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Building a Brand

Berkshire Bank Positions Itself for Continued Growth
Tom Creed, left, and Michael Oleksak

Tom Creed, left, and Michael Oleksak are focused on building the Berkshire Bank brand.

Long-time area banking executive Tom Creed has joined Berkshire Bank as its new senior vice president and regional executive. He will join his predecessor in that role, Michael Oleksak, now executive vice president of Commercial Lending for the bank, in the broad assignment of expanding the bank’s footprint and building its brand. The latter can be a complicated process, said Oleksak, noting that it doesn’t have to be, because it all boils down to focusing on what he calls the “fundamentals.”

Tom Creed says he’s seen the many nuances of corporate finance from both sides of the loan officer’s desk.

By that, he was referring to a resume that includes more than 16 years of work in banking, most all of it in commercial lending — and another six working for one of his former clients, OmniGlow, which he served as vice president of corporate development.

“My time out of banking gives me an additional competitive edge, because I’ve been on the other side of the table,” he explained. “I hope that when I walk into a company and listen to how they’re operating, I can better understand what some of their issues are because I’ve been there doing it. And I can bring that experience to my team.”

That would be the team at Berkshire Bank, which Creed recently joined as regional executive, serving Western Mass., and senior vice president. He told BusinessWest that the diversity of his job background will help him as he goes about growing the commercial portfilio, and all other aspects of the Pittsfield-based institution.

Michael Oleksak, Creed’s immediate predecessor in that position, and now executive vice president of commercial lending for the bank, agrees. He said Berkshire took a long time, perhaps six months, to fill the regional executive’s position in an effort to find just the right person. Creed fits that description, said his new boss, because of his background — and how it jibes with the immediate goals and challenges for the institution.

Elaborating, Oleksak said the overall mission is to continue building the brand at Berkshire Bank — which acquired Woronoco Savings Bank in 2005, and uses that institution’s Westfield facilities as its regional headquarters — and often in areas that are far removed from that far-western Massachusetts county.

Neither Oleksak nor Creed believe the name is a problem of any sorts, although they acknowledge that it might have been a hurdle as the bank started doing business in Hampden and Hampshire counties three years ago. In this day, age, and competitive atmosphere, customers care less about what a bank is named — or should — and much more about how it takes care of them, they told BusinessWest.

“What Berkshire lives by is trying to do things the right way,” said Oleksak, adding that this term needs to be defined as it applies to banking institutions, and he did just that. “It starts internally, and it has to do with respect, integrity, and guts, which is a different kind of phrase for a banker to use.

“And that’s about making the tough decisions,” he continued. “Sometimes, the right answer isn’t ‘yes’ — at times, you do have to say ‘no.’ That’s what ‘guts’ represents.”

Summing things up, Oleksak borrowed terminology from the sports world, specifically the gridiron.

“You can do a lot of exotic things to try and build a brand, but I think it comes down to the basics, the fundamentals,” he explained. “This means blocking, tackling, and essentially treating people the way they want to be treated.”

Berkshire, which has a footprint that extends into New York and Vermont, now has 11 branches in Western Mass., and Oleksak said the bank will look to increase that number in the years ahead. Like other institutions, Berkshire recognizes the value of having a physical presence in as many of the communities it serves as possible, he noted, and will expand in ways, and directions, that ultimately make sense for the company as it goes about building the brand.

In this issue, BusinessWest talks with the regional leadership team at Berkshire Bank about the current state of the market, and their plans for achieving continued growth and greater market share.

Generating Interest

Summing up what’s on his resume, Creed said that at every stop, starting with the first one at Shawmut Bank in downtown Springfield in 1985, it’s been all about building relationships.

He prefers that word to loans, or loan volume, because he says commercial bankers, and teams of same, do much more than lend money.

“It’s about relationships, not just writing loans,” he said, returning to his point about experience, and how it is more important than the name on the letterhead when it comes to serving clients and ultimately building a portfolio.

At Shawmut, Creed started as a trainee, and was eventually promoted to commercial loan officer, and later, assistant vice president and team leader. In that role, he managed a middle-market loan portfolio and supervised three relationship managers and support staff.

From Shawmut, Creed went to Bank of Boston, where he served as vice president, with his primary responsibility being to develop new corporate relationships into a $100 million Western Mass. loan portfolio, with a focus on companies with more-complex international and cash-management requirements. He then took a similar role at Citizens Bank, where, as a vice president, he was responsible for the development and management of a middle-market commercial-lending portfolio.

