer from the GI Generation to their Boomer children. “The Baby Boomers’ parents are dying, so we’re seeing this transfer.
“There’s also a shift in what people’s goals are financially,” she continued, particularly at the other end of the generational spectrum, with the Millennials, and their relationship with banking institutions.
“In community banks, we’ve always emphasized our role in the community — that’s important,” Caplice said. “And we’ve got this generation that’s eventually going to be in charge, and they care deeply about causes. Yes, they want to earn money on their investments, but they also ask, ‘what are your values, and are those values the same as my values?’ I think that was not so much the case in other generations. It will be interesting to see how that impacts our business.”
With a 145-year history in Greenfield, GSB has certainly cultivated strong bonds with the towns it calls home.
For example, about five years ago, the bank partnered with institutions ranging from the Economic Development Council of Western Mass. to Greenfield Community College in spearheading a project to revitalize a series of downtown buildings. The development model brought together several property owners, representing more than a dozen buildings, who used tax-credit financing, facilitated by GSB, to fund renovations of the vacant sites.
“Taking on those projects individually wouldn’t have been cost-effective, but the project resulted in the renovation of those buildings in the core of the downtown,” Caplice said.
Before that, almost a decade ago, the bank launched an initiative called ‘civic action accounts,’ by which GSB donates money to school districts and other organizations based on how often customers use their debit cards.
Meanwhile, bank employees regularly set out to perform random acts of kindness. “I think that’s one thing that makes this place special,” Caplice said. “Each branch office plans its own events, and for the most part, they have nothing to do with banking. Maybe they’ll go up and down the street putting money in everyone’s meters, or wash every car that comes through the lot, to handing out free ice cream in Dixie cups. If you go to work proud of what’s going on in the organization and you’re having a good time, I think that resonates with customers, even though the activity itself has nothing to do with the business.”
Caplice was quick to add that Greenfield Savings Bank employees sit on many nonprofit boards, and the bank offers resources to various causes, but the smaller acts of kindness are often what customers, and prospective customers, notice. It’s part of a culture at the bank that the Massachusetts Chamber of Commerce honored several years ago with its Employer of Choice Award.
“If we create an atmosphere where the people who work here want to come to work, because they have fun and are permitted to do things they know change people’s lives, that attitude is infectious. You can feel it when you walk into a place,” she said. “We pay a lot of attention to culture; we think that’s really critical.”
After all, even in today’s fast-paced, high-tech banking landscape, there’s still room for kindness — and maybe a little ice cream.
Joseph Bednar can be reached at [email protected]