In 1999, Creed shifted gears and went to work for West Springfield-based Omni-glow, a $70 million manufacturer and distributor of chemiluminescent products, such as glow sticks. He had a variety of roles, including everything from negotiations for potential acquisitions of competitors to planning and completion of a contract-manufacturing strategy in China.

Creed said these various experiences were invaluable to him as he returned in 2006 to banking, and Sovereign, after helping to negotiate the sale of Omniglow, a transition that ultimately left him without a job.

Creed was a senior vice president and regional executive with Sovereign, at a time when the bank was shifting away from regional management, when he and Oleksak, another veteran of Shawmut’s commercial-lending division, began talking the opportunity at Berkshire.

“The timing was perfect in that I was concerned about my future with Sovereign, Creed explained, “and the position at Berkshire was exactly what I was looking for, and I was apparently what they were looking for.”

Summing up his job description, Creed said work to expand the commercial lending portfolio is obviously a big part of it, but there are many other aspects to the job, including being visible within the community and keeping his finger on its pulse.

“It’s my job to be as visible in and aware of the community as much as possible,” said Creed, who is active with several groups, including the Affiliated Chambers of Commerce of Greater Springfield, the Economic Development Council of Western Mass., and the Regional Employment Board. “I need to understand what’s happening here — good and bad, and how Berkshire can address some of those occurrences for the good of the community and the good of our shareholders.”

Creed said he eventually accepted the position to take on a new career challenge, but also as an opportunity to put a quarter-century’s worth of lessons learned in banking and in business to work in helping Berkshire Bank expand its footprint and build its brand.

Banking on It

This assignment includes a wide variety of initiatives, from marketing to aggressive efforts to build that commercial portfolio; from community involvement to expanding the bank’s already-sizable insurance business; from customer service to providing an environment in which all team members can thrive.

And they all have to be carried out simultaneously, said Creed, who, as he talked about his new role and how he approaches it, referenced what he called the 3 ‘P’s — “people, products, and persistence.”

Elaborating, he said the first refers to a strong focus on employees and giving them the training and other tools needed to succeed and grow professionally. The second is another must in this or any other market, he continued. “We can put up another 20 branches, but if our products aren’t state-of-the-art and competitive, we’re not going to go anywhere.”

As for persistence, he said he refers to matters across the board. “It means persistence with new-product development, persistence in customer service, in community involvement, and persistence in response to customers’ needs … it’s all those things.”

Focus on these three areas will help the bank stand out at a time when the Western Mass. area is among the most competitive banking regions in the Northeast, if not the country, said Creed and Oleksak.

“This market is extraordinarily competitive, and part of the reason why is all the new capital that has come into the region with so many banks going public,” said Oleksak, referencing a lost of institutions, including Berkshire, Hampden, Chicopee Savings, and others. “The way you stand out is to have the right people in place, be super-attentive to what customers’ needs are, and be able to offer the ‘product of the day,’ be it from the Internet or a special CD.

“You can come up with all the gimmicks in the world to get people into your bank,” he continued, “but once they get there, you have to provide service, service, service — that’s what is going to distinguish you.”

The commercial-lending market has become extremely competitive in recent years, he continued, but despite this fact, Berkshire has doubled its commercial portfolio locally, from $115 million to $240 million over the past two years. He attributes this to the experience of the lending team, and its relationship-building capabilities.

“We do have a lot of experience, people who have been in this market for years,” he explained. “And that experience is what counts — it’s invaluable.”

As for physical expansion, Oleksak said Berkshire has a decent presence in the region, with branches located in Westfield (three of them), Southwick, South Hadley, Ludlow, Longmeadow, East Longmeadow, and Chicopee.

Missing from that list is Springfield, and he acknowledged that the bank is looking hard at establishing a presence in the City of Homes, and elsewhere.

But while adding branches is obviously a big part of the growth strategy, so do are those fundamentals that Oleksak referenced.

“There’s no one thing that’s going to make the difference,” he continued. “It the sum of a great many things that is going to make the difference for us.”

The Bottom Line

Brand-building has become a rather sophisticated science in recent years — in banking and in most other fields, said Oleksak, noting a variety of emerging strategies involving marketing, imagery, company names and slogans, and more.

At the end of the day, however, he continued, those ‘fundamentals’ are the most important ingredient.

“It’s not rocket science,” he said. “It’s about providing service with a smile and taking care of people’s needs. We’ve seen that here, and it works.”

This is what he means by blocking and tackling, and, in general, executing the proper game plan.

George O’Brien can be reached at[email protected]

